Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Walk in the Park

We're about two months into the 2008 baseball season and the standings look nothing like any preseason predictions. 

The Yankees are in last place.
The Rays lead the AL Wild Card.
The Mets are at .500 while the Marlins lead the division.
St. Louis and Houston are in contention in the NL Central.
Colorado has plummeted to the bottom of the NL West.
Oakland is near the top of the AL West.
And, of course, Detroit sits at the bottom of the AL Central.

Just goes to show how crazy and unpredictable those season previews are. Let's see where each team stands as we head into Memorial Weekend. I'll tackle the AL today and the NL on Monday.

AL East

Best Player- Kevin Youkilis. He continues to add power and progress as a player even at age 29. Hitting .324/.388/.582, the former Greek God of Walks is now a more complete athlete. He has solidified the Red Sox infield with Mike Lowell missing time and David Ortiz struggling. 

Best Pitcher- Daisuke Matsuzaka. Seems like he made some adjustments in the off-season, huh? What a difference Dice-K has been in 2008. He still walks too many hitters (38 in 59.1 inn.) but he has stranded most of them to keep his ERA at 2.43. Josh Beckett has reverted to his homer-happy 2006 mode, so Matsuzaka's play has made the Japanese star the new ace. 

Biggest Disappointment- Clay Buchholz. Admittedly his no-hitter last year was against a pretty poor Rangers squad. Nevertheless, Buchholz was supposed to keep improving in 2008. Rather, he has regressed with a ERA in the 5s. The promise is still there with a 9.14 K/9 ratio, but he needs to miss more bats to be effective.

Tampa Bay
Best Player- Eric Hinske. I didn't expect to write that name here, but he's the only Ray with a slugging % over .500. Only Dioner Navarro has a OBP over .400. Who would have thought the Rays, with one of the worst bullpens ever in 2007, would dominate the mound? Back to Hinske, in part-time play he has been the Rays' top hitter, with 18 extra-base hits and 17 walks. While he may never live up to the hype of his 2002 ROY Award, he is a versatile bench player who can start for a few weeks if need be. 

Best Pitcher- James Shields. Has he supplanted Scott Kazmir as the Rays' ace? It sure seems so. Kazmir still struggles to pitch deep into games because of his walks. Shields, though, keeps runners off the basepaths and keeps the bullpen fresh. In fact, he has just 5 more walks than Kazmir in 40 more innings. Considering both are 26, and Kazmir has a 1.57 ERA in his 4 starts, you can't wrong with either. 

Biggest Disappointment- Carlos Pena. After hitting 46 HR in 2007 and signing a big contract before the season, Pena has responded in 2008 by reverting back to his old self. Slugging .382 and batting a paltry .206, Pena seems to have lost everything he had last year. At age 30, with just one good season to his credit, when is it too early to call 2007 a fluke?

Best Player- I really thought the Orioles would be dreadful this year, but they've held their own thanks to surprising pitching and timely hitting. Leading the way has been the trade target Brian Roberts. Rumored to be heading to the Cubs since the winter meetings, Roberts is still in Baltimore and hitting as good as ever. He plays solid defense and leads the team in steals. Also second in OBP and third in SLG, his constant presence at the top of the lineup will be nice to see even when the Orioles slump down to the cellar.

Best Pitcher- On a team where every reliever has an ERA under 4.15, it's tough to pick just one guy. But, I'll go with Matt Albers. The 25-year-old came over in the Miguel Tejada trade and has started and relieved in Baltimore. With a 2.08 ERA and a WHIP under 1.00, Albers has been solid while contributing in a variety of ways. It's only a matter of time before he's in the rotation full-time instead of Steve Trachsel.

Biggest Disappointment- Ramon Hernandez. His sudden fall from All-Star status has been sad to watch. From 2003-2007, Hernandez averaged about a .275/.330/.470 with 12-20 HR. Last year his OPS dropped to .715 and now in 2008, he's at .583. Granted, he's a 32-year-old catcher, but the decline phase tends to be less steep than this. Luckily, the O's have the game's best catching prospect, Matt Wieters, ready to start in 2009. 

New York
Best Player- Alex Rodriguez. Yea, I know he's been hurt, but A-Rod is still head and shoulders above any of his teammates. He already has 2 HR since he came back. Jason Giambi is the only other Yankee to supply any power, but A-Rod does it with better defense and an AVG 80 points higher.

Best Pitcher- Chien-Ming Wang. Mariano Rivera only has a .50 ERA, but that's come in just 18 innings. Wang has made a much bigger impact in the rotation. He has quickly become the Yanks' ace in his fourth year. Experts keep predicting his low K totals will be his downfall, but Wang keeps proving them wrong. His sinkerball induces a steady stream of grounders and plenty of outs. 

Biggest Disappointment- Phil Hughes. The Yanks reportedly refused to give him up in the Santana negotiations, but maybe they should have. Whether it's the pressure of the New York lights or he's simply not ready, Hughes needs more work in AAA. A 9.00 ERA in 6 starts is ugly as is the 13/13 K/BB ratio. As Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina continue to decline, Hughes must be ready to replace them.

AL Central

Best Player- Carlos Quentin. Stolen from the D'Backs for a A-ball first baseman, Quentin has been one of baseball's biggest surprises. At .294/.408/.588, Quentin has been a major help considering the poor starts by Paul Konerko and Jim Thome. Not known for power, Quentin may not sustain that pace, but he has great doubles power and will be among the league leaders in walks.

Best Pitcher- Though he's just 4th among his fellow starters in ERA, Vazquez has easily been the Sox' best pitcher. He has thrown more innings with a better K/9 ratio than the others. In fact, he's also walked less than any starter even with the inning advantage. Possibly the most durable pitcher of the century (he's never been on the DL), Vazquez bounced back from 3 down years to post a great year in 2007. With his start in 2008, another one is on the way.

Biggest Disappointment- The middle infield. Juan Uribe and Orlando Cabrera may bring this team down from first place with their play alone. Uribe is at .198/.262/.328 and Cabrera is hitting .219/.275/.290. While neither has ever been known as an offensive juggernaut, they've always been better than this. Uribe is in the game for his offense so if he can't pick up his game, the Sox may look elsewhere. Cabrera was traded for one of the team's best pitchers, so this production can't be good for management. At 33, Cabrera's best days may be behind him.

Best Player- Grady Sizemore. I have to pick Sizemore by default here as the Indians' big stars are all struggling. Hafner, Peralta, Martinez, and Garko (the team's power hitters) are all slugging under .418. Sizemore is only at .254/.365/.438, far below his career averages. Yet, his all-around play and good defense keep him atop the pack. Remember discussing Granderson v. Sizemore for AL centerfield supremacy? How's that look now?

Best Pitcher- Cliff Lee. Was there really any doubt? Lee has put up video game stats with only 5 walks in 59.1 innings. At 6-1 and sporting a 1.37 ERA, Lee looks to have firmly rebounded from two straight down years. Along with Aaron Laffey, C.C. Sabathia, Paul Byrd, and Fausto Carmona, Lee gives Cleveland the best rotation in baseball. Obviously, it'll be tough to maintain this type of pace, but still expect Lee to win 15-20 games.

Biggest Disappointment- Travis Hafner. This is more of a trend than a two month deal. Hafner has hit a brick wall in his career. From 2004-2006, he was one of the most feared hitters in baseball. But, something happened last year. He only slugged .451, dropping this year to .368. With his body type, he was never going to be one to age well. At age 30, Hafner may really be about done. Players of this type, think Boog Powell or Cecil Fielder, tend to flame out early. They don't have speed or any secondary hitting skills to help slow the decline. It's sad to see Pronk go down like this, but don't hold your breath for a recovery.

Best Player- Joe Mauer. Justin Morneau may have the better OPS, but Mauer does his hitting from the catching position, making his production much more valuable. Hitting .333 with a .404 on-base, Mauer just needs to stay healthy to be productive. So far so good on that front. Considering no one besides the M & M Boys are hitting for the Twins, Mauer will have to keep up this pace for the Twinkies to stay in contention. 

Best Pitcher- Nick Blackburn. The 26-year-old rookie moved slowly in the minors, but he seems to have found a home in 2008. While not Johan Santana yet, Blackburn has been more than capable. One cause for concern is his low, 4.83, K/9 ratio. That stat brought down the career of Nate Cornejo, but Brian Bannister and Chien-Ming Wang have bucked the trend. Stay tuned for Blackburn.

Biggest Disappointment- It'd be unfair to label Francisco Liriano a disappointment yet. But, what is wrong with Delmon Young? All the prospect experts were claiming Young would develop power as he aged. Yet, here we are, and Young hasn't hit for power in the majors or minors. It'd be fine if he had other skills. But, now he is just a overhyped singles hitter. You don't trade Matt Garza for this. And you don't play someone with a .356 SLG in an outfield corner. 

Kansas City
Best Player- Alex Gordon. I'm so happy to write his name here. I love seeing young prospects succeed. Last year I drafted Gordon in 3 fantasy leagues only to see him fail miserably for the season's first 4 months. This year, I passed on him in 2 of 3 leagues. Thankfully, he, along with Chipper Jones, are doing wonders for one of my teams. Gordon is hitting .295/.378/.451 so the power isn't quite there yet. But, that line is above-average for a 3B, especially the on-base ability. The George Brett comparisons may have been premature, but Gordon can certainly carry the Royals to a division crown in a few years.

Best Pitcher- Zack Greinke. Just a couple years removed from a personal leave of absence for mental problems, Greinke has transformed his life and his game. Only 24, Greinke already leads the Royals' rotation with a 5-1 record and a 2.18 ERA. Touted as a Greg Maddux-clone, Greinke has supreme control and great off-speed stuff. Now, that he has his head on straight, there's no telling his limits.

Biggest Disappointment- Gil Meche. The big free-agent signing of 2007, Meche was a surprising success last season. This year, he has fallen back to earth. With an ERA of 5.58 and 9 HR allowed, Meche isn't helping the Royals at all. When healthy, Meche has usually been good. Perhaps there is something wrong here that he isn't telling anyone.

Best Player- Magglio Ordonez. He's never going to top last year's stats, but he continues to produce like he did in his ChiSox heyday. At .315/.376/.506, I'll take that line from my RF any day of the week. His defense won't wow anyone, but we simply pay him to be adequate out there. His hitting should only improve as Miguel Cabrera heats up. That type of hitter behind him will keep the good pitches coming. 

Best Pitcher- Armando Galarraga. Crazy, right? Galarraga started the season in the minors, coming up when Dontrelle Willis got hurt. Now, Willis is back but will head to the pen in favor of the former Ranger. Both pitchers are actually the same age, even though Willis has been in the majors for 6 years. At 3-1 with a 3.06 ERA, Galarraga has been a savior for the Tiger rotation. While he has thrown less than 6 innings/start, he has been consistent, only once allowing more than 2 runs. The pressure is on now that Willis back with the team. Let's see if he can keep from looking over his shoulder when he makes a mistake.

Biggest Disappointment- I'll overlook Gary Sheffield's ugly line because his shoulder injury still isn't healed. What I can't neglect is Justin Verlander. Our supposed ace, our guy who won 35 games in two seasons, he's only 2-7 with a 5.61 ERA in 2008. The past two outings have been encouraging, as he's allowed just 3 runs in 12 innings. But, that was against KC and Seattle. Let's see what he can do against the big guns before I call him back to normal.

AL West

Los Angeles
Best Player- Casey Kotchman. An injury-filled minor league career derailed his progress. But those who watched him every day knew he'd be a star. At age 25, Kotchman has finally found his groove. Hitting .309/.360/.481, Kotchman is akin to Mark Grace or Will Clark. He won't be a typical power-hitting 1B, but he'll be on-base every time you turn around and he'll play great defense. He gives the Angels a solid 1B for the first time since Mo Vaughn.

Best Pitcher- Joe Saunders. Faced with danger after losing Kelvim Escobar for the year and John Lackey for April and much of May, the Angels found a savior in Saunders. He's been up and down with LA the past 3 years, but he looks to have stuck finally. He's 7-1 with a 2.48 ERA, but his K totals are down. Like many other young pitchers, let's see how he does the second time through the league.

Biggest Disappointment- Gary Matthews, Jr. It's amazing what one fluke year and a highlight catch will do for you. He leveraged 2006 into a big deal with LA and has been nothing but disappointing ever since. This year he's at .220/.312/.353 and I wonder how long it'll be before Scioscia goes with Reggie Willits or Juan Rivera instead. The only thing stopping him is that albatross of a contract.

Best Player- Like alot of other AL teams this year, the A's are getting by with their pitching. Bobby Crosby leads the team with a .266 AVG! But, Jack Cust has been the best overall hitter. He can't play defense, he strikes out a ton, but the guy can flat-out produce. He's on-base at .426 clip and he has 13 extra-base hits in 160 AB. The DH platoon of him and Frank Thomas has been the A's best position. In fact, Thomas has been the team's 2nd-best hitter since coming over from Toronto. Again, why did the Jays give up so quickly? The Big Hurt is a notoriously slow starter and they had no one in line to replace him. Lucky for the A's, Thomas is back on track and smacking the ball. 

Best Pitcher- With a team ERA of 3.37, Oakland has been dominant on the hill. Of course, they have to be if they want to succeed with that offense. Leading the pack has been Dana Eveland. See the sidebar for more on him. Behind Eveland, young guns Greg Smith and Chad Gaudin have been surprising as well. At least the A's know they have plenty of help when Rich Harden gets hurt again.

Biggest Disappointment- Daric Barton. He hit .417 in his September cup of coffee last season. Many were predicting him to be one of the best pure hitters in baseball. He was also an on-base machine in the minors. Both his hitting and eye have eluded him so far to a tune of a .217/.333/.325 line. With Eric Chavez out, the A's need some production from their infield corners. Barton was supposed to supply that, but has failed to live up to the hype.

Best Player- Josh Hamilton. The guy continues to prove everyone wrong that doubted him. Out of baseball for a time after struggling with injuries and drugs, Hamilton has rebounded to become a near All-Star CF. While the thin air in Texas has helped somewhat, Hamilton still has a .811 road OPS. At age 27, we should be seeing Hamilton's best ball for the next few years.

Best Pitcher- Vicente Padilla. He has never quite recovered from throwing 400 innings in 2002-3. That was after 3 years of relief, so perhaps his arm wasn't ready for the workload. In 2008, Padilla finally has his ERA back under 4.00 and providing Texas with some stability at the front of the rotation. 

Biggest Disappointment- There's not one guy that just screams failure yet, but the Rangers' combo of 1B/DH have been among the worst in the league. Chris Shelton, Jason Botts, Ben Broussard, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia have all failed to deliver. The gaping hole left by Mark Teixeira has yet to be filled. And no, Frank Catalanotto is not the answer.

Best Player- Raul Ibanez. After resurrecting his career in KC, Ibanez has continued to put up solid, unassuming lines for the last 6 years. He won't light up the scoreboard, but at the end of the year, there he'll be with an above-average line. He gets on-base, hits 20 HR, and plays solid defense. At age 35, he shows no signs of decline.

Best Pitcher- Felix Hernandez. He's yet to have a stretch befitting his King Felix moniker, but at age 22, his production is more than enough. At almost a K an inning, Hernandez is fooling plenty of batters. He just has to cut down on his 28 walks. With a 3.34 ERA, Hernandez is certainly a #2 pitcher already. A couple minor adjustments and he'll be an #1. 

Biggest Disappointment- Kenji Johjima. Signed to a contract extension before the year, Johjima has gone about destroying that confidence ever since. Hitting only .222/.259/.311, Johjima has even struggled on defense. Two pitchers have already claimed backup Jamie Burke as their personal catcher. It won't be long before Johjima is a part-time player with a full-time size contract. 

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