I miss seeing Peter Gammons regularly on ESPN. Here he visits Morning Joe and discusses the new season, including the challenges facing the New York Yankees and the potential of the Washington Nationals.
This may well be my last post for a while on The Scores Report, so I figured what better way to go out than with some way-too-early playoff predictions? I’ll forecast each of Major League Baseball’s six division winners as well as each league’s two wild card teams. You know, so all my readers can come back and mock my wild inaccuracy in two months time.
Below, you’ll find the name of my predicted champion with their current record and place in the standings in parentheses. Also inside the parentheses is the percent chance that team will win their division (DIV) as well as make the playoffs in some fashion (POFF) as calculated by coolstandings.com and showcased on ESPN’s Hunt for October.
AL East: New York Yankees (72-52, First Place, DIV: 74.9, POFF: 96.5)
This is one of the easier predictions to make, as despite losing three straight to the White Sox, the Yankees hold the American League’s best record. As good as the Rays are, they’re simply not going to catch up with the boys from the Bronx, especially with ace C.C. Sabathia returning to start on Friday.
AL Central: Detroit Tigers (66-57, Second Place, DIV: 31.0, POFF: 55.7)
This one’s a real toss-up between Detroit and the first place Chicago White Sox. The way I see it, the Tigers have been seriously underperforming. They should have been on top of the division all year, instead the AL Central race has turned into a competition to see who can be the most above average.
Although Chicago’s being given a 69 percent chance to win the division (83.3 percent to make the playoffs), for me, that’s the Tigers. They’re only two games back in, and 16 of the 39 contests left on their schedule are against teams with winning records. Detroit will play nearly a quarter of their remaining games, nine, against the Kansas City Royals, against whom they’re 7-1 so far.
The Tigers and White Sox will face off seven more times this year, and those games will be the key to the division. Both teams have a bit of extra incentive: there’s a solid chance that the one that comes in second place won’t make the playoffs at all, what with the Rays, Orioles, and A’s playing as they have.
AL West: Texas Rangers (72-51, First Place, DIV: 84.9, POFF: 96.2)
This may be the lone lock among these predictions. The Rangers are looking to return to the World Series for the third straight season, and I’d bet they’d like to win one after losing to the Cardinals and Giants in the past two championships. Will the third time be a charm?
We’ll see, right now we’re just talking about winning the division, and as of now, the Rangers have an AL-high 84.9 percent chance to do that. The Rangers have without a doubt the league’s best offense. They lead the league in runs scored (627), average (.277), and on-base percentage (.340), while trailing only the Yankees in slugging percentage (.444). Lucky for Texas, the Angels have fallen off hard of late, and while the A’s have been quite a surprise, it’s unlikely they’ll close their five-game gap.
AL Wild-Cards: Tampa Bay Rays (69-55, Second Place AL East, DIV: 23.3, POFF: 79.1), Oakland Athletics (65-56, Second Place AL West, DIV: 13.2, POFF: 55.0)
The Rays will ride into the first AL wild-card spot with relative ease on the backs of their pitching staff. They’re tied for the best team WHIP (1.20) and batting average against (.232) in the majors and rank second in ERA (3.27). Plus, they’ve been one of baseball’s hottest teams as of late, winning seven of their last ten.
The second spot is much tricker. The O’s have been perhaps the season’s biggest surprises, but I just don’t seem them making it given the strength of the AL East. Instead, it will be another team with a vowel-based nickname, the Oakland A’s, who have games with Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Baltimore, Detroit, New York and Texas remaining on their schedule. Ironically, they’ve only got losing records against the worst two teams on that list, Minnesota and Seattle, so they’ll just have to keep doing what they have been. Having recently acquired shortstop Stephen Drew from Arizona, the A’s aren’t going to just lay down and die.
NL East: Washington Nationals (77-47, First Place, DIV: 87.7, POFF: 99.7)
I’ve been saying it all year, the Nationals are doing it right. It’s been rumored that the team would shut down Stephen Strasburg after he reached around 160 innings, although GM Mike Rizzo has consistently said there is no set limit and that he alone would make the decision. Strasburg has 145.1 under his belt thus far, and the team recently announced that he’ll be sitting for two or three starts. We’ll see what the 24 year-old ace is able to do in the playoffs with all that rest. For now, John Lannan will take his spot in the rotation.
With the team six games ahead of the Atlanta Braves and holding the best DIV and POFF scores in the majors, they’re unlikely to miss Strasburg too much.The fact is they’ve got the league’s best pitching staff with or without him. Sure, Strasburg is a huge part of their league highs in ERA (3.23), quality starts (79), WHIP (1.20), and batting average against (.232), but baseball is a team sport, and the Nats aren’t going to fall off the map without him on the hill every fifth day.
Even without Joey Votto, the Reds have won seven of their last ten. Only the Nationals have a better record than Cincinatti, and that’s why only the Nats have a higher probability of winning their division or making the playoffs. But the Reds have a bigger lead in their division (8 games over St. Louis and 8.5 over Pittsburgh) than any other team in baseball, and nothing’s going to stop that train from rolling.
NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers (67-58, Second Place, DIV: 23.7, POFF: 30.6)
Much like the AL Central race, this one is going to be impacted in large part by the six games the Giants and Dodgers play against each other. Sure, L.A. is a game behind the Giants. And yes, they just got finished losing three straight to San Francisco. But losing Melky Cabrera is going to take a toll on the Giants over their next 38 games, although the effects may not have manifested quite yet, so I’m still picking the Dodgers to take the NL West crown.
NL Wild-Cards: Atlanta Braves (71-53, Second Place NL East, DIV: 12.3, POFF: 89.4), Pittsburgh Pirates (67-57, Third Place NL Central, DIV: 3.7, POFF: 35.7)
Much like the Rays, the Braves are going to have a relatively easy time taking the first NL wild-card spot. Atlanta is better than the record, if that even makes sense considering only four teams have better records. Unfortunately for the Braves, one of them is the Washington Nationals.
The second NL wild-card spot and final pick on my list is the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although they’ve got a fairly tough schedule moving forward, the Bucs will also play Milwaukee, Houston, and Chicago. Pittsburgh is going to have tough time moving ahead of division rival St. Louis and contending with the rest of the pushing and shoving going on for the last NL playoff spot. To be honest, this one is more of a hope than a prediction. I mean, the last time the Pirates made the playoffs was 1992. When else should the Bucs get their luck back, if not exactly twenty years later? If nothing else, their fans deserve it. So does Andrew McCutchen, who’s likely to be the NL’s most valuable player.
The bell tolled another trade deadline come and gone on Tuesday afternoon. In the wake of talk about the effect of new wild card rules on the trade market, and some grand speculation in both directions, some big names, and some big players too, will be wearing new jerseys for the rest of the season. Unfortunately for the New York Yankees, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Just a few years ago, their trade for Ichiro Suzuki would’ve deserved its own full post. But it’s 2012, and instead, it’ll only get these couple sentences. Here are the five trades likely to have the biggest impact on the season moving forward:
For the Detroit Tigers, it’s now or never. The team has made it no secret that they are done saying “next year,” and little has made that strategy so abundantly clear as trading the team’s top pitching prospect in Jacob Turner to the Marlins for Infante and Sanchez. Currently three games behind the Chicago White Sox in a tight race for the AL Central crown, their two newest faces fill two big holes: second base and the middle of its rotation. We’ll have to wait and see how Sanchez performs and Turner Develops to know which team got the better deal long term. But Infante and Sanchez will do more for the team right now, and that’s all there is for the Tigers.
The Giants are just one game up over the Dodgers in the NL West, and given all the moves LA has been making (discussed below), San Fran had to come up with some sort of counter. What they came up with is two-time all-star Hunter Pence, who’s hitting .271 with 17 homers and 59 RBI this year. In return, the team shipped Tommy Joseph, Nate Schierholtz, and Seth Rosin to Philadelphia. Joseph, a catcher who was one of the team’s best two or three prospects depending on who you asked, is the centerpiece of the deal. The Giants were willing to let him go for Pence, perhaps because they’ve already got Buster Posey behind the plate. After giving up one of their top pitching prospects to rent Carlos Beltran last year, it’s notable that the Giants secured Pence, who’s under contract through 2013. He’s not going to hit as many home runs as he did in Citizens Bank Park, but Pence will be a very important part of the lineup for more than just a few months.
The Angels and Dodgers were the deadline’s biggest movers and shakers, so like the Giants, the Rangers had to come up with something to better their squad for the playoff race to come. Dempster may be 35 years old, and while his 2.25 ERA and 1.04 WHIP are certainly well above the general expectation, the numbers aren’t a total anomaly. Recall that in 2008 he went 17-6 with a 2.96 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over more than 200 innings. Although 15 years in the bigs, it’s Dempster’s first time in the American League, and his 4.63 ERA in 50 career interleague games aren’t exactly a bright spot, they needed someone to fill the hole injuries have made in their rotation. He’s no Zach Greinke, but Dempster will be a big factor if the team hopes to reach the World Series for the third straight season.
If this was a list of the trades likely to have the biggest impact over the next few years, as opposed to just this season, this one might’ve been at the top of the list. Ramirez might be having a down year (or two) by his standards, hitting .246 with 15 home runs and 56 RBI. And sure, it’s been a little while since 2009, when he hit .342 and brought home a battle title, or his 30/30 campaign in 2008. But Ramirez is coming off an injury and more importantly, he’s still only 28 years old, smack dab in the middle of his statistical prime. Considering the Dodgers gave up very little to get him and also scored Shane Victorino, they might just be the season’s biggest trade deadline winner.
As I said, long term, Greinke moving to the Angels might not be that huge. Who knows where he’ll end up when he becomes a free agent this off season. But with the spot the Angels are in right now, his move to LA is the deadline’s biggest. It’s no surprise that like the Giants and Dodgers, both the Angels and Rangers are on this list. Arguably two of the three best teams in the American League reside in the Western division, and as I discussed last week, playoff spots are no longer created equal. Yes, the Dodgers are in a similar position, and yes, the Rangers made a similar move, but the Angels now have Greinke, who was indubitably the best starting pitcher on the market, to shore up a rotation that already includes Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana. Pitching is the name of the game when it comes to the playoffs to begin with. But what’s crucial for the Halos is that even if they do find themselves forced to employ Weaver in a wild card play-in, they’re not so screwed as most other teams might be with a gang like that to follow him.
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