Tuesday, July 11, 2006

COH Pre-Season Review

This may be the last post at COH for a while. I’m leaving Japan for the US in a couple of days, and I may not have great access to a computer. If I can blog while I’m in the States, I will. If not, take this lengthy look back at my pre-season predictions and milk it. I’ll be at the July 19th 1:00pm game against the Mariners, sitting about 5 rows back on the 1st baseline. I’ll be the big guy wearing the navy “Matsui” batting practice jersey, sitting next to a Japanese woman (my wife). If you see me, say hello. I’ll be back in Japan and blogging daily on the 25th of July.

Back in March I wrote an AL East season preview. Some of the predictions have been remarkably accurate, while others a little dodgy. I thought the All Star Break would be a good time to reflect back on my pre-season ideas and comment on some of the more profound insights and idiocy. Without further ado, let’s start with the MLB predictions. Here’s what I thought would shake out in the larger picture:

American League

East: Yankees
Central: White Sox
West: Athletics
Wild Card: Red Sox

AL Champs: Yankees
AL MVP: Derek Jeter
AL Cy Young: Johan Santana

Okay. Sure I was going to pick the Yankees to win the AL East. I still think we’ll win the division. Blind faith in the home team? Maybe, but they’re still 3rd or 4th in baseball in Pythagorean wins. A lot of season to go. The White Sox in the Central was a fairly standard idea too. The World Champs added Jim Thome. What’s not to like. No one could have seen Detroit coming, and while they will probably still win that division, how will their magical pitching hold up in the playoffs? At least they’ll be there. They have a puncher’s chance, if not more. The A’s looked good to me on paper with the always reliable pitching of Zito, Harden, Haren and company. No hitting though. They are lucky to be in first in that terrible division, and truth be told, I expect the Angels to pull off a huge second half and overtake them and the Rangers.

As for individual player awards, I think Santana is the AL Cy Young as of today, but his rookie teammate Francisco Liriano may just steal his thunder before it’s all over. I wouldn’t want to face that rotation right now. Jeter was my AL MVP pick. I thought he’d contend for the batting title back in the 2 hole, and with that spot in the order I thought he’d transform his leadoff numbers into greater runs and RBI production as well. He started the season driving in runs at a previously unheard of pace. Before he went out for a few games with an injury he was on a 120 RBI pace or something. He’s cooled off on the RBI front, but it also has a lot to do with the fact that the later innings see the bottom of the order hitting in front of him and fewer chances to drive baserunners home. He still may win the batting title, but MVP will go to a guy with more thunder in his bat, like Thome, Hafner, Ortiz, or Giambi.

National League

East: Mets
Central: Cardinals
West: Dodgers
Wild Card: Braves

NL Champs: Cardinals
NL MVP: Albert Pujols
NL Cy Young: Pedro Martinez

The only surprise among my NL predictions is that the Braves died such a quiet death. They still have a few good starters to challenge a weak National League, but they’ve underperformed, as have the Joneses and Marcus Giles. Jeff Francoeur was hideously bad to start the season and had to go gangbusters just to get back to respectability. It’s too late for them to turn it around now, and I’ll take Cincinnati to win the wild card. Why not?

The individuals are no-brainers. Pujols is the best player in either league, and Pedro is dominating. If he can get himself back healthy, I think he’ll make a better case for himself as the NL Cy Young. Right now…..today…..I think I’d give it to the Padres’ Chris Young, although I know Pedro will win out by October. He still has the lowest OBP Against among all starting pitchers in the NL.

World Series: New York Yankees defeat St. Louis Cardinals

This could still happen. The Yankees will need a healthy Matsui and/or Sheffield to get back the Fall Classic, plus better pitching from the Big Unit. St. Louis will need to outpitch the Mets in the NLCS to have a chance.

If I had to pick a World Series today, with a gun to my head, I’d probably go with the Angels against the Mets. I think the Angels havc sorted out their starting rotation issues with Jered Weaver looking like Cy Young, plus Guerrero hasn’t gotten hot yet. They have the best bullpen in all of baseball, and that counts in the post-season. The Mets are simply the class of a terrible NL. They are by far the best team and I think they have better front of the rotation pitching than the Cardinals. They also feature a far more well rounded lineup top to bottom.

AL East Preview

Predicted 2006 Order of Finish:
1. Yankees (97-65) (93-69)
2. Red Sox (92-70) (93-69)
3. Blue Jays (85-77) (87-75)
4. Devil Rays (72-90) (68-94)
5. Orioles (65-97) (71-91)

I stand by all of this, but I think the Yankees will come in at 93 wins instead of 97. The Pythagorean wins to date suggest this kind of pace. I’ve included the pace determined by Pythagorean Win Percentage in parenthesis next to the prediction above. I still think that the Rays will finish ahead of the Orioles. They’ve only recently had Baldelli, Cantu, and Gomes in the lineup together, and Huff is beginning to hit.

AL East MVP: Derek Jeter, SS-Yankees
AL East Cy Young: Roy Halladay, RHP-Blue Jays
AL East LVP: Corey Patterson, CF-Orioles
AL East Sigh Young: A.J. Burnett RHP, Blue Jays

So far the AL East MVP has been interesting. I’ll call the race as being between 3 players. Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Jason Giambi. All 3 of these guys has fueled the offense for their respective clubs, and all 4 have been nuclear at some point in the season. Right now it’s David Ortiz, so it’s tempting to pick him right out. Manny and Giambi each have a higher OPS than Big Papi though. I’m not swayed by the 9th inning fireworks that Ortiz sometimes produces. He’s still 3rd in OPS among these players and factoring in runners in scoring position, and RISP with 2 outs he’s also 3rd.

Both Manny Ramirez and Jason Giambi are statistically superior to Big Papi, despite the SportsCenter dramatics. In fact, the only place that Ortiz is a better player than Giambi or Ramirez this year is “close and late situations” where he is at a 1.054 OPS with 8 home runs in 52 ABs. Manny is .999 with 3 home runs in 38 ABs and Giambi is .821 with 3 homers in 32 at bats. I may have to give him the mid-season MVP for his overall play, including in big spots, but I think that Manny Ramirez is actually the more valuable player over the long haul.

Who is the AL East Cy Young? Is it Roy Halladay? I think it’s easy to say yes to that. He’s 12-2 with a 2.92 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and a .244 BAA so far. The Jays have hung in the division race and are looking strong. His teammate B.J. Ryan also looks unhittable and is deserving of some recognition. You could also look to Jonathan Papelbon in Boston. Without him the Red Sox would have suffered through a number of meltdowns by Keith Foulke who looks lost sometimes, and probably would find themselves in 2nd place. I’ll stick with Halladay, but you could look at either closer as well.

The AL East LVP was predicted to be Corey Patterson, who I still can’t stand. He’s turned in a fair season so far, and has a ridiculous 32 stolen bases through the halfway point. He therefore can’t be the LVP of the AL East. Alas. That honor should go to Travis Lee of the Rays. He plays almost everyday while sporting a line of .197/.281/.291/.571 starting at FIRST BASE!!!!!!!! Oh my sweet heaven, if there is a baseball God please strike Tampa’s front office with a lightning bolt and get them some sense. How does this guy play in 71 games, getting 200+ at bats with those numbers, and play one of the premier power positions in baseball? Incredible!

The AL East Sigh Young could be A.J. Burnett considering he caught Pavano-it is shortly after signing his big off-season deal. He’s looked okay in his few starts though and there may be hope for him yet. The rest of the list would include in reverse order, best to worst, Matt Clement (6.61 ERA, 1.76 WHIP, .291 BAA), Shawn Chacon (6.71, 1.81, .296), Bruce Chen (6.78, 1.79, .341), and Seth McClung (6.81, 1.80, .304). That brings me to Mr. Awful, the 2006 Half Season LVP…..Josh Towers. Towers has produced, in 12 starts, a 9.11 ERA, 1.86 WHIP, and a stunning .355 BAA for the Blue Jays. If you check my comments on the Jays below, you’ll see that I predicted this as well. (Pats self on back.) Onto the team by team predictions:

New York Yankees Preview

I wrote:

The same pitching problems confront the Yankees in 2006, and there is no reason to believe we will see an improvement in the overall wins in the regular season. I believe the offense will stay strong and that the team will show improved results in beating the weaker teams in the division. Although Tampa is much improved under new ownership, there is no reason to believe they can post a winning record against the Yankees again.

The season will hinge on a return to form by Randy Johnson, more consistency from Mike Mussina, and solid contributions from a combination of Wang, Chacon, Pavano, and Wright. The bullpen appears to be improved and deeper, as long as Joe Torre uses his toys wisely and doesn’t wear them out by over-pitching them. The addition of Johnny Damon seems unnecessary at first glance and all the hype about him being a “real leadoff hitter” is ludicrous. The argument has been made ad nauseum that Derek Jeter’s numbers in the #1 hole were near the top in the league. Essentially, the Yanks look the same as they did a year ago with the same question marks, and the same strengths.

Same pitching problems: Yes.
Tampa vs. Yanks in 2006: Yanks up 6 games to 2.
Torre over-pitching bullpen: Check.
Yankees winning percentage in 2005: .586
Yankees winning percentage in 2006: .581

Looks like I made good on most Yankee points. How about players?

MVP Player: Derek Jeter – Look for a batting title, gold glove, and MVP trophy
MVP Pitcher: Mariano Rivera – No comment necessary

Bat to Watch: Bernie Williams – Can he get back near .300 for one more year?
Avert your eyes: The Yankees Bench – Who among these guys is a player?

Arm to Watch: Mike Mussina – Moose is 37 and seems to be slowly declining. We need him.
Duck!: Tanyon Sturtze – How long before Torre goes away from him in favor of new blood?

I’d say that the MVP player has been Giambi, and MVP Pitcher has been Moose. Bernie has been more important than anyone thought he would be and is hitting .282 as of today. That’s closer to .300 than I would have thought him capable. The bench has proved to be a sore spot, so I think I hit that one on the mark. Mussina has been the arm to watch, mainly because of his brilliance. Without him we’d be dead. I’d say the arm to watch in the 2nd half is Randy Johnson. Tanyon Sturtze speaks for himself. How long before Torre goes away from him…..it took a career threatening injury, exacerbated by Torre’s torturous overuse to take him from the bullpen.

Boston Red Sox Preview:

I said:

The Josh Beckett signing was the crown jewel of the winter for Boston, and he should account nicely of himself at the front of the rotation. His health is a gamble for the Sawx, but he’s got electric stuff as the Yankees well know, and could win some important ballgames for Boston this year. All those nice things aside, Beckett sports a WHIP of 1.235 for his career, and while his ERA is good, he’s about to enter Fenway Park and you should see a spike to a number closer to 4.00 this season. Like Pavano, Beckett is cashing in on a good arm and memories of the 2003 World Series.

Beckett’s ERA has in fact jumped to 4.75 so far this year, so the AL has been rough on him. His WHIP and BAA are right in line with his career numbers, but he’s given up 26 home runs by the All Star break. That accounts for the spike in his ERA. The odd thing is that my thoughts on Fenway haven’t panned out as he’s dominated his home games while giving up 22 of his 26 homers on the road. Hmmmm…..

The other holes in CF and SS were filled by Coco Crisp and Alex Gonzales, respectively. Crisp is a solid all around player that should see a spike in his offensive numbers in Fenway. He won’t put up the same kind of numbers that Damon leaves behind, but his 42 doubles last season were no fluke and he will hit to the gaps frequently in Southie. Gonzales is Silly Putty. He’s there to make sure balls don’t go through the infield. He has a career .682 OPS, which should tell the story.

Coco Crisp has not seen a spike in his offensive production with the Red Sox. In fact, he’s putting up some of the worst numbers he’s had since becoming an everyday player. There’s time for him to turn it around, but he’s got a .711 OPS so far and that looks bad. There are some injury issues that have affected his production, but he took a LONG time to return to the field, and it still didn’t seem to get him ready to play. Gonzales on the other hand is having a career year. It’s still a bad career, but he’s been better than advertised. I hope he returns to form in the 2nd half so the Yankees can overtake the Sox in the standings more easily.

The Sox are not as good this season as they were in either 2004 or 2005. Schilling is a year older and his famous ankle hasn’t improved. The rest of the pitching is decent but not lights out, with Clement, Paplebon, Wakefield, and the ever abrasive David “Tweedledum” Wells. Ortiz and Ramirez are as potent a 1-2 punch as there is in the league and virtually guarantee an above .500 season regardless of who you put around them. Mike Lowell is a favorite whipping boy in some circles, but I think he should account nicely of himself for the Red Sox. He has solid career numbers which should provide a better predictive sample than the dismal results he produced in 2005. To sum things up, the Sox are not the team they once were, but they are still a formidable opponent with a great home field and an aggressive front office. There’s no reason they can’t be near the top of the Wild Card race all year.

Clearly, I was wrong about Schilling. He looks exactly as he did in 2004, and his numbers reflect that level of play. Clement has been garbage. Wakefield has been so-so. Wells is the invisible man. How is this team in first again? Oh yeah. Ortiz and Manny. Plus, my prediction on Lowell was good. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t challenge for the division all year long.

MVP Player: Manny Ramirez – As good as Ortiz is, Manny is Manny
MVP Pitcher: Keith Foulke – If he doesn’t bounce back it’s over in Beantown

Bat to Watch: Adam Stern – “The Canadian Babe” could provide a welcome surprise to red Sox Nation
Avert your eyes: Alex Gonzalez – A career .291 OBP? Can you say Womack?

Arm to Watch: Curt Schilling – If 2006 isn’t better than 2005 by a wide margin the Sox are out of the playoffs.
Duck!: Tim Wakefield– Led the AL in home runs allowed last year with 35, and had 29 in 2004.

The MVP of this team in Manny, but you can see my division notes to see that Ortiz gets the edge on the half season. Foulke has only been the MVP Pitcher because he was so bad that the Red Stockings were forced to put Papelbon in the role of closer and found a gem. Blast. Schilling was the arm to watch, and like Mussina, has produced. The arm to watch for the 2nd half should be Beckett to see if he holds up. Adam Stern? Call it WBC fever. Wakefield’s homer total doesn’t look as bad as Beckett’s so I guess Beckett could be “Duck!”. Maybe Clement is a better “Duck!” though as he just plain “Sucks!”.

Toronto Blue Jays Preview:

I said:

There is enough hitting talent on this roster to succeed. A team that features Vernon Wells, Troy Glaus, Frank Catalanotto, Alex Rios, Eric Hinske, Lyle Overbay, Shea Hillenbrand, and Bengie Molina should have no trouble putting up runs. Likewise a rotation fronted by Roy Halladay, Ted Lilly, and Gustavo Chacin should prove tough on any team facing all three in a series. Add a healthy Burnett to the mix and you have the makings of an above average rotation. If Ryan can close effectively, you’ll see the Blue Jays become a thorn in the side of any number of teams throughout the season. They’re not in the same class as the Yanks or the Sox, but the fans should have some reason to cheer.

All of this has panned out according to my prediction, as the Jays are 6th in the Majors in runs scored, and the pitching has been good. Lilly is decent, but Chacin has struggled with some injury issues and has yet to string together a good run. Likewise, Burnett has only recently been reintroduced “to the mix” and the rotation gets an incomplete. Ryan has been effective and the Jays are indeed a thorn in the Yankees side.

MVP Player: Vernon Wells – Alpha and Omega for the Blue Jays offense
MVP Pitcher: Roy Halladay – If healthy, Toronto is in the Wild Card hunt

Bat to Watch: Alex Rios – Can he breakout in 2006 the way Toronto believes he can?
Avert your eyes: Russ Adams & Aaron Hill – Weak middle infield offensively.

Arm to Watch: Roy Halladay – The entire season depends on his health.
Duck!: Josh Towers– Posted a 1.71 WHIP in the Spring, and is always an adventure.

Wells is the best player on the club, and nothing has changed. Rios is challenging him for that honor, so the “Bat to Watch” was a good pick. Halladay is healthy, and the Jays are in the WC hunt. Check. Adams and Hill have produced .623 and .724 OPSes, respectively, so indeed avert your eyes. They suck. Finally, Josh Towers has been so bad that I earlier named him the 2006 AL East Sigh Young.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays Preview:

I said:

What they have now is a good start and should get them out of the basement this year. The Orioles will oblige them by fielding one of the worst teams in baseball, but they’ve also built a foundation. I like Jorge Cantu. His OBP isn’t great, but I think he’s a gutsy ballplayer who leaves it all out on the field. His power numbers are good and given some protection in the lineup he could turn out to be a solid regular for years to come. Sean Burroughs has always had the talent. He’s not a power hitter, but he can play ball. On a good team, he hits at the bottom of the order, but he’d do you proud down there. On this team he’ll be forced to hit higher up in the lineup than he should and that will hurt him. I expect big things from Rocco Baldelli this season. He never stood out as a Hall of Famer in the making, as Lou Piniella wanted us to believe, but he has a lot of tools and could evolve into a solid middle of the lineup guy, in addition to playing a good center field.

The pitching is the key. Scott Kazmir has a lot on his shoulders this season. He needs to turn into a legit #1 starter and show Tampa fans that there’s hope for the future. If he had a plus year, the Rays will go out and get a couple of real major leaguers to pitch with him. As it is now, Seth McClung will open the season as the #2, followed by Mark Hendrickson and Casey Fossum. Ouch. Kazmir needs to go out and post a win every 5th day to keep the momentum going. It’s a lot to ask of the young man. Is he ready?

Ugh. I actually called Cantu a “gutsy player who leaves it all out on the field”. Who do I think I am, Joe Morgan? Forget that crap. His OBP is bad, his power has gone south, and he’s been bad. I think Johnny Gomes stole it from him actually. I think Cantu will get his power back, but he needs to hit 6th on this team to avoid his crappy OBP destroying the team’s chances to drive in runs. I still like him though.

Sean Burroughs?!! I REALLY must have been drinking the Devil Rays Kool-Aid to talk about him. He’s not even a player on the team these days. He produced a typically crappy .190 average for the limited time he was in the lineup, and for all I know he’s a monk on some mountain somewhere. I also take back the line that I said, “Sean Burroughs has always had the talent. He’s not a power hitter, but he can play ball. On a good team, he hits at the bottom of the order, but he’d do you proud down there.” He sucks. He shouldn’t be on any team, anywhere.

Baldelli has come back and played very well. He doesn’t hit for power yet, and really never did in the minors, but he’s a legit talent that should be in centerfield and hitting at the top of the lineup.

MVP Player: Jorge Cantu – His attitude can keep a losing ballclub motivated to the end.
MVP Pitcher: Scott Kazmir – The team is on his young shoulders

Bat to Watch: Delmon Young – What does he bring to the table for this franchise?
Avert your eyes: Tropicana Field - The worst sports facility in major sports.

Arm to Watch: Jason Childers – Good minor league reliever who has looked strong in camp.
Duck!: Casey Fossum– Led the AL with 18 hit batsmen last year. (FYI…Derek)

Again, I talked out my ass about Cantu. Forget it. Forgive me. The MVP of this team is Carl Crawford, who is on pace for 20+ homers, 60+ steals, and is hitting for an .880 OPS so far. Johnny Gomes is a close second. Kazmir is the only pitcher that the team has, but he is a 22 year old phenom. He’s legit and they stole his ass from the Mets. Idiots. Delmon Young and his brother have both shown bats to watch this year, and have both shown criminal tendencies to watch as well. Delmon Young would be playing for the Rays right now if he hadn’t been a little spoiled psycho-punk and thrown a bat at an umpire. He remains the bat to watch for Tampa, as well as the rap sheet to watch. The Arm to Watch was Jason Childers, who started the season with the team out of a strong Spring Training, but wasn’t ready as got sent to Durham where he’s been completely mediocre. As for Fossum and his hit batsmen, he leads the AL East with 8 HBP, which is also good for 4th overall in baseball. In fact, he hit Jeter on July 9th in the final game before the break. I said, “FYI…Derek” didn’t I?

Baltimore Orioles Preview:

I said:

Gone are Sidney Ponson, B.J. Ryan, Sammy Sosa and Raffy “HGH” Palmeiro. Also gone are there chances of staying out of the basement in the AL East. Of Jeff Conine, Corey Patterson, and Jay Gibbons does not an outfield make. Javy Lopez is being counted on to play first, catch, and DH. The DH option is the only one that makes any sense to me. Brian Roberts had a fine year last season, by all accounts, but will never approach the same success again. There’s less protection in the order now. Count on the Orioles to give away as many runs on defense as they produce with their bats.

Let’s take this point by point.

1. The outfield has Jeff Conine (.845 OPS in 33 games), Corey Patterson (.741 in 80 games), Jay Gibbons (.807 in 48 games), and Nick Markakis (.683 in 78 games). Conine has played much more 1B this year, so I exclude him from the mix. Markakis has received a majority of the playing time and has been poor. Let’s quickly compare these guys to Melky (.733), Damon (.837), and Bernie Williams (.739). The average OPS for the Orioles starting outfield is .744, while the Yankees replacement players and Damon have produced a .770 average. That should tell you how bad the Birds outfield is.

2. Lopez has been fortunate to receive most of his time at DH, so the Orioles are saved his terrible defense. Ramon Hernandez’ bat has kept him in the lineup and at the top of the catcher’s lists for hitting as well.

3. Brian Roberts has put a nice half season in on the basepaths, but his .745 OPS is not much better than the middle infielders of the Jays. In fairness, he’s having a career year in steals, and is doing what he always does.

The first, second, and third rules of baseball are all the same. Pitching is everything. In Baltimore this season, pitching is nothing. Lopez, Benson, Bedard, Cabrera, and Chen are their starting rotation. None of those guys are top pitchers, and while each is solid in his own way, they will struggle in their 57 games against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. That’s not to mention the games they will play against Oakland, Anaheim, Chicago, and Cleveland. They’ll be lucky to pick up 35 wins in those games. The final word is, trade Tejada and Mora and rebuild Baltimore. That stadium is too beautiful for such ugly baseball.

How have the Birds’ starters faired in games against the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Oakland, Anaheim, Chicago and Cleveland? At this point the starters named above factored in 33 decisions, producing a 12-21 record against those teams. The remaining 13 games were either decided by the pen or involved a replacement starter of some kind. It’s not looking good for 35 wins.

MVP Player: Miguel Tejada – Duh.
MVP Pitcher: Jim Palmer – Why not? I have to pick somebody.

Bat to Watch: Melvin Mora – A hitter’s hitter. Watch and learn.
Avert your eyes: Donald Corey Patterson – How does a guy with a career .293 OBP start?

Arm to Watch: Daniel Cabrera – Young kid should make an impression at some point.
Duck!: Anna Benson– Will make a bad season worse with her mouth.

The MVP is in fact Tejada. Duh. The MVP pitcher has turned out to be Bedard who has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last month or so. The bat to watch hasn’t been Melvin Mora, who has been very bad, but rather Ramon Hernandez who is a pleasant surprise on an awful roster. Avert your eyes belongs to Luis Matos, who sports a .600-ish OPS. Daniel Cabrera has control issues that may or may not ever be resolved. Mazzone or no. Anna Benson’s mouth has been insignificant, largely because the Orioles are insignificant. She did file for divorce because her hubby is playing the field, but actually is anyone surprised by that. She was more interesting with the Mets.

That’s the end of this long review. It should be interesting to see how this whole thing plays out for the second half. The Yanks will finish in 1st. Jason Giambi will be the MVP, narrowly edging Manny Ramirez. Halladay will keep his club in the playoff hunt, but the rest of the rotation will fall short. The Rays will overtake the Orioles.

That’s it. See you again soon. I’ll make sure to leave the Buddha Babe Ruth at the front door when I finally leave for the States. Until then, enjoy the All Star festivities and see you on the other side. Go Yanks!