Things certainly have not improved in Boston since Bobby Valentine was hired last year. There are rumblings that he should be fired, but Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe makes a compelling case that the problems run much deeper in Boston and have more to do with a coddled roster.
Every team in Major League Baseball has now played over 40 games. That’s more than a quarter of the season, which means we can no longer say Albert Pujols is having a slow start or the Orioles are just getting lucky. Let’s take a look at the two most surprising team performances so far, one bad, one good. Along the way, we’ll have a little fun at the expense of ESPN’s absolutely expert preseason predictions.
I’ve tallied the expert predictions and made all sorts of charts. The most surprising thing to the team over at ESPN has got to be the performance of the Los Angeles Angels, and more specifically that of Albert Pujols, their $240 million man. Jayson Stark said as much in his own quarter-season roundup, and the charts don’t lie. Of the 49 ESPN experts, 24 picked the Angels to win their division and 45 said they’d make the playoffs. As if that wasn’t enough, 18 of those savvy professionals picked them to win the World Series. That’s more than any other team by 10, in second place with eight picks were the division rival Texas Rangers.
Obviously, things are not going as well as was expected for the Angels. I mean, it’s not really going well by any means of calculation. They’re in last place with an 18-25 record, eight games behind the AL West leading Rangers, and to top it all off they’ve lost three straight.
If there’s one thing that’ll rile up a fan base, it’s the underperformance of a big money off-season signing. Just ask a Giants fan what they think of Barry Zito. Zito was one of my favorite players during his time on the A’s, and I wanted the Mets to get him, bad. Luckily I’m not the team’s GM, so we dodged a major bullet. For any Giants fans reading, I’m sorry to have brought that up. If you want I can riff about Mo Vaughn a while to make you feel better. No? Alright, moving on.
The trouble with Pujols is not that he’s underperforming, but that he doesn’t seem to be performing at all. The three-time NL MVP is hitting .212 with 3 home runs and just 18 RBI. His Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is at -0.1 according to baseball-reference, meaning he’s only a little bit worse than your average Triple-A shmo. He’s on pace to hit 12 total homers this year, or one for every million dollars he’s being paid. Fear not Angels fans, it’s far from a lost season, and I do believe Pujols will turn it around once he’s adjusted to all the AL pitchers he’s almost never seen. That said, I’m not sure I’d put any money on seeing him in the playoffs this year.
The Unbelievable Orioles
When I say unbelievable, I mean it. I don’t think anyone expected this kind of performance out of the O’s. If we look back at those preseason predictions, not one of the ESPN wunderkinds predicted the Orioles would grab a wildcard spot, let alone win the highly competitive AL East.
But look at them now. Forty-three games into the season, the O’s are at a cool 27-16, two games ahead of the Rays and five and a half in front of the tied-for-last Red Sox and Yankees (whom 37 of the analysts predicted would win the division). Like I said, a quarter of a season is far too long to call this a hot streak, lucky, or anything else of the sort.
If the fans in Baltimore have one man to thank, it’s manager Buck Showalter, who’s led his team to a 15-6 record while on the road. The Braves are the only team in the bigs with more wins on the road (16), but they’ve also got four more road losses (10). Furthermore, Showalter has helped Adam Jones develop into the star we’ve been told he is for oh so long, as well as getting fantastic performances from his starting rotation. Perhaps most importantly however is what Showalter has gotten out of his bullpen. Those of you who read my column last week know how I feel about closers. Showalter may not feel quite as strongly as I do, but he uses his pen with more logic than just about any other manager. It’s working too, the bullpen has converted 19 of 24 save opportunities and includes five different pitchers (Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day, Matt Lindstrom, Luis Ayala) with ERA’s of 1.75 or under in more than 13 appearances. Just don’t tell anyone who likes what I had to say about closers that the 5 blown saves have come from pitchers other than Johnson.
All that said, just as the Angels have plenty of time to turn things around, the Orioles have plenty of time to regress. Some statisticians see the team’s dominance as unsustainable. The team has relied fairly heavily on home runs to score, their league-leading 65 jacks has helped them score more runs (199) than just five other teams. Home runs, of course, are the fossil fuel of baseball energy, and you never know when the O’s will pass peak oil. If the team hopes to maintain its success they’re going to have to get a little more eco-friendly, meaning upping their team batting average (.249, or twelfth in the league) and OBP (.310, 21st).
If these preseason predictions tell us anything, it’s that preseason predictions are worthless. But hey, that’s what makes baseball great. Any team can get hot and come out of nowhere (or go into a total nose dive) at any time. Then again, it’s a long season and the baseball gods still have more than enough time to correct themselves if they see fit.
St. Louis Cardinals Albert Pujols comes to bat for the first time to a standing ovation during the last game of the regular season, against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on September 25, 2011. UPI/Bill Greenblatt
Here are a couple of predictions sure to be wrong this winter. (It’s not that I lack confidence in my prediction abilities. I just have complete confidence that they won’t be right. But hey, let’s have some freaking fun anyway, huh?)
Albert Pujols: St. Louis Cardinals
Do the Cardinals really have any choice but to work out a deal with Pujols? He is their offense, period. Matt Holliday, David Freese and Lance Berkman are all nice players but their games are enhanced with the mere presence of Pujols, who remains the best hitter in baseball. St. Louis is coming off a miraculous World Series run and just lost icon Tony La Russa to retirement. Turning around and losing Pujols to the Cubs or Dodgers is simply unacceptable. I also believe that St. Louis is the only place Pujols wants to play. But he’s already said that he’s not going to take a hometown discount, which he shouldn’t. That said, considering the Cardinals have allowed him to essentially run the clubhouse over the last decade, he might find that the grass isn’t greener on the other side if he decides to leave. This is a marriage that should stick because it works for all parties involved.
Prince Fielder: Chicago Cubs
Seeing as how I don’t buy into the idea of Pujols leaving the Cardinals, the Cubs make the most sense for Fielder if they’re willing to spend. Signing Fielder could be the start of Theo Epstein’s rebuilding project in Chicago. While the Cubs have a couple of bad contracts on their books, Epstein could build his team around Fielder just like he did with Big Papi in Boston. Management would have to approve a $150-plus million contract for this deal to happen, but it’s clear the Cubs want to win. You don’t acquire Theo Epstein and then tell him to sit on his hands. Could you imagine how many home runs Fielder could hit at Wrigley? I think he just hit one deep while typing this…
Jose Reyes: New York Mets
There are plenty of suitors for Reyes, who is young and productive. The Marlins, Giants, Nationals, Phillies, Pirates, Reds, Twins, Rays and Cardinals could all get involved in the Reyes sweepstakes but in the end, I think he’ll return to the Big Apple. He’s a fan favorite and seemed willing to re-sign with the Mets during the season last year but the situation never played itself out. Trading Carlos Beltran during the deadline last year made sense, as does re-signing Reyes to a new long-term deal.
Carlos Beltran: Boston Red Sox
A return to San Francisco certainly makes sense for Beltran. The Giants obviously need hitting and GM Brian Sabean might want to save face after he inexcusably gave away his top pitching prospect for a three-month rental that didn’t even help San Fran make the playoffs. That said, the Giants still have Aaron Rowand and Barry Zito’s awful contracts on their books and once they get done paying Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, they’ll either be unable or unwilling to sign a big-name free agent. Boston, on the other hand, seems like a perfect place for a guy like Beltran to land. They’re always willing to spend and have a void in right field. Plus, they don’t shy away from risks and seeing as how Beltran is a 34-year-old injury concern, he qualifies as a risk. He’ll be their first free agent signing in the post-Epstein era.
C.J. Wilson: New York Yankees
I had the Rangers listed next to Wilson’s name but I have a feeling that the Yankees will do everything in their power to land the top pitcher on this year’s market. They need a top-of-the-rotation arm to complement CC Sabathia and while Wilson struggled mightily in the postseason this year, he still racked up 250 innings over 39 starts and was Texas’ best pitcher. The Yankees have deep pockets and after missing out on Cliff Lee last winter, they’ll pony up for another Ranger this time around.
Jimmy Rollins: Phillies
Aramis Ramirez: Orioles
Edwin Jackson: Nationals
Roy Oswalt: Rangers
Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona argues with umpire Larry Vanover (R) during a break in play against the Toronto Blue Jays during the seventh inning of their MLB American League baseball game in Toronto, in this file image from July 10, 2010. Francona’s eight-year run as Red Sox manager ended September 30, 2011 when the team announced he was not returning next season. Francona, nicknamed Tito, led the Red Sox to the World Series title in 2004 — ending a championship drought dating back to 1918 – and again in 2007, but speculation about his future increased after the Red Sox missed this season’s playoffs after a dramatic late season collapse. Picture taken July 10, 2010. REUTERS/Mark Blinch/Files (CANADA – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)
I’m not really sure what to make of this. Terry Francona won two World Series titles, and it seems silly to get rid of a great manager after one epic collapse. On the other hand, Francona seems exhausted, and maybe he didn’t want to come back that badly.
That said, I think the Boston owners are making a mistake here. It’s hard to make rational decisions one day after such an emotional end to the season. They all might have reached the same decision a week from now, but taking some time to think about this makes sense to me.
Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Roy Halladay (L) and catcher Carlos Ruiz celebrate after Halladay’s no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in Game 1 of the MLB National League Division Series baseball playoffs in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 6, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL IMAGES OF THE DAY)
My 2011 MLB season predictions were a little off this year.
I said the A’s would win the AL West and they actually finished 22 games out of first.
I said the White Sox would win the AL Central and they just traded their manager to another team, which sums up how well they did this year.
I said the Giants would repeat as National League champions and in doing so I cursed Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Freddy Sanchez and the 900 other players they placed on the DL this season.
I had the Braves winning the NL Wild Card and we all know how that turned out. Yiiiiiikes.
While I did have the Phillies winning the NL East and the Yankees making the postseason as the AL Wild Card, those were gimmies. My only claim to fame was predicting the Brewers to win the NL Central, although when you have the Red Sox winning the World Series and they don’t even make the postseason you have no right to brag about anything.
So if you’re offended by my postseason predictions below, don’t be. Chances are I’ll be wrong anyway.
ALDS: Yankees over Tigers.
I don’t trust the Yankees’ pitching but I trust it more than I trust Doug Fister. Justin Verlander was the best pitcher in the American League this season but he’s had a knack for coming up short on the road throughout the years. Knowing the Yankees they’ll be down in every game of this series and figure out some way to advance. Derek Jeter will be 16-for-18 with 11 doubles and one game-winning home run or something ridiculous.
NLDS: Phillies over Cardinals.
The Phillies did the Cardinals a favor by beating Atlanta but if I were them, I would have wanted the downtrodden Braves to advance. That team would have just been happy to reach the postseason after a miserable September. Nevertheless, the Phillies’ pitching will dominate the hot-and-cold St. Louis lineup and the Cardinals’ pitching will fail them in Philadelphia. They’ve got Edwin Jackson slated to start Game 2 in that bandbox the Phillies’ call a stadium, which should work out well considering he’s a fly ball pitcher. (Read: sarcasm.)