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
** 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.