April 2011

So, about those MLB rankings …

One month in, and my preseason predictions aren’t looking very good. (Hey, at least give me credit for volunteering that … no?)

Through April, five of the eight teams I picked to make the playoffs don’t even have a .500 record right now; and the two teams I picked to clash in the World Series — the Red Sox and Braves — aren’t even among the top two in their own division. (Good thing I didn’t pick the Twins.)

Five months remain in the regular season, so everyone still has plenty of time. Who should worry, who will turn it around and who was I a fool to even consider?

Let’s have a look …

Red Sox (11-15): We’ll start in Beantown, because our jaws are still dropped from the ridiculously bad start coming from this ridiculously stacked team. Heading into Saturday’s action, the club I thought was going to sport baseball’s best offense ranked 17th in the Majors in OPS and tied for 18th in runs. Meanwhile, their bullpen ERA was tied for the second-highest in baseball. Boston started off the season with six straight losses, went on to win eight of nine shortly thereafter and have lost four of five since.

We’ll start with the good: The Sox have received some lights-out performances from three of their biggest question marks heading into the season — Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka (though Dice-K did leave his last start with elbow tightness). But two of their offseason acquisitions have struggled, with Bobby Jenks sporting a 2.160 WHIP and, most glaringly, Carl Crawford putting up only a .155 batting average in the first month.

Once Crawford gets going and emerges back into the top of the order — and believe me, he will — the dominoes will fall and the rest of that lineup will start churning out runs like we all expected. The rotation is fine if that offense hits to its capabilities — especially with the way Lackey, Beckett and Dice-K have been throwing it — but two big flaws are noticeable on this team: Catcher and lefty relief.

 Jarrod Saltalamacchia shouldn’t be in the big leagues at this point, and Jason Varitek isn’t anything more than a once-a-week starter these days, so eventually, they’ll need a reliable, veteran catcher who’s solid defensively and can manage a pitching staff. In the bullpen, they need a go-to lefty reliever. The Red Sox hoped Dennys Reyes would pan out, but the veteran was placed on waivers — ones he eventually cleared — four rough outings into his Sox tenure. I’m not solid on Hideki Okajima, either.

The good news is both of those roles are usually readily available at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Panic meter: 5

White Sox (10-18): The South Siders could ill-afford a rough start to the 2011 season. They went overbudget this offseason and needed good attendance to continue to turn profits, but White Sox fans are a fickle bunch that won’t show up if the team isn’t performing. And the recently patched-up relationship between general manager Ken Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen didn’t need a test like this so early. But so it is. The White Sox’s bullpen struggled early on, the offense then went to sleep, and all year long the club has struggled to build any sort of consistency.

As Williams said in New York recently: “It’s a whole different stress level when you look at what we have.” He’s right. Chicago is loaded this season. But the truth of the matter is Adam Dunn‘s OPS is only .567, the offense altogether was tied for 20th in the Majors in runs scored entering Saturday, Mark Buehrle and Edwin Jackson have a combined 6.33 ERA, Chris Sale has given up seven runs in 10 2/3 innings and Jake Peavy still isn’t back.

Perhaps of all those warning signs, the latter is the most significant. The White Sox, regardless of all the talent they boast everywhere else, needed Peavy to be healthy and right in hopes of winning the deep American League Central (a division that’s only deeper with how the Indians are playing). Peavy did have an encouraging Minor League outing on Friday. But what he can give them after that kind of surgery is beyond me.

I do expect the offense to be much better, and I expect the bullpen to turn it around once Sale is more effective (and his stuff is just too good for him not to be). But facts are facts — the White Sox are already nine games back of first place. And this isn’t really an organization that breeds the type of optimism needed after early-season setbacks like these. (As Ozzie said in New York, “Every year, at some point, I get fired.”)

Panic meter: 8

Athletics (13-14): Allow me to bring in Dennis Green to kick this one off: “The Athletics are who we thought they were!” Going in, we felt the A’s had a nice-looking pitching staff and could defend, and we figured they’d struggle to score runs consistently. … OK, well, two out of three ain’t bad, right? Heading into Saturday, the A’s sported baseball’s lowest ERA and ranked 28th in runs scored. But they had the second-most errors in baseball, which has cost them considering eight of their losses have been decided by three runs or less.

The A’s can’t afford to be a team that makes a lot of errors. Their offense isn’t good enough to bail them out of many of them. Regardless, somebody does need to step up offensively. The question, as we pondered at the start of the season, is: who? In picking the A’s, I knew they had to ride a strong pitching staff and good defense to beat the likes of the Rangers and Angels. But also, both of those teams needed to struggle, and somebody needed to step up in that lineup.

The A’s are 0-for-3 there.

Maybe Billy Beane has a deal for a power bat up his sleeve.

Panic meter: 8

Tigers (12-15): Many wondered if Miguel Cabrera‘s Spring Training DUI troubles would be a distraction as the club looked to make a return trip to the playoffs. So far, Miggy — .333 batting average, seven homers and 19 RBIs — has been one of few bright spots in the Motor City. The Tigers, in the final year of Jim Leyland‘s contract, have been pretty streaky. They lost three in a row, then won four in a row, then lost three of four, then won four in a row again, and on Saturday night, they dropped their season-high fifth straight game. Meanwhile, offseason pickup Victor Martinez is on the disabled list, and there’s still no telling when Carlos Guillen and Joel Zumaya will be back.

The top of the order — mainly center fielder Austin Jackson and second baseman Will Rhymes — has struggled so far, with the Tigers going into Saturday ranking 29th and 18th in the Majors, respectively, in on-base percentage from the Nos. 1 and 2 spots in their order. Meanwhile, if anybody can find Magglio Ordonez (.159 batting average, zero homers in 18 games), please tell him to report to Comerica Park.

Look, at least one of the three between Brad Penny (6.11 ERA), Phil Coke (4.88) and Rick Porcello (4.25) is going to have a fine year when it’s all set and done;  Joaquin Benoit should pick it up at some point (though you can never tell with relievers); and once V-Mart is back, the offense will be much better (perhaps even Ordonez will be).

But this team isn’t immune to weaknesses. They’re rather old, have questions at several positions and — most important to me heading into the season — they don’t have that one lefty in the bullpen Leyland can have turn to late in games. When you’re in a division with the likes of Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Adam Dunn, you need that guy. Brad Thomas (10 earned runs in 8 1/3 innings) ain’t cutting it.

Panic meter: 7

Braves (13-15): Outside its record, Atlanta recently put pitching coach Roger McDowell on administrative leave after he allegedly heckled fans and saw starter Derek Lowe get cited for a DUI. When did the Braves become the Mets? On the field, meanwhile, they’ve struggled to find any sort of consistency in the early going, having not lost or won more than three in a row through the first month.

Of the five, I’m least worried about them.

Dan Uggla (.194 batting average) has always been a slow starter and should get going; Freddie Freeman (.217) is still getting adjusted to the big leagues, but will be a stud; and their starting pitching is simply too good for them not to be in it all year. Heading into the season, the Braves’ weaknesses lied in defense and in the top of the order. But I still believe they have enough elsewhere to overcome that.

Panic meter: 3

– Alden 

** What I wrote recently: Ageless wonder Omar Vizquel should be a no-doubt Hall of Famer; my 25-and-under All-Star team; it’s time to seriously consider moving Joe Mauer; CC Sabathia must step up for the Yanks; and a new generation has emerged onto the All-Star ballot.

*** Photos by The Associated Press. 

Yeah, um, Roy Halladay is, uh, pretty good

OK, so maybe you didn’t need me to tell you Roy Halladay is a good pitcher. But it was interesting to see just how much of a throwback he is.

Pitchers, as you know, rarely pitch entire games anymore, and “durability” usually means 200 innings. Not for Halladay. The Phillies’ ace (and, yes, even though they signed Cliff Lee, he is the unquestioned ace on that team) is essentially unmatched in terms of complete games over the last few years.

Consider:

* From 2003-11, Halladay has notched the most complete games in baseball with 54. The No. 2 man on that list? CC Sabathia, with 28.

* The 54 complete games by Halladay is more than the total for 26 teams.

For that eight-plus-year span, Halladay has 134 wins (first in the Majors), 1,743 2/3 innings (fourth), 1,333 strikeouts (sixth), a 3.03 ERA and a 4.79 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The 33-year-old right-hander’s last complete game came Wednesday against the Nationals, giving up two runs and striking out nine in the process. He has given up just three runs in 22 innings this year and has 22 strikeouts with only three walks.

Yeah, The Doc is pretty good.

And he’s actually pretty funny, too. This ad was a good one …

– Alden 

* What I wrote this week: The Rockies are doing what they never have; turning a double play can be a dangerous game; MLB family honors Jackie Robinson

Two big multi-homer games for The Big Apple

NEW YORK — It’s early, but Yankees catcher Russell Martin and Mets right fielder Carlos Beltran — two once-elite players trying to find themselves after injury woes — came through with multi-homer games that keyed victories and offered promise on Saturday.

Beltran’s was his 28th career multi-homer game and it came in an 8-4 win over the Nationals at Citi Field. Martin’s was his first since Aug. 15, 2007, and it came in a 9-4 win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park.

This is a big season for both of these guys, each of whom will be a free agent in the fall.

For Beltran, it had been a frustrating start to season No. 14. The 33-year-old was coming off right knee surgery, then suffered tendinitis in his left one, then tried to adjust to playing somewhere other than center field, then was off to a slow start at the plate.

But he began to feel good in the cages, and manager Terry Collins felt a breakout was coming.

Then, at last, it came.

“It felt great,” said Beltran after hitting his first two homers of the season and moving his batting average from .190 to .240.

“I feel like all the time that I put into Spring Training, working in the cage and getting to the ballpark, doing the rehab and trying to work my legs, it’s paying off. … The season is just beginning. I understand that I’m going to be able to have good times and I’ll also go through bad times. It’s all going to the cage and sticking with the plan.”

Martin, plagued by injury and inconsistency the last two seasons and coming off a broken hip, has looked good behind the plate since signing a $4 million contract with the Yankees this offseason. An effective Martin is critical for the Yankees, because it allows them to keep Jesus Montero and Austin Romine down in the Minors to get extra seasoning — and perhaps give general manager Brian Cashman the freedom to spin one of those for a starting pitcher.

So far, Martin has answered the bell by starting off the season 9-for-28 (a .321 batting average) with three homers and eight RBIs while playing in all eight games.

“I love the intensity,” Martin told reporters about playing for the Yankees. “It’s really what I’m all about. It’s going to be a fun year from that standpoint.”

Alden

** What I wrote this week: It was a weird first week of the season; the Marlins’ real Opening Day will come in 2012; Black Crackers were the mysterious first baseball champs in Atlanta.

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