Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Midseason Thoughts: AL
2007-07-19 05:45
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Part of the reason it's time to do an around-the-league summary: I just finished travelling across three-quarters of the country and visiting places where people are excited about baseball got me considering the fates of clubs besides the Rockies anew. Another reason: While I was on vacation, relatives and friends kept asking me the records of random teams as if I should know them off the top of my head. Maybe I should. Well, here are some teams, with their records.

Tigers (56-36) Here is as strong an argument against signing free agent relievers to multi-year deals as there is. A team can have a great bullpen one year and a problematic one the next with almost the same roster. Look at the Tigers this year and last. Or look at the 2005, 2006, and 2007 Indians -- pretty good, horrible, and then pretty good again in turn, without any major names either departing or arriving. Obviously it would be foolish for Detroit to deal away any prospects for relief help, especially given the way that using top-flight minor league starters as relievers their first year or so in the bigs has come back into fashion. Andrew Miller could be the key to the Tigers' season. Did anybody watch the Wednesday night game yesterday between Minnesota and Detroit? Watching Jim Leyland argue balls and strikes in HD is both terrifying and impossible to avert your eyes from.

Red Sox (56-38) Here's a random connection for you. I took my cat to the vet the other day in Illinois and the doctor examining him was Kevin Youkilis's dad's college roommate. We were both surprised by how well Youkilis has taken to playing first after years at the other infield corner. Not only can he field the position, but he's putting up numbers that aren't bad at all for a power spot on the diamond. He's also letting Boston play Mike Lowell at third, and Lowell is having his second terrific season in a row after we all thought his career was over in Florida. Merely saying his name still makes citizens of the Nation twitch uncontrollably, but Julio Lugo is heating up in the second half. He has multiple hits in four of his last seven games. If Lugo shakes off his lost first half and behaves like a reasonable approximation of a leadoff hitter for the rest of the year, I for one certainly would not fault Theo Epstein if he wanted to dance around telling us all he told us so. In or out of the gorilla costume. If Lugo does hit, though, the Red Sox might have another problem. So far the squeakier wheels of Lugo, Curt Schilling, and Coco Crisp have distracted Sox fans from the fact that Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are not slugging. Boston ought to be a better team in the second half, but the recent historical record certainly suggests that that won't be the case. Nevertheless, I think they're safe -- the Yankees comparatively have way, way more problems.

Angels (55-38) Have you read all of these articles about how the Angels are on the cusp of establishing a dynasty? I'll believe it when I see it. It's true that Anaheim has huge financial advantages over the other clubs in its division, an owner who really wants to win, and a muscular, miles-deep farm system. But that has been the case for the last couple of years and yet this is the first season the Angels genuinely seem to have achieved some separation from the A's. Perhaps Billy Beane's lucky streak is over, perhaps not. In any event I don't believe dynasties are possible in the current economic environment. The wild card has made it a lot harder to pry good players away from so-so teams for nothing at the trade deadline. A lot more general managers are hip to the idea that if you make the playoffs, you can win the World Series. Unlike the NBA or the NFL, there isn't an additional tier of franchise construction between simply making the postseason and becoming a championship contender. If you're in, you can win. The Angels are also victims of their own success. Bill Stoneman has been criticized a lot for not pulling the trigger on trades that could put them over the top last few years, but I can appreciate his position. It's public knowledge that the Anaheim minor league system is loaded, so everybody asks for one young guy already established in the majors, one blue-chipper, and another player who would be the star of a lot of lesser systems. Rather than pay a buck fifty on the dollar for every trade they make, the Angels are smart to continue developing through free agency and the draft. I think they're as good a pick as anybody to win a championship in the next five years, but I don't think they or anybody else will win 4 of the next 6 or any other stretch of dominance comparable to the Spurs' in the NBA.

Indians (55-39) I drove past Jacobs Field for the first time this summer. It looks pretty from the outside, at least, but it's still in Cleveland. It's going to be a nice stretch run for fans in Cleveland and Detroit, but I can't stop daydreaming about what might have happened if the Twins and White Sox had decided to show up for the first two months of the season. Might have been epic. Like last year, the AL Central race will be decided by how the teams in contention play against their weaker divisional siblings. The Indians have nine games left against the Royals, against whom they're only 5-4 thus far. They have nine to play against Chicago and the same record against the Sox to this point. For what it's worth, the Tigers were a dominant 14-4 in interleague while Cleveland only went 9-9. Detroit might be the mythical Better Team, but we'll see if they can maintain focus while playing the also-rans in the way they so conspicuously couldn't down the stretch run last season. They have nine more games against Kansas City too, but they've played them 7-2. And the Tigers will play the White Sox fourteen times in the second half, including one makeup game; it shouldn't be too hard for them to improve upon the .500 mark they have in four games against Chicago to this point. So what about the Twins? The Yankees and A's, among others, have to be hoping that Minnesota dials up their play in the second half the way they did in 2006. Only if the AL Central teams beat each other up a little bit is a wild card team from another division going to sneak past.

Mariners (53-39) Here is an interesting one. I can hardly be the only person who has started behaving as if Seattle's second-half swoon has already taken place and they do not need to be taken seriously as playoff contenders. Behind them in the standings, Minnesota, New York, and Oakland look much more like genuine bubble teams. The M's have just had some fluky, fluky luck. Look at their roster! More to the point, look at the fact that the Twins have scored one more run than Seattle and allowed 31 fewer. Somehow Minnesota is five games behind the Mariners in the wild card standings. That (probably) won't hold. Look at the starters Seattle has listed as probable for their next five games: Miguel Batista, Jeff Weaver, Horacio Ramirez, and then Jarrod Washburn and Felix Hernandez. Hernandez is going to be good, but his development was nowhere near as instantaneous as we all were led to believe. The rest of those guys? I honestly like the group the Rockies have better. I wonder if Dodgers fans would want Adrian Beltre back at his current salary, given their woes at third base. My feeling is that not many would, but you tell me. Boy, Ichiro is having another great season. I know a few people outside of Seattle criticized his recent contract extension, but I think he's fairly obviously the sort of player who ages well. What he will lose in speed will be made up by the baserunning and on-base advantages granted by his immense baseball IQ, and I for one feel if he decided he wanted to start hitting more home runs, he probably could do so. As he bunts less, his average will go down a bit but I imagine his OBP and slugging will trend a little bit up. He could play for my team any day, I guess is what I'm saying, and obviously he has value to the Seattle franchise above and beyond what he provides on the field. A good extension, in my estimation. Even and maybe especially if the Mariners aren't contenders for the next few years.

Yankees (48-44) Well, at least they're over .500 and should remain so with series coming up against the Rays, Royals, and Orioles. Where would New York be without Chien-Ming Wang? Well, the same place where they're going, really, out of the money in the American League for the first time since 1993. The only way I can see the Yankees getting into the playoffs is as if the Red Sox completely roll over and give the division to them. (I can hear you sucking in your breath, Boston fans. Exhale. It'll be OK, really, it will.) Honestly every other owner in the big leagues and everybody at the league offices ought to be hoping that the Yankees do miss the dance this year. In a sense, such an event would validate the status quo. If there really are structural problems holding back the team with infinite monetary resources, then perhaps more widespread cash redistribution schemes aren't necessary. Then again: Wait until the Yankees and Mets open up their new money-printing factories/multi-purpose stadiums in the next couple of years. If you think the collapse of this Yankee dynasty has been protracted, wait until the fall of the next one. But then again, consider that if anyone asks me what the Yankees' record is, any time during the season, I know almost precisely. MLB would be way less fun without Darth Vader. But it might be more fun if the Devil Rays and Royals of the world had light sabers to fight him with rather than having to run out as they do now with slingshots and bamboo poles.

Twins (49-45) Matt Garza is in the rotation! Finally! And only half the season gone! I have no idea what the Twins are doing, but they need to get on it soon if they are going to make my preseason prediction of a Minnesota-New York world series come true. They seem to be pinning their hopes on Rondell White coming back from injury and having a huge second half, which is frankly insane. They might as well trade one of the eight or so major league-ready starters they have in the minors if they're dead set against promoting any of them for a guy like Dmitri Young. If you're pinch-hitting Mike Redmond in the late innings of a game against the Tigers, you need more sticks. Nothing more to it than that. It seems to me that this could either be one of the most interesting or the least interesting trade deadlines in recent memory, and I have no idea whatsoever in which way things will go. The play of bubble teams like the Twins will have the largest bearing on that.

Blue Jays (45-49) This is another team that no one is really expending much mental energy on, because to all outward appearances, the most predictable storyline imaginable has played out as expected. Of course you can't hope to win in the AL East by spending a whole lot of money, but less of a whole lot than the Red Sox and Yankees. We don't really know how you can win, since no one has done it yet, but whatever it is that Toronto is doing, it's not the answer. On the other hand, I kind of raked them over the coals for letting Carlos Delgado go a few seasons ago, but it looks like Delgado is in steep decline. So, good move there. One of my favorite underexposed categories of player is the middle reliever who pitches huge numbers of innings fairly effectively (as opposed to the late-inning guy who pitches less but dominates). In that field there are fewer players less heralded than the Blue Jays' Scott Downs. Tip of the cap.

A's (45-50) I'm ready for that second-half surge whenever you are, guys. At the very least Oakland ought to edge ahead of the Mariners. The AL West standings just look wrong with Seattle in second. The A's didn't save a ton of money on the Jason Kendall deal, with the Cubs only absorbing $700,000 of the portion of his salary already not being met by Pittsburgh. That was hardly the point of the trade, however. Now A's fans don't have to try and watch Kendall try and hit. His first game with the Cubs was such a fiasco (0 for 3 and two bad defensive plays) that Lou Piniella had to turn around and give him a day off to psychologically recover.

White Sox (42-51) Like the Cardinals in the National League, the White Sox actually have a rather better record than I thought they did. The season got off to such a miserable start for each of the recent World Series winners that a cloud hangs over them making all of their minor advancements since seem meaningless. Even so, I can't believe how quickly the Chicago media has turned on Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams. They won the World Series! In Chicago! Do you have any idea how rare that is? The Sox deserve a five-year grace period at least. Championship flags fly forever, and even if the 2005 World Series was over so fast it hardly had a chance to register, it was the first one in Chicago for two of my lifetimes. I'm impressed by that, even if Jay Mariotti isn't.

Orioles (42-52) I'm tired. Make up your own incredibly distasteful Peter Angelos joke and pretend I wrote it here.

Rangers (41-53) Whenever I assess the Rangers in the preseason, I think I subtly adjust upwards because I erroneously assume that their pitching can't get any worse. And yet it does. That is the miracle of Rangers pitching. If ever there was a team set up to make a ruinous free-agent pitching signing that will bury them competitively for at least a decade, it's the '08 Rangers. Er, besides the '00 Rockies, I mean.

Royals (41-53) When Sir Paul McCartney wrote "Getting Better," he obviously did not have Kansas City in mind. This year was supposed to be the year that the Royals fielded at least an offense that was big league-quality, but here they are with the 12th-ranked OBP in the American League. I think at the end of this season the Royals and Devil Rays should play a seven-game Series of Futility and whichever team wins gets to switch places with the team with the worst record in the National League. The Royals and Rays would still be dreadful in the NL, but they'd have a great shot of finishing .500.

Devil Rays (37-56) See above. Although, to be fair, the D-Rays are a better baseball team than Kansas City. They have two legitimate starting pitchers and a promising if incoherent lineup. And yet their straits are far more dire because they play in that division with the Old Boss (Yankees) and the New Boss, Same As the Old Boss (Red Sox). I am glad that major league baseball exists in St. Pete, though, because where else do you get to see a guy like Casey Fossum last multiple seasons as a big league starter? I can throw harder than Casey Fossum.

2007-07-19 08:35:10
1.   Shaun P
Too bad the Royals' billionaire owner prefers to shop at Wal-Mart for his team, where he gets bamboo sticks at cheap prices, instead of The Sharper Image, where I bet he could afford a bat rack worth of lightsabers. And still have enough left over to pay Gil Meche.
2007-07-19 13:55:02
2.   Mark T.R. Donohue
Yankees-Devil Rays series remind me of in the PC game Civilization when you would attack a tank with a little club-wielding, fur-clad caveman guy. Most of the time the caveman guy gets ground into powder, but sometimes the caveman beats the tank. Sometimes.
2007-07-20 05:29:14
3.   Shaun P
2 True, but in 2005, the caveman walloped the tank, big time, again and again. That was very unpleasant.

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