Baseball BeatJuly 09, 2007
First Half Observations
By Rich Lederer

The first half is now behind us — even though, for most teams, it actually occurred a week ago. We can now sit back over the next few days, reflecting on the past, dreaming about the future while enjoying the All-Star Game festivities.

AL Roundup: Why Play the Second Half?

I hesitate to say that the American League races are set in stone, but the cement is drying pretty fast. Sure, the Cleveland Indians could overtake the Detroit Tigers and win the AL Central. But I will be surprised if the top four teams at the break — Indians, Tigers, Red Sox, and Angels (not in that order) — are not representing their league come October.

There may be a glimmer of hope in Seattle and Minnesota — as well as there should be — but I think the Mariners are not as good as their W-L record and the Twins will find it difficult overcoming either Cleveland or Detroit. I'm not ruling MIN out altogether, but it will take a huge second-half performance on the part of someone like Matt Garza coupled with a major injury or two in CLE and DET for the Twins to qualify for the playoffs.

NL Roundup: Is it Parity or Mediocrity?

Whereas the three division leaders in the AL are all playing .600 ball, the best record in the National League belongs to the San Diego Padres (49-38, .563). In fact, the three teams atop their divisions — Padres, Mets, and Brewers — are all barely staying above .550. Call it parity if you must, but the NL is a collective 115-137 against the AL in interleague games. Only three clubs in the so-called junior circuit — Orioles, Devil Rays, and White Sox — have losing records vs. the . . . ahem . . . senior circuit.

As a result of the mediocrity (being kind here), any team with a .500 record or better has a decent shot at making a run for the playoffs over the next three months. The Mets and Brewers are both talented clubs with several players either in the prime of their careers or experiencing breakout seasons. The NL West is still wide open and could once again send two teams to the post-season.

Biggest Negative Surprises Among Teams

The sub-.500 records of the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals caught me a bit off guard. Both teams rely too heavily on older players and neither had the pitching depth to overcome injuries to key starters. I realize that the Redbirds barely played .500 last season, and I had no illusions that STL was going to revert to winning 90 games again. At the same time, I didn't peg them to limp into the All-Star break at 40-45 (.471). With a less-than-stellar farm system, the Cardinals may be entering a downturn that could be reminiscent of 1988-1995 when the club failed to make the post-season while producing a cumulative record of 601-628 (.489).

The Yankees are running in place and need to decide if they want to be buyers or sellers as the trade deadline fast approaches. I know New York has the resources to take on more payroll but going for it now — at the inevitable expense of the future — makes no sense to me. The next few months will be interesting in the Bronx. Will they offer Alex Rodriguez an extension? If not, will A-Rod bolt for even greener pastures? Bobby Abreu is a goner. What about Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera? Can Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano be more than role players? Stay tuned. Fans may not recognize next year's players without a program.

This section wouldn't be complete without mentioning the Chicago White Sox. I picked the Pale Hose to finish fourth but the consensus had the 2005 World Champs competing with the Tigers, Indians, and Twins for the AL Central title or Wild Card spot. This seems like a team that is betwixt and between, perhaps trying to hang onto the past while generally making personnel changes on the margin that have little or no value longer term. As I see it, the road back is going to be tough because DET, CLE, and MIN are currently stronger at the major and minor league levels. Good luck, Kenny and Ozzie.

Biggest Positive Surprises Among Players

Consider yourself a soothsayer or a future GM if you had Carlos Pena posting an OPS over 1.000 with 20 HR in the first half. Call yourself Billy Beane if you predicted that Jack Cust would slug 15 HR. The 28-year-old minor league star had hit a total of FIVE home runs going into the 2007 season. Score one for the statheads.

Brandon Phillips turned his career around last year when the Reds gave him a chance to play everyday, but the 26-year-old second baseman has already matched his home run total from last year and is currently tied for seventh in the NL with 17. While J.J. Hardy (18 HR) surprised virtually everyone (including himself) with his power in April and May, the Milwaukee shortstop has only gone yard three times since May 25. However, his teammate Prince Fielder (first in the NL and second in MLB with 29 HR) has continued to light up pitchers and appears to be on his way to a Ryan Howard-type breakout season. His success is not as surprising as the suddeness of it all. As a 22-year-old, Fielder jacked 28 homers last year. I would have thought he might have put up a 35 or 40 HR campaign before jumping to what may turn out to be a 50 HR season.

A number of pitchers are worthy of honorable mention, including Chad Gaudin, Jeremy Guthrie, and Hideki Okajima in the AL and Ryan Franklin (Ryan Franklin???), John Maine, and Sergio Mitre in the NL. Speaking of Franklin, I don't understand why Walt Jocketty felt the need to give him a two-year extension last week. Given Franklin's age (34), track record, and strikeout rate (3.48 K/9 during the 1H), I would be as skeptical as ever of his ability to succeed beyond the current season.

Biggest Busts Among Players

Julio Lugo (.197/.270/.298) is another shortstop in the post-Nomah era who has failed to live up to expectations in Boston. Jermaine Dye (.214/.271/.402) has been a huge disappointment in the Windy City following his career year last season when he garnered serious support for AL MVP.

On the pitching side of the ledger, Bartolo Colon (6.44 ERA, 1.62 WHIP with 15 HR in 79.2 IP) and Kevin Millwood (6.16 ERA, 1.68 WHIP) have almost identical contracts and stats. Colon is throwing in the low- to mid-90s but is paying the price for leaving too many pitches over the middle of the plate. Like Colon, Millwood has spent time on the DL. Unlike the 2005 AL Cy Young Award winner, the Texas righthander is working in a less pitcher-friendly ballpark. No matter the excuses, neither pitcher is coming close to earning their gigantic paychecks.

It's (way) too early to call Homer Bailey a bust, but his MLB debut has not gone as planned. The fireballer has posted a 6.99 ERA while allowing nearly two baserunners per inning and striking out only 4.76 batters per nine. Bailey, who was optioned to the minors on Sunday, will be back in the rotation in a week. The future star is a reminder that greatness rarely occurs immediately. Most young pitchers and hitters face adversity at the highest level and how they adjust is paramount to their future success.

Which teams and players surprised you the most?


I know it's the popular line, but I don't think age had anything to do with the Yankees' pitching injuries. How does that explain the hamstring injuries of Wang and Hughes? It certainly doesn't give a reason for the fluke injuries of Karstens and Rasner. Plus, Humberto Sanchez needed TJ surgery 2 days into spring training. Of all the guys who have started games for the Yankees, Chase Wright (2 starts), Tyler Clippard (6 starts), and Kei Igawa (just bad) are the only ones who HAVEN'T been injured. It's just been bad luck, along with the below expected performances of about 4-6 position players.

Not sure if you were referring to me, but I never mentioned that age had anything to do with New York's injuries. That said, I will restate my position that the Yankees rely too heavily on older players (in general) and lack pitching depth at the big league level. The latter put the club in a weak position to deal with injuries to their staff -- and pitchers have been dropping like flies throughout baseball this season.

The good news is that the NYY have a number of outstanding pitching prospects in the system so help will be on the way soon (but not this year).

Rich wrote: "As a result of the mediocrity (being kind here), any team with a .500 record or better has a decent shot at making a run for the playoffs over the next three months." Yep, and we know from last year that getting to the playoffs can mean winning the world series--regular season mediocrity notwithstanding.

Just FYI, the Angels have overachieved their Pythagorean Standings almost as much as the M's. And while the Mariners aren't the best bet to sustain their success, neither are the Angels. If both played to their "expected" levels, the M's would still only be 3.5 back. (and Oakland would only be 2 back)

Biggest Surprise- Fuasto Carmona

I would add Brendan Harris to your list of "biggest positive surprises" and possibly James Shields as well. I think it was possible to project Shields as a decent mid-rotation pitcher based on last year's performance, but not much more. Were it not for a short hiccup in June he would have been a reasonable choice to start the all-star game.

I had no clue as to Harris but liked Shields enough to draft him for my fantasy team before the season started. Shields showed up well in terms of K and GB rates, and I knew he had a plus changeup. Given his age, he seemed like a guy who had some upside. I selected him as my fifth starter in a 15-team league and, boy, am I glad I did.

I've paid more attention to him this year, even going so far as to record several of his outings. Shields really made an impression on me one game when he struck out Mauer with the bases loaded on a changeup, then induced Morneau to ground into a double play. He has terrific stuff and command of three quality pitches.

Just looked Shields up and noticed that he hasn't allowed a walk in his last four starts and only one in the last six and three in his last eight (while striking out 52 in 55.1 IP). Not too shabby.

I said whoever won 87 or 88 games in the NL between the Brewers and Cardinals takes the division. The Brewers are now at a 90-win clip, but put 'em down for 88 Ws and the playoffs.

I was at that TB-Minnesota game. It was tremendously exciting to see Shields get out of that situation, and I have seen him do similar things since. My impression last year was that he did not frazzle and that he made adjustments both within games and over the course of a season. He may have a tough inning, but usually contains the damage and follows up with solid pitching afterwards. And last year, after a good start to his career and then a bad slump, he rebounded to finish strong. Until that hiccup, which now seems past, Shields was in the top 5 in the AL in most pitching categories including ERA, Ks, Fewest BB/9, & Innings pitched. He is still averaging over 7 innings/start and has better than a 6-1 K/BB ratio. And his ERA climbed to 3.82 (119 ERA+) basically because of a 3 game slump and a terrible bullpen that routinely lets inherited runners score.

As for Harris, before this year his high in ABs was 59. Now he has 287 and a line of .310/.365/.463 with 8 home runs and 18 doubles. Not bad for a middle infielder. He doesn't walk a ton (24), but every AB I have seen he appears to work deep counts. I am not sure the data supports my observation, I admit. Nobody is confusing him with Ozzie in the field, but he has certainly been a "big positive surprise" given he was originally pencilled in as a reserve infielder and initially had to fight off competition to make the team as its 25th player.