— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Tuesday, June 17, 2003
Bi-Weekly Review: A.L. East
The A.L. East through June 15th.
vs. AL Central: 44-37, .543
vs. AL West: 38-34, .528
vs. NL: 28-32, .467
Since the last review, nothing much has changed at the top, the Yankees and Red Sox continue to flip-flop at the top with Jays lurking 2-3 games off the pace. The Orioles are fading after flirting with .500 for awhile; they are now 4 games under the break-even level, and 7.5 games out. The Devil Rays continue to do what they do best, having dropped 8 of 9, falling another 4 1/2 games behind the leader.
Here’s a closer look at each squad, in the reverse order of the standings.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays (1-9, 44-61 RS-RA)
Just to update on Robert’s point last week, the Devil Rays still have the best bullpen in the AL East, with a 3.62 ERA.
The team was only blown out once over this stretch, and they lost 4 one-run games to above .500 teams, so it’s not as bad as it looks. They could have easily been 3-7 or 4-6, not 1-9.
Aubrey Huff has been on fire, .439/.560 over his last 13 games, and Carl Crawford may be starting to get the plate discipline idea. In April he drew two walks and whiffed 23 times in 122 at bats. Since then, he’s drawn 13 walks and struck out 29 times in 124 at-bats, so it looks like he is learning some patience. His OBP has been .333 over that time too, up from .266 in April, despite just a .012 increase in his AVG. He’s also stolen 15 bases in 18 tries.
Damian Easley was released June 5, after hitting .187/.202/.262 in 37 games. I really like the Julio Lugo acquisition, why not grab a free player? He is a pretty good defensive SS and he can hit a little too. He’s better than the alternatives and can hold the spot until BJ Upton (.376/.427, but 28 errors in 61 games at SS in the Sally League) arrives in a few years. Rey-Rey looks like he’ll be back this week, let’s hope Piniella resists the urge to play him and let?s Lugo have the job. Maybe as a bonus he can get a 12-pack for Ordonez to boot from someone who needs defense at SS or something.
Baltimore Orioles (4-6, 52-57 RS-RA)
Melvin Mora’s 23-game hitting streak ended Friday night, but he’s still in the middle of one of the biggest career-years we’ve ever seen, hitting .360/.465/.585. He leads the AL in OBP by a wide margin (.465/.437 over Milton Bradley), and he’s 6th in the AL in slugging percentage, just .014 behind Brett Boone for second place. He?s 2nd to Carlos Delgado in OPS, ahead of Frank Thomas, Manny Ramirez, etc. ? and by a comfortable margin. He’s played 44 games in the outfield (30/10/4), 10 at SS and 4 at 2B. Considering Camden is a pitcher’s park—and he’s played some SS—if he keeps this up he should start being mentioned as an MVP candidate. I imagine the hits will stop falling in at some point, but it’s been a heckuva ride so far in 2003. This isn?t a hot April here, we?re more than 40% of the way through the season.
If I were Mike Hargrove, I’d put Mora at SS and see what Jack Cust could do in LF, at least until Larry Bigbie is healthy. I don’t know why any manager would play Deivi Cruz (.274/.417) over Jack Cust if he had another player that could play SS in place of Cruz (Mora has a decent glove at SS, he?s more than adequate there). I realize Cust hasn’t been great in AAA this year, but maybe he’s simply getting frustrated with not getting his shot. This team isn’t going anywhere, why not find out what Cust can do? Who’s more likely to be a contributor when this team is finally good, Jack Cust or Deivi Cruz?
Jay Gibbons is coming into his own as a hitter as well. The 26-year old RF is hitting .361/.508 and he’s lifted his average 44 points over 2002.
Luis Matos has been hitting the ball well since his May 24 callup, eight doubles and two home runs in 84 AB, while hitting .381. He’s an outstanding defensive player and he knows how to steal a base too (27-for-33 career). Matos is 24 and was hitting .347/.457 in Ottawa before the call-up. He clearly deserves to be the everyday CF for this ballclub.
There is light at the end of this tunnel, granted it’s a really long tunnel, and there might be an accident blocking the left lane up ahead, but the Orioles appear to finally be starting to turn the corner. They are no longer a candidate for the worst team in the league, and that is progress. There is the framework of a contender here, guys like Mora (especially as a SS), Gibbons, Batista, Matos, Hairston (if April wasn’t a fluke) are elements of a contending ballclub. Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson are looking like legitimate major league starters. Rodrigo Lopez made his first start in a month and a half Sunday, and looked sharp against Milwaukee, he needs to prove last year wasn’t a fluke. He’s probably not as good as he looked last year, but he was pitching hurt earlier in the year (he had a blister and then strained a rib-cage muscle). He can be an adequate major league starter, he has good control, doesn’t give up too many HR and has about a league average K rate. He’s 27 now, but from what we heard about his ‘coming out of nowhere’ last year you would have thought he was 32 or something.
There are parts this team needs (a big bat at 1B, a catcher that can hit, an ace starter and a bullpen) but you can finally start to see something coming together here. There is new management on board, and once they start to prove they’re on their way, they have an owner that has shown he’ll spend money (at least he did in the past). I’d be very encouraged with the way this team is starting to shape up if I were an Orioles fan, there’s finally some life on this planet. That being said, they still won’t contend until at least 2005.
Toronto Blue Jays (7-3, 65-50 RS-RA)
Even with Shannon Stewart and Eric Hinske on the shelf this team continues to roll. Since a 7-15 start, the Jays are 32-16. Sound a little like the 2002 Angels? Third fiddle in a division with two teams that everyone felt were better (yes, most everyone felt Seattle and Oakland were better this time last year, despite the Halos’ record). A nice offense with a questionable rotation. The team played near .500 ball the year before. There are several parallels here. I even wrote an article this time last year asking if the Angels were for real. Let’s do it again and run the Jays through the ringer a little and see if they are really as good as they look.
Anyone having a career year? Last year it was Garrett Anderson for the Angels. This year it is Greg Myers and Tom Wilson for the Jays, as Robert touched on last week. There really isn’t anyone else on the club that is so far above his career norms that you wouldn’t think it could last, this is a legitimately great offense. Vernon Wells has come into his own. Delgado has the best hitter in the American League. Orlando Hudson is hitting well (.346/.410) but not out of his mind or anything like that. These guys can just flat out hit.
The Jays are giving up a lot of runs; their team ERA, 4.96 is 11th in the AL. Their starters are 7th (more appropriately in a tight pack between 7th and 11th) and considering this is traditionally a hitter’s park, that’s not bad. The bullpen ERA is 5.27, 12th in the AL (ahead of only Boston). That’s the one big difference between the 2003 Jays and 2002 Angels and it will probably be the difference that keeps them out of the post-season.
But you are still looking at a .567 pythagorean team right now, and I can’t see how the pitching could be any worse. Trading for a legit starter in July is often an overrated move that really doesn’t do much to a help a team down the stretch. But this looks to be a case where it really could help, in that it would take some innings away from the terrible bullpen. Chuck Finley is still looking for work—I imagine he wouldn’t be too expensive at this point. I can’t think of a team that could use someone like that more than the Jays. Corey Thurman and Josh Towers are pitching well in Syracuse, so calling one of them up could be a possibility too.
If the pitching improves just a little bit, this team will be in contention all the way home. The Yankees and Red Sox should definitely consider this team more than just a marginal threat at this point, but the bullpen is so bad that I don’t see them as quite the threat the Angels were last year. But a smart GM can fix a bullpen pretty quickly in the off-season, and the Jays have a smart GM. This team should be very, very good in 2004.
Boston Red Sox (6-4, 69-52 RS-RA)
The Red Sox have hit one of those ruts in the season where you win some and you lose some, they’ve just kind of been treading water for awhile. They did sweep the Astros over the weekend, so maybe they are ready to make another run; they face the White Sox, Phillies, Tigers and Marlins over the next two weeks.
The Boston offense has been great this year, leading the majors in R/G (a virtual tie with Toronto). The pitching has been another story. The bullpen has been terrible, worst ERA in the AL. The starters haven’t been great either; they?re in the same 7th through 11th pack with Toronto. Pedro has only started 10 games, just one since May 15; a 3-inning performance June 11 (he looked very good). The Sox were 26-14 on May 15 but they are 12-14 since.
Derek Lowe hasn’t pitched great (4.68 EA) despite being 7-3. He’s not even fanning 5 per 9 innings. Tim Wakefield has already given up 10 HR and sports a 5.04 ERA. John Burkett is making Leo Mazzone look like a genius, after a 3.04 ERA in 2001, he’s slipped to 4.53 in 2002 and 5.74 this year. Casey Fossum went on the DL with a 5.76 ERA last week.
Byung-Hyun Kim should help. He had five quality starts in seven tries for the Diamondbacks, and is probably the second best starting pitcher on the team (I’m leaning towards 2002 as a fluke for Derek Lowe, good pitcher, but not as good as last year). He’s just 24 and was absolutely a steal for Shea Hillenbrand, who will be 28 in July and has a career .317 OBP. He looked great against a potent Houston lineup Sunday.
The offense is outstanding, though Johnny Damon is having an off year (.320/.414). We all knew Nomar and Manny would be hitting the crap out of the ball, but Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek and David Ortiz have been too. A couple of those guys are going to come back to earth some, but it’s still a potent offense. Todd Walker is having a solid year. Jeremy Giambi has been the only real disappointment (.176/.333/.373), but anyone can hit anything in 125 PA and he should be fine.
The bullpen is showing signs of coming around. In June, Brandon Lyon, Alan Embree, Mike Timlin, Ramiro Mendoza (recently DL?d) and Ryan Rupe have combined to pitch 41 1/3 innings, fanning 36, walking just five. They have allowed 5 HR over that time but progress is being made, their ERA is 3.26.
Overall I think the Red Sox are about where they should be, on pace to win about 93 games. Whether that is good enough to make the postseason will be determined by how well the Yankees, Blue Jays, Mariners, A’s and Angels play. I’m leaning towards a ‘no’ on the Red Sox, I think they’ll end up behind the Yankees for the division and behind Oakland for the wild card.
New York Yankees (7-3, 58-42 RS-RA)
We’re starting to see a return to the ‘Bronx Zoo’ environment of the 1976-88 Yankee era. In the last 10 days:
It’s been quite a week-and-a-half.
Overall the bus keeps on rolling though. The Yankees sit in first place with a 40-28 mark, although they’re only 22-25 since an 18-3 start.
Derek Jeter is not hitting well (.256/.313/.406) since his return last month from a separated shoulder. Hopefully it’s just a bad month, and not a sign of any diminished ability. Nick Johnson was off to a promising start (.308/.455/.517) before going on the shelf and his return will not come a day too soon for fans of the Bombers. Todd Zeile has seen way too much playing time hitting .206/.282/.382.
Juan Rivera is off to a rough start since he was called up to take Bernie Williams’ place in the lineup. He’s a better hitter than his .231/.291/.321 performance has shown, and he’s a better outfielder than the one that’s been seen misplaying balls more than once on SportsCenter. I’m not sure why he’s not playing well, but I hope he gets hot soon because he could really be damaging his chances for next season, and/or his value as trade bait. A team looking to rebuild, that also has a good reliever (say the Texas Rangers), should give the Yankees a call and insist on getting Rivera in any deal. I’m not sure the Yankees should make such a trade, but I bet they would.
Ruben Sierra is inexplicably back in the Bronx. Marcus Thames down in Columbus would have been a better choice, I can’t believe the Yankees traded him for Sierra. They should have just called up Thames.
I don’t mean to sound so negative, this is still a very talented ballclub. Alfonso Soriano continues to amaze and he’s even drawing some walks, the OBP is .344. Hideki Matsui is starting to hit like his Japanese numbers said he would (.417/.472/.771 in June). Jorge Posada is having a great year (.408/.547), Jason Giambi didn’t hit for almost 2 months and is still at .381/.492. Raul Mondesi has found the old stroke, hitting .351/.527. Robin Ventura is on his way to another .360/.450 season with great defense at the hot corner. Without Nick Johnson and Bernie Williams the team took 5 of 6 from the Astros and Cardinals. As Chris Berman would say, “This just in, they’re good.”
The starters have the 3rd best ERA in the AL behind Oakland and Seattle. Mike Mussina has been arguably the best pitcher in the AL (okay, Esteban Loaiza has been the best, but can he maintain this level of performance?). David Wells has been very good too, just 4 walks in 92 IP! Can you say Bob Tewksbury? Clemens is also having another good year, with a 3.73 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 89 IP. Andy Pettitte and Jeff Weaver are struggling. Pettitte’s peripherals (70 K, 21 BB, 10 HR in 81 IP) don’t look too bad, so it’s probably just some bad luck, I don’t see anything to worry about there. Weaver’s K rate is down to 5.3/9 IP (usually around 6.0), which worries me some; but he’s only given up 4 HR and 23 BB. Again, I think it’s just that he’s been the unlucky one so far. They just need to let him go out there and pitch every fifth day and he’ll be fine.
The bullpen has at least been middle of the pack. In terms of the post-season, the bullpen looks a lot better, as the back end is where the damage has been done, and those guys don’t pitch in October. Mariano Rivera, Antonio Osuna, Chris Hammond and Sterling Hitchcock have all pitched well out of the pen, ERAs under 3.00, allowing a combined 4 HR in 96 IP, fanning 84 and walking just 24. Personally, I’d hold onto Juan Rivera, and not trade him and others for Urbina, I don’t see much of a need here.
Odds to win the AL East as of June 15, 2003 (pennant odds in parenthesis):
Yankees 5-8 (12-5)
Red Sox 3-2 (4-1)
Blue Jays 7-2 (15-1)
Orioles 25-1 (70-1)
Devil Rays 500-1 (3000-1)
I think those odds pretty much sum it up. I still think the Yankees are the team to beat, but Boston and/or Toronto could easily step in if the Yankees falter. Watching these three battle it out should make for a great summer in the Northeast.