Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Toast of the NL

As usual, while watching the ESPN show 1st and 10 this afternoon, my mind started working off of the arguments between Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. When the two weren't arguing their views based on their ethnic composition or when Smith didn't call out ESPN for being too gracious to Brett Favre (it's about time someone said it), they discussed the question as to whether or not the Brewers were the best team in the National League. I also want to talk about this question now too.
To me there are three teams in the National League that should be in this conversation and they are all in the NL Central: the Brewers, Cubs and Cardinals. I also wish that the NL West would be disallowed of having a team in the postseason since these three are all so capable.
1.) The Chicago Cubs Cubs; 59-42 (Division Lead)
The Cubs started off the 2008 season showing that they are a very strong team. With their strong start and unexpected contributions from Ryan Dempster, they had a very deep rotation before the addition of Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin from the A's. Now with Harden in the rotation, the Cubs have Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis in their starting rotation. It is so deep that Chad Gaudin has been moved to the bullpen despite having a very good season as a starter with Oakland and is pitching in relief for the Cubs. Now, Gaudin can bridge the gap between starters and Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood when healthy at the end of the game. They say that pitching wins, and this team is full of it.
Offensively, the Cubs have seen Ryan Theriot become one of baseball's best contact hitters this season with his average presently at .324; he has been a great surprise for this team and has really helped be a catalyst to the lineup. More importantly with Alfonso Soriano coming off the DL yesterday, this team gets much stronger contributions from wherever Lou Pinella decides to place him in the lineup and now the bench gets deeper with Reed Johnson no longer having to play everyday. Other starters Jim Edmonds, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Geovanny Soto and Kosuke Fukudome have all been all-stars in their careers and provides the Cubs with excellent veteran prowess throughout the lineup.
2.) The Milwaukee Brewers; 58-43 (-1 Behind Cubs)
Milwaukee made the biggest move of the season in acquiring CC Sabathia from the Cleveland Indians prior to the all-star game. Sabathia has paid immediate dividends; sending the Brewers into a hot streak of 9-3 since the trade pulling them to within one game of the division lead. Between Sabathia and Ben Sheets, the Brewers have the best 1-2 punch of starting pitching in the National League. After that, the pitching does get more difficult to defend with Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush and Manny Parra in their rotation. Suppan won a ring with the Cardinals and has a veteran presence while Bush had been inconsistent throughout his career and Parra has been good, but is still largely unproven with only 21 career major league starts. It is a shame that Yovanni Gallardo went down to injury, otherwise this would be a fantastic starting rotation. At this point, it is certainly still above average and will get the Brewers far behind Sabathia and Sheets. Their bullpen has been downright awful at points during the season, especially with Eric Gagne and they are looking to address the depth in the bullpen potentially with a trade, but the Brewers have found a secret with Salomon Torres as their closer. He has not been lights out, but he has converted 18 of 22 save opportunities this season. Eric Gagne has looked better since returning from the DL and Brian Shouse, David Riske and Seth McClung also around to provide some help in the middle innings. This isn't a great bullpen, but it might hold together through September.
Offensively they have had inconsistent production from everyone except Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, yet they are still very talented offensively. JJ Hardy has caught fire over the past month and has really led the offense. If things continue with that trend Hardy-Braun-Fielder-Hart is as good as it gets 2-5. Outside of that, Jason Kendall has really been a good addition to this club. He plays above average defense and has been a veteran leader for the pitching staff. After a hot April, he has cooled down to .257, but he still is a very valuable player to have around. Third-Base is an ugly position with Russell Branyan and Bill Hall splitting time there. The two should combine to provide good power, but not a great average. Hall can play some stellar defense no matter the position that he is in. They have a deep bench after acquiring Ray Durham to back up the underwhelming Rickie Weeks at second-base.
3.) St. Louis Cardinals; 57-46 (-3 Behind Cubs)
The previous two teams have added starting pitching via the trade in the last month of the season. The Cardinals have not added anyone, yet in August when Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainright it will have the same effect as the Cardinals adding two top end of the rotation starting pitchers. At the onset of the season, I told friends that the Cardinals starting rotation was going to perhaps be the worst in baseball, Joel Piniero, Braden Looper, Kyle Lohse and Todd Wellemeyer have been the glue that has kept the Cardinals together. In contrast to what I thought, the Cardinals pitching has the potential to become one of the best down the stretch with Carpenter-Wainright-Lohse-Looper-Wellemeyer. Much like the position that the Cubs are in, the Cardinals will have extra starting pitching, which can mean that Piniero can go to the bullpen and help out with an extended arm in the pen. While Jason Isringhausen has not been the same this year, Ryan Franklin has been effective enough as closer. Russ Springer and Kyle McClellan have also been great in the setup and middle relief roles, both with ERA's under 3.00. It may be ugly right now, but the Cardinals will have a lot to look forward to down the stretch.
Besides Albert Pujols this offense has no other huge names, but there has been some great contributions coming from everyone throughout the Cardinals lineup. Ryan Ludwick was an all-star this season and absolutely deserved the role hitting .294, 23, 69. Troy Glaus has had a better season hitting near .280. He has experience in the playoffs with the Angels and should be valuable to the Cardinals down the stretch. Rick Ankiel has been inconsistent this season, but he has been hot lately and has 22 home runs now. Mark McGwire did once say that Ankiel had 30 home run power, it appears as though he was right, not to mention his cannon from center-field. After looking at the statistics, Pujols, Ludwick, Glaus and Ankiel have combined for a better average and power numbers than the four best hitters for the Cubs or Brewers. They couldn't have done so more quietly. With those facts in mind, the Cardinals will be right there in September.
Overall, I love this division. Watching the Cardinals and Brewers last night was great. The fans in the NL Central have received a gift of some great competition in 2008 and have really supported their teams. I honestly think that the Cubs and Brewers will be the two to make it to the playoffs from this division. The Cubs are just so deep and the Brewers just are playing hungry. If the Brewers can pull ahead of the Cardinals by 4-5 games now, the Cardinals just won't be able to pick it up in September. This division will most likely be decided by 5 games or less between these three teams. Watch the NL Central!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Here Come the Yankees

Uh-Oh! Here it is -- the end of July, and the Yankees are now just 3.5 games out of the AL East lead. It is scary to imagine that a team with Sidney Ponson in its rotation can be doing so well, but the Yankees are simply rolling their way up towards the top of the division. What has been a very inconsistent team throughout the season has started to show signs of consistency. Their offense should be set, even without Hideki Matsui. It is their pitching that worries me. Andy Pettite and Mike Mussina have been great so far this season, but they are both old and could be in for a hard end of the season given their age and recent history. Chien-Ming Wang is out until September and Joba Chamberlain has not recieved run support. It will be interesting to fololow this team. With their resources, it would be silly for them not to acquire a starting pitcher for the stretch run. There has been talk of Jarrod Washburn. If that is the best available starter, perhaps Sidney Ponson may work out just as well however. Keep an eye on this team.

What's Going on in Houston?

Yesterday, July 22nd -- The Houston Astros traded Chad Reinke for Randy Wolf. This is a guy that has an ERA of 6.63 away from Petco Park and will now be pitching inside one of the most hitter-friendly parks in Major League Baseball. If that isn't bad enough, the Astros are playing in the same division as the three best teams in the National League (Brewers, Cubs, Cardinals) and are in last place in that division, twelve games out. What do the Astros think they are accomplishing by making this trade? Ed Wade must be desparate at this point to save the Astros from the bottom of the division. At best, Wolf is a .500 pitcher and has an ERA close to what it is presently at 4.74. Realistically, if Wolf doesn't get hurt first, he will struggle mightily pitching in the NL's strongest division and will be a wasted 2.5 million dollar investment. I can't see any positives from this trade for the Astros.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

2nd Half Predictions

With the New York Mets defeat of the Colorado Rockies this evening, the non-mathematical first half of the 2008 Major League Baseball season is now over. With all of the hype that the All Star Game will bring the city of New York over the next couple of days, yet while this one does count, I am very excited to think about Thursday and the start to the 2nd half of the season. To honor what promises to be an exciting end to the season, I would like to make some off the wall and bold predictions.

BOLD The Red Sox will win the World Series
The reason why I think that the Red Sox will become the first repeat World Series winner since the New York Yankees went for three in a row 1998-2000. The Red Sox just are dominant at home and have been able to roll with every injury that they have endured throughout the season. They play 16 of their final 25 games in September at home and because of their trip to Japan back in March, the Red Sox receive extra off days in September to re-work the rotation if need be. To be in first place now without David Ortiz or a consistent bullpen, the Red Sox will be aligned to succeed in the second half with a potential trade to add a solid bullpen arm or Justin Masterson's presence as a converted reliever in another couple of weeks.

OFF THE WALL The Texas Rangers will be in the race for the Wild Card on September 22nd
Alright, so the Rangers can't pitch. The good news though is that division rivals the Angels, A's and Mariners can't hit while the Rangers have perhaps the most dynamic offense in all of baseball (1st in runs scored). With the anemic offenses that plague their division rivals, I really do not see a reason why the Rangers won't continue to contend until the final week of the season with 18 games against the AL West in September. The Rockies didn't have much for pitching in 2007 and made it to the World Series, stranger things can happen when a team gets in a groove.

BOLD The Tampa Bay Rays will make the ALCS and lose to the Red Sox in 7
Alright, well this is incredibly bold with the team in the midst of a 7 game skid, limping their way to the All Star break. The Rays offense has been inconsistent and their pitching has overachieved, but I firmly believe that with the teams three biggest offensive stars: Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, and B.J. Upton not hitting to their potential, that the Rays will receive more of a contribution from that group in the second half, coupled with the emergence of their pitching staff. Plus with wunderkind David Price as well as the #1 minor league system waiting to help the big league team. I expect this team to make a small move at the trade deadline to help add consistency to their lineup.

OFF THE WALL The Pittsburgh Pirates will finish above .500 for the first time since 1992.
The Pirates are really looking like an improved team as of late and have avoided long term losing streaks. Remember that last season Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny were the Pirates best two starters, well this season things have changed. Each have WHIP's approaching 2.00 and ERA's at or above 6.00. I do not think that these guys are truly that bad and I expect that one of them can be productive in the second half of the season with the Pirates as they push towards the .500 mark. One other thing to note is that if the Pirates do trade off Xavier Nady or Jason Bay, their loss will be met by the emergence of Andrew McCutchen in their place. Also, Adam LaRoche is a notorious second half hitter and the offensive production may not fall too far off -- if at all.

Playoff Picks:
AL East - Boston Red Sox
AL Central - Minnesota Twins
AL West - Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
AL Wild Card - Tampa Bay Rays

NL East - Philadelphia Phillies
NL Central - Chicago Cubs
NL West - Los Angeles Dodgers
NL Wild Card - Milwaukee Brewers

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Fan Vote Gets it Right

Credit is due to fans for getting this vote right. I previously argued that voting for the all-star game was a hoax and that fans seem to always get the vote wrong. I still argue that several starters on each team are not top performers at their position (Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Giovanni Soto, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro for instance are not having seasons that earned them starting spots), but I am so pleased by the final roster spot that I am willing to call it a wash and maintain my average amount of disdain for the game that apparently still counts thanks to the marketing folks at FOX.

Today, Major League Baseball announced that Corey Hart and Evan Longoria were voted into the all star game with the final vote spot. Perhaps this is because no Red Sox or Cubs players were represented in the voting, but nonetheless, these were the most deserving players. Longoria has largely carried the Rays offense with clutch hits and constant contribution in his first two months of his major league career and Corey Hart has been a catalyst in the lineup to the Brewers. Perhaps Pat Burrell would have been a good choice as well, but it was great to see New Yorkers Jason Giambi and David Wright not make it because of their teams massive fan base. I will often hark on how small market baseball does not receive equal opportunity. Today, I do not feel that way and may be on this high for a little while now.

One final note I wish to make is that the Brewers really did what they could to help Hart make this push to Major League Baseball's annual summer showcase event. The Brewers put computers around Miller Park so fans could vote for Hart as many times as possible for this afternoons game versus the Colorado Rockies. Very exciting idea and kudos to the Brewers front office staff for making that possible.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Royals Talk

The first year of the Dayton Moore tenure in Kansas City, I applauded many of the small micro-management decisions he was making and was immediately excited to see that franchise begin to grow out of decades of failure. For example, as soon as Moore departed Atlanta for Kansas City, he significantly expanded the baseball operations department in the front office. He also acquired my favorite pitcher and future pitching coach, Brian Bannister, for next to nothing. Now I have begun to worry about whether or not Moore will be able to get the Royals out of the cellar for another couple of years.

I looked at that roster this afternoon, and unless Royals owner David Glass continues to be committed to putting money into his franchise and the Royals can successfully lure talent to the mid-western city, things are not looking up. Presently, the Royals have to address improvements at catcher (John Buck/Miguel Olivo), first-base (Ross Gload), shortstop (Mike Aviles/Tony Pena Jr.) and left-field (Mark Teahen). Not to mention that the development of Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Mark Teahen has not gone according to plan. I feel as though to bring this team back to competition, all of these positions need upgrades offensively and defensively. Bringing in an experienced power hitter would absolutely help make everyone else better and in looking at the potential 2009 free agent market, a player that would really make sense is Mark Teixeira. He is a gold-glove player and would absolutely help take pressure away from Alex Gordon and Jose Guillen. He also is probably out of their price range and is not going to be lured to a city that has had one winning season since the 1980's.

If the free agent market is not kind once again to the Royals this offseason, where they have to overspend in order to acquire mid-ranged players (i.e. - Gil Meche or Jose Guillen), then there are some trade options that I would reccomend. Boston's Coco Crisp will be very available and will be entering the final year of his contract in 2009. He has played gold glove caliber defense in center-field, making some breathtaking catches over the past two seasons. I do not believe that Crisp is going to ever be a superstar, but his range and instincts in the outfield would be a great addition to the Royals. I would much rather see David DeJesus in left field and Mark Teahen on the bench as he has showed me that he is not going to be a consistent major league contributor. Teahen's ability to play the corner positions would suit him well to be a super sub. If Mike Aviles continues to hit the way he has, then he will have earned the spot in their 2009 team. The knock I have on him is that he does not appear to work counts well, which can be a sign of trouble for younger players. Jeff Keppinger, who has done nothing but hit for great contact since coming to the majors, would be a good guy to take a flier on. He has never received full playing time in his career, if the Royals have the need for a shortstop, he is a guy to watch.

There are some power options that would be very cheap this offseason such as Richie Sexson. While Sexson is perhaps 2007 and 2008's worst everyday player, if he were to be able to figure out how to make consistent contact again, he has 30 home run power and would be a cheap incentive based option. He would come cheap and has upside to help out the team's power total. It also would be helpful to get him out of spacious Safeco Field. Also there is Ross Gload to platoon him with, which could certainly boost production at first for Kansas City.

The Royals are in an interesting position, with so many young players that have not quite figured it out at the major league level yet, they could explode onto the scene in 2009 much like the Rays have done in 2008. With added veteran leadership and support, this could be that team. With the potential addition of Coco Crisp and Mark Teixeira, the Royals would have added two gold glove caliber defenders as well as capable offensive players. Time will tell if David Glass and Dayton Moore go in this direction, but it makes a lot of sense to add those two.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Rich Harden to the Cubs

Anytime that Billy Beane has made a trade over the past couple of years, it becomes just a matter of time until the players that Oakland acquires become integral parts to the A's. Today the Chicago Cubs traded RHP Sean Gallagher, OF Matt Murton, OF Eric Patterson and C Josh Donaldson to the A's for RHP Rich Harden and RHP Chad Gaudin. The time that it takes for Gallagher, Murton and Patterson to have an impact on the A's will be immediate. Each of those three players have been stuck behind the bloated contracts that the Cubs starting 9 plus rotation boasts. None of these players strike me as future superstars, though Gallagher may peak out as a #2 starter, and both Murton and Patterson possess varying abilities. Murton is a gap hitter and an OBP guy that may top out as a Raul Ibanez type, getting a late start and potentially becoming a solid RBI guy down the road. Patterson is the younger sibling of Reds outfielder Corey Patterson and exhibits many of the same traits as his brother. In 203 Minor League AB's, the younger Patterson has worked 12 walks and has an OBP 38 points higher than his batting average. Eric Patterson does possess some great speed and may become a dynamic leadoff hitter at some point if he can learn from the A's way of working walks.

The final player that the A's recieved was catcher Josh Donaldson. I had the pleasure to watch Donaldson with the Harwich Mariners of the Cape Cod Baseball League in the summer of 2006 and I was very impressed with what Donaldson can do. His upper body is incredibly strong and he can really muscle up and go to all fields. His upper body stance compares to that of Manny Ramirez and best of all, he is a catcher. Donaldson will work counts and hit for power. He has struggled this season hitting .217 in high-A ball, but I still think he has a good chance at being a solid Major League catcher at some point down the line. If catching doesn't work out, he has the arm and athleticism to play a corner position. He may be the second best player acquired in this trade after Gallagher.

The Cubs did give up a good package to the A's in return for Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin. When I first saw this trade, I actually thought that the Cubs got the best end of this deal as Gaudin and Harden are two legitimate starting pitchers at the Major League level, but I do think it may be more realistic because of Harden's injury history. Harden, when healthy, is one of the best pitchers in baseball. The only problem is that he has had only one healthy season, in 2004. The Cubs may have acquired a younger Kerry Wood for their rotation for the end of the season, but if he can give them 10-12 starts down the stretch, that could mean 10 wins. He will be just that good in the NL. I was very surprised to see Gaudin was added to this trade since Gaudin is becoming a solid major league starter in his own right and he may not even make the Cubs rotation. He will at least be great insurance for Harden or any other injured Cub starters.

I see this being a very good trade for both sides. The A's pick up 3 players that did not have a future with the Cubs and a solid prospect while the Cubs counteract the CC Sabathia trade with a big move of their own. They even have an insurance policy for the centerpiece of the trade. Billy Beane could have gotten a little more I think for Harden, but this trade will help keep the A's competitive this season. Murton will take over in left-field in place of Emil Brown immediately and most likely become Beane's new Scott Hatteberg.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Sabathia to the Brewers

Despite my original hesitance about teams acquiring the big lefty, I must say bravo! Doug Melvin and the Brewers front office staff has really positioned this team to be a heavy favorite to potentially make a deep run into the 2008 postseason for a team that has been out of the postseason since 1982. To end a 25 year drought, this would be a team that now features two dominant ace starting pitchers at the top of their rotation in Ben Sheets and now Sabathia, as well as ample young talent. While their bullpen has been shaky all season, this is a team that is capable of going very far. There is potential to see Sheets and Sabathia twice in a short series, teams will have a hard time taking two games from that combination.
I have changed my opinion on acquiring Sabathia for one major reason: the Brewers did not have to give up a huge package to get him. I figured that the Brewers would have to give up two or even three of their top prospects and LaPorta is really the only potential future star that was dealt. Buster Olney made an excellent point last night on Sportscente: both Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia are free agents at the end of the 2008 season, each are likely to become free agents. If the Brewers were to lose both of these guys, the team is going to hold five of the first 50 picks in the draft as a result. Small market teams are forced to reload on an annual basis, and this will give them the opportunity to go for the playoffs now, and then to immediately jump to the top farm system in the majors with so many high picks next June.
For the Indians, this does make some more sense as well. What has really slowed that franchise down this season has been injuries and setbacks to all of their power hitters. Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez and Ryan Garko have all underperformed even when they haven't been hurt this season, combining for just 10 home runs. This is a group that was expected to hit in the area of 100 home runs. With that kind of power outage, acquiring LaPorta could be a good thing for this season and years in the future. Personally, I have seen LaPorta play a lot at the Cape Cod Baseball League and I certainly didn't see a change to the outfield coming because the guy was massive, even though he showed good agility at first-base in 2006 with the Brewster Whitecaps. The Indians likely acquired a guy that is a lot like Ryan Garko and Travis Hafner. He has big power hitting potential, but I did not see him hitting over .270 in the major leagues. I will look forward to seeing what his approach looks like when the Indians call him up in September or sooner.
Overall, this appears to be a great move for the Brewers and a why not move for the Indians, who did not have much to lose from this trade. Watch for the Brewers the rest of the season. They could very well be the team to beat in the National League.

Friday, July 4, 2008

AL Midseason Awards

This past week marked the halfway point for all teams. Now that we are over the hump, I would like to give some mid-season recognition to teams.

American League

Best Team - The Tampa Bay Rays
After sweeping the Red Sox and nearly sweeping a 4 game set against the Royals, the Rays are a commanding 4.5 games up on the Red Sox and possess the best record in Major League Baseball. This team is not the best team on paper and still has not received the best performances from many of their offensive contributors such as BJ Upton, Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena. They can pitch and I fully expect the Rays to be within striking distance for the rest of the season. While I doubt that they will be atop the AL East at the end of the season, things are starting to really roll in their direction after a five game swing in the last eight days.

MVP - Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers
While making nearly the league minimum, this is another wonderful story that has made 2008 such a great baseball season. Hamilton is hitting .309 with 19 homers and 84 RBI's. He is 12th in average, 2nd in home runs (Sizemore, 22) and leading Justin Morneau by 19 RBI's and has been leading or near the top in all of these categories for the entire season. While it probably won't end up this way, Hamilton has a legitimate chance at the home run and RBI legs of the triple crown and an outside chance at winning the triple crown if he were to get his batting average up around .330 with teammate Ian Kinsler. More importantly, his team is three games over .500 at 46-43 and that is largely due to Hamilton's contribution.

Cy Young - Joe Saunders, Los Angeles Angels of Anahiem
The Angels would be nowhere without the contributions of Saunders, John Lackey and Ervin Santana. Saunders performance of 12-4, 3.04 has been the best of the bunch in 2008. While cases can be made for Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, Saunders is the pitcher who has done the most for his team. Starting out the season 6-0, he got his team through April and has been very solid since, going less than five innings just once this season. By the end of the season, Scott Kazmir and Josh Beckett may have something to say about this award.

Comeback Player of the Year (tie) - JD Drew, Boston Red Sox / Milton Bradley, Texas Rangers
JD Drew has led the Boston Red Sox to the record they are at right now, without David Ortiz in the lineup. His 16 homers this season already outnumber his 2007 contributions to the World Series winners by five. Winner of the AL Player of the Month for June, Drew has cooled off much like other Red Sox hitters in July. Milton Bradley has been a great contributor to the Texas Rangers this season as well. With a line of .320, 17, 54 and no assaults on teammates, Bradley has really done an excellent job with Texas after injuries slowed him down much of the past couple of years. I had to select both of these players because Drew is truly a comeback player, having struggled through a full season of baseball last year, while Bradley was successful, just coming off injury. Arguments can be made that each feat deserves the award, which is why they are both listed.