Monday, May 14, 2012

Texas on Top

The Rangers are the best team in baseball.  There’s really little doubt about it.  At this point, in this season, I think they’ve made it pretty obvious.  They just put a public beatdown on the Angels during Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN.  If you don’t recall, the Angels were supposed to challenge the Rangers for the AL West but that doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon.  They have the second best record in baseball (to the Dodgers) and are an impressive 13-6 on the road thus far.  They’ve truly got it all: pitching, hitting and defense.

When lefty CJ Wilson left Texas for division-rival Los Angeles in free agency, most of us saw the Rangers as taking a pretty big hit.  John Daniels responded by rolling the dice on Yu Darvish, the 25 year-old phenom from Japan.  Japanese players have been  volatile in Major League Baseball, but it appears the Darvish gamble has paid dividends.  He’s jumped right into the rotation, gone 5-1 with a 2.89 ERA (3.59 xFIP) and over 10 K/9.  Derek Holland, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison have all been reliable starters, too.  Holland is the ace of the staff and is continuing to mature while Harrison has had some tough outings and bad luck (5.23 ERA vs. 3.73 xFIP).  Neftali Feliz has been erratic but effective.  If he doesn’t get it together, though, his 3.38 ERA won’t last. 

It’s not just the rotation, though.  Texas’ bullpen has sparkled behind closer Joe Nathan (another gamble that’s paid off), setup men Mike Adams (last season’s bounty from a trade with the Padres) and Alexi Ogando.  Mark Lowe, Koji Uehara and Robbie Ross have been just as good in middle relief.  This bullpen is deep on quality arms, to say the least. 

At the plate, the Rangers can mash with the best of them.  In fact, they are the best of them  so far.  They lead baseball in runs scored (194), RBI (188), hits (353) and average (.291), are second in on-base percentage (.349), are third in homeruns with 52 (behind the Orioles and Yankees) and rank seventh in strikeout rate (17.6 %).  The team has been somewhat lucky with a .322 BABIP.  This tells us that they will have some slightly tougher luck going forward, but with their ability to hit the ball over the fence with regularity and leg out some hits (Andrus, Kinsler, Gentry), they won’t plummet.  They posted a .304 BABIP last season and a .307 in 2010, so they are consistently among the leaders of baseball in this category.  When you swing the bats like they do, hits have a way of happening.  Just ask Jered Weaver, who came off a no-hitter to throw 3.1 innings tonight, giving up 8 earned on 10 hits (he only walked one, so the Rangers swung their way to that snowman).

Josh Hamilton is playing out of his mind right now.  He has 18 homeruns and 41 RBI (leads baseball in each category) in only 31 games.  Of course that’s not sustainable, but it’s not as if he’s exactly going to disappear and hit .180 the rest of the way through the season.  This guy can hang in there and bang all season long.  Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler have been awesome table-setters with a .391 and .352 OBP, respectively.  Adrian Beltre continues to hit the ball hard and Michael young continues to be Michael Young.  Mike Napoli had one hot stretch but has cooled off and Nelson Cruz really hasn’t got it going yet.  Those two are strikeout machines (Cruz has a 24.7 K% and Napoli’s is 29.2%) but are always a threat to go yard.  Craig Gentry has been good in his spot starts and as a defensive replacement.  There are really no weaknesses here.  David Murphy is available off the bench and can contribute, too.  Opposing pitchers cringe when these guys come to town.

UZR loves the Rangers in the field, too.  They have the highest UZR rating thus far and, although there are some serious questions of sample size, the eye test proves that they play good defense.  Beltre is a Gold Glove third baseman, Andrus at short is really blossoming, has plus range and a good arm while Kinsler is above average at second.  Mitch Moreland isn’t the most potent first baseman at the plate but can pick it defensively.  Murphy and Gentry can run down anything in the outfield, Cruz is a sold right fielder and Hamilton has been much better since moving to left field full time.  Of the starters, only Mike Napoli rates as below average.  Michael Young can play all over as a super sub when he isn’t DH’ing, which offers nice flexibility, but he isn’t a great fielder.  Overall, they play solid infield defense, being strongest at short, third and first.  In the outfield, they have two above-average centerfielders who can run ‘em down, while the corner outfielders are also plus defenders. 

The one thing that can slow these guys down is the injury bug.  Hamilton in particular is a real concern.  He’s missed large chunks of the last three seasons, missing 73 games in ’09, 29 games in 2010 and 41 games last year.  Moving him to left field will help keep him on the field longer, but it’s almost a “when” instead of “if” with him.  Beltre has been solid throughout his career but missed some time last year and in ’09, plus he’s 32.  Kinsler has been dinged up from time to time and Nelson Cruz has a pretty robust injury history.  The starting pitching looks young and solid (Feliz is the only worry), but the bullpen has some injury concerns, namely Joe Nathan.  If he can stay healthy, they have enough depth to weather any other storms.

Even if injuries do bite this team, as they certainly will, the Rangers can put their top-rated farm system to use in an attempt to plug holes.  With the consensus minor league system in baseball, Texas is built for the present and the future.  If they don’t have an internal solution to fit their needs, they have plenty of pieces to flip for available big league talent. 

This club will be tough to stop as they are solid in all three aspects of the game.  They can pitch well and close down games.  They can hang up crooked numbers in any inning of any game.  In the outfield they can cover ground and the infield is full of talented fielders, too.  The top-rated farm system in baseball puts this team at the top into the foreseeable future, as well.  Simply said, the Rangers are the best team in baseball. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

AL Grades Reviewed

Last week I posted a review of my preseason divisional rankings.  We’re over 30 games in now and some trends are starting to appear.  Sample size problems still can skew things somewhat, but when you reason and look at underlying factors, some conclusions can be drawn.  Now, let’s see how I did picking these division standings, shall we?

AL East Preseason Prediction
Tampa Bay Rays
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Toronto Blue Jays
Baltimore Orioles

Current AL East Standings
Baltimore Orioles
Tampa Bay Rays
Toronto Blue Jays (2.0)
New York Yankees (2.5)
Boston Red Sox (7.5)

Well, I certainly didn’t expect to see the O’s atop the standings in mid May, and neither did anyone else.  Can they stay there?  I think we all know the answer to that question.  They’ve gotten off to quick starts before but they simply don’t have what it takes to hang for 162 games in this division.  The Rays are even with the O’s currently and have been playing really good baseball, despite Longoria being on the shelf.  The starting pitching has been fantastic for Tampa Bay and that should continue.  The one thing they could use is bullpen depth.  New York is playing well, too, and Jeter is out of his mind right now.  He just became the fastest Yankee player to 50 hits in a season in history, despite the fact that he’s getting pretty old.  We all know about Rivera, so the bullpen is something to watch.  Toronto can slug but can they do anything else?  Starting pitching is a relative strength, but it’s nothing that’s going to carry them to the playoffs.  I missed on my Boston prediction, but I did throw out a ton of caution with them, mostly on injuries.  And, sure enough, they’ve been incredibly bitten by the injury bug.  Starting pitching is a problem for them as is their bullpen and outfield.  Will Middlebrooks is the lone bright spot.

I still like the Rays to win this division.  New York should challenge them all year long and the Red Sox will likely put a little mid-summer run together but I expect it to be too little too late.  The grind of the season should put Toronto and Baltimore where they belong eventually.

My Prediction Grade: C+

Preseason AL Central Prediction
Detroit Tigers
Cleveland Indians
Kansas City Royals
Minnesota Twins
Chicago White Sox

Current AL Central Standings
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers (2.0)
Chicago White Sox (3.5)
Kansas City Royals (6.5)
Minnesota Twins (10.0)

Cleveland has been surprisingly solid so far.  They’re a scrappy bunch of ball players.  Starting pitching is a little problematic, which I expect to catch up with them, but their bullpen is decent, especially with Chris Perez starting to iron things out.  Detroit isn’t mashing quite as much as expected, but I think that will pick up once things heat up.  Make no doubt about it, they can still rake, but I don’t think we’ve seen them at full mojo yet.  Their starting pitching has been very good, especially with the successful addition of Drew Smyly.  The bullpen is another matter: ugly.  Chicago has been a surprise, with Jake Peavy and Adam Dunn have huge bounce-back campaigns, right about the time most of us had written them off.  Despite some bullpen uncertainties, they have a chance to hang in there for a while.  Kansas City has been up and down thus far.  Hosmer and Moustakas haven’t carried the team as much as expected and their starting pitching has been hit or miss.  Minnesota has been terrible and should likely stay that way.  Ron Gardenhire is starting to feel his seat get warm, but really that team is just somewhat devoid of talent.

If Detroit can iron out it’s bullpen woes, especially if they can acquire someone to stabilize things, they should catch the Indians no problem.  Cleveland is capable of keeping it close, though.  I don’t think Chicago is a serious contender, Kansas City doesn’t have what it will take to win the division and Minnesota severely under-gunned.

My Prediction Grade: A-

Preseason AL West Predictions
Texas Rangers
Los Angeles Angels
Seattle Mariners
Oakland Athletics

Current AL West Standings
Texas Rangers
Oakland Athletics (5.0)
Seattle Mariners (6.5)
Los Angeles Angels (7.5)

Let’s face it, the Rangers just may be the best team in baseball.  The big gamble on Yu Darvish appears to have paid off and we already knew they had one of the best in the game with Josh Hamilton.  A strong cast surrounds him and the Rangers have more than enough pitching to stay in front.  Oakland has been surprising, riding strong starting pitching and bullpen performances to a .500 record.  Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone are legit big league pitchers.  The offense is hit or miss (mostly miss) but Cespedes is adjusting fairly well to American ball.  Seattle is incredibly inconsistent.  They’ve struggled to score at times, then will hang an occasional 7 or 8-spot.  King Felix and Jason Vargas are the only reliable starters while youngsters Jesus Montero, Kyle Seager, Mike Carp and Dustin Ackley are starting to thrive at the plate.  Los Angeles has been a total surprise letdown.  Pujols’ struggles have been well documented, but the rest of the team hasn’t been stunning either.  Many players are off to slow starts and the franchise appears to continues to be plagued by the Vernon Wells trade.  Starting pitching has been a relative strength, but the bullpen is troubled, led by Jordan Walden’s sturggles and both Scot Downs’ and LaTroy Hawkins’ injuries.  They should pick it up, but they’ll have a long ways to go to catch the Rangers.

Texas should run away with this thing.  Unless severe injuries cause trouble, they look like the head of the class.  With their deep farm system, they can sustain trouble and make it through.  I like Los Angeles to pour it on here soon and easily surpass Oakland and Seattle by mid-summer.  The battle for not-last should be a tight one between the A’s and M’s. 

My Prediction Grade: A

Thursday, May 3, 2012

NL Grades Reviewed

If you've been with me here for a while, you'll remember the division-by-division season previews that went up about a month and a half ago.  I graded each team's lineup, rotation and bullpen, then predicted their finish in the division.  I thought now would be an appropriate time to go back an review those grades, given that we're over a month into the season.  Working east to west, let's see how things are shaking out.

NL East Pre-Season Prediction
1. Philadelphia Phillies
2. Washington Nationals
3. Miami Marlins
4. Atlanta Braves
5. New York Mets

NL East Current Standings
1. Washington Nationals
2. Atlanta Braves (1.0)
3. New York Mets (2.5)
4. Philadelphia Phillies (3.0)
5. Miami Marlins (4.5)

As you can tell, this race is still very close.  The Nats have been carried by uncharacteristically good pitching thus far, which I expect will regress some.  Bryce Harper has energized the offense, however, and they should continue to score runs, especially when they get Zimmerman and Morse back.  I'm surprised that Atlanta has done so well, but they're scoring runs right now and the pitching has been pretty good, as expected.  The Mets are a total surprise and I don't see them continuing this pace in the least.  Philadelphia is using their rotation to stay at .500 as the offense has been well below average.  Ryan Howard is inching closer to a return but Utley appears a long ways off still.  I'm not sure they'll be able to catch the Nats if they don't start making up ground in a hurry.  The Marlins are far from out of it, but they've really disappointed.  Heath Bell has struggled (as predicted), Stanton has shown no pop and Hanley is scuffling once again.  Their offense has been terrible thus far, plain and simple.  

I still like the Phils, Nats and Braves to fight it out, but I may have been too generous with the Marlins.  If they don't come around soon, they will have a long summer ahead of them.  Let the Mets' free fall begin in 5, 4, 3, 2…

My Prediction Grade: B-

NL Central Pre-Season Prediction
1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Cincinnati Reds
3. Milwaukee Brewers
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Chicago Cubs
6. Houston Astros

NL Central Current Standings
1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Cincinnati Reds (3.5)
3. Houston Astros (5.0)
4. Milwaukee Brewers (5.0)
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (5.0)
6. Chicago Cubs (7.0)

The Cards have opened up a decent gap on the rest of the division.  Molina's earning his new deal while Beltran, Freese, Jay, and Furcal help power the offense.  Once Holliday turns on, look out.  The rotation has been solid.  Lance Lynn has been a revelation, Jaime Garcia is solid as ever and Jake Westbrook continues to get it done.  Cincinnati is trying to keep up the pace, but at .500, they'd better pick it up.  Despite Ryan Madson going down before the season, the bullpen has been the bright spot as the rotation is mediocre at best.  Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and rookie shortstop Zack Cozart are waiting to get some help as Hanigan, Ludwick and Phillips are all off to slow starts.  Houston, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh are log-jammed at 11-14.  I'll stick by my pick with Milwaukee eventually emerging, but they've already dug themselves a hole.  The Astros and Pirates are scrappy, though, and won't go down without a fight.  Neither team will make the playoffs, but they'll find comfort in stealing victories from division opponents.  Chicago is struggling, as expected.  The pitching is decent but the offense is really poor.

If the Cardinals stay hot, they could run away with this thing.  The Reds will have a hard time catching them unless the starting pitching gets better in a hurry.  Look for them to potentially make a deal for an additional starter sooner rather than later.  The rest of the pack is falling behind fast.  A big May is needed if they want to stay close.

My Prediction Grade: A-

NL West Pre-Season Prediction
1. Arizona Diamondbacks
2. San Francisco Giants
3. Colorado Rockies
4. Los Angeles Doders
5. San Diego Padres

NL West Current Standings
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
2. Arizona Diamondbacks (4.0)
3. Colorado Rockies (4.5)
4. San Francisco Giants (5.0)
5. San Diego Padres (8.5)

Chavez Ravine has been raucous thus far.  The white-hot Dodgers are tied for the best record in all of baseball.  How?  Matt Kemp has a triple-slash of .411/.500/.856 with 12 dingers through 25 games.  Journeyman catcher AJ Ellis is mashing, to everyone's surprise, and Andre Eithier has clearly bounced back in his contract year.  Can they sustain it?  I don't think so since Kemp can't keep this up and he's getting little help outside of Ellis and Eithier.  The pitching is going to fall back to earth eventually, too.  Most of the team's ERA's are deflated when compared to their xFIP's.  The Diamondbacks have been solid and have mitigated injuries to Chris Young and Justin Upton while also surviving a slow start from Jason Kubel.  They're a balanced offense that should continue to score runs, plus they have a deep bench.  The starters are solid and exchanging Josh Collmenter for Patrick Corbin appears to be a good move.  Skaggs and Bauer loom if there are any more issues.  JJ Putz is back on the DL, but Bryan Shaw is filling in adequately with the help of a deep 'pen.  The Rockies and Giants aren't as enticing.  Colorado continues to struggle to pitch while the offense hasn't been all that impressive either, outside of a few performances by CarGo.  The Giants are pitching well, but not as much as expected.  Lincecum's struggles have been well-documented and the offense is trying to iron out a logjam at 1st base.  Aubrey Huff has been terrible while Brett Pill has filled in pretty well.  Of course, Brandon Belt is there, too, so there's much to be desired in terms of fitting the puzzle pieces in the optimal positions.  Pablo Sandoval is out for 8 weeks with a broken hamate bone, so that's another negative for a team that is scoring runs at a below-average rate.  San Diego has a poor offense and worse pitching staff.  They'll be in the cellar all year.

I like the Diamondbacks to catch the Dodgers.  Los Angeles is a statistical nightmare, as all indicators show that they've been extremely luck and their success hinges on one player.  I'll still take the Giants over the Rox in the long run, but that's really anyone's guess.  Pitching wins out in that battle, I suppose.

My Prediction Grade: B