American League Contenders Remaining Schedules—Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles

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The Rays were expected to be here and the Orioles weren’t. Yesterday I looked at the Yankees schedule, now here are their two competitors in the AL East.

Tampa Bay Rays

Rays vs Orioles, Sept. 11-13 at Tampa; Oct. 1-3 at Baltimore

This is being seen as a benefit for the Yankees because the two teams in hot pursuit are playing one another six times while the Yankees supposedly have the “weakest” schedule of all the contenders. On paper, that may be so, but this Yankees team isn’t very good. They’re playing Steve Pearce at first base for the next two weeks (and I suspect that the “good” news on Mark Teixeira was a best case scenario; I doubt we’ll see Teixeira again as anything other than a pinch hitter this season). They’ve made a big show of recalling prospect Melky Mesa. Mesa is 25 and batted .230 in 33 games in Triple A. This is your savior. They’re anticipating the return of Andy Pettitte with the memories of 15 years ago swimming in their panicky heads. If the Yankees were at full strength, the weakness of schedule would be relevant, but they’re not, so it’s mitigated to a large degree.

As for the Rays and Orioles, one of the teams is going to win at least 2 of the 3 games this week. If it’s the Rays, they’ll come into Yankee Stadium this weekend looking to overtake the Yankees; if it’s the Orioles, they’ll still be right on the Yankees’ heels or will have caught them.

The Rays and Orioles have split their 12 games against one another so far. The Rays have a decided pitching advantage and the Orioles are trying to piece their offense together after losing Nick Markakis to a broken thumb. Their starting pitching is short. The Rays are going to pass the Orioles by the time the season is over.

Rays vs Yankees, Sept. 14-16 at Yankee Stadium

The Rays have their pitching set up for this weekend. David Price will pitch against CC Sabathia (whose diminished fastball was the impetus for the dustup between Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Joel Sherman of the NY Post). I would expect Pettitte to pitch Saturday against James Shields, and Alex Cobb will go against Hiroki Kuroda on Sunday.

By Sunday night, the Rays could be in first place in the AL East with the Yankees tied with the Orioles and Angels for the second Wild Card spot and behind the Athletics.

Rays vs Red Sox, Sept. 17-20 in Tampa; Sept. 25-26 at Boston

I’m not accusing the Red Sox of laying down for the Rays and Orioles and playing hard against the Yankees, but the players who remain from the Yankees-Red Sox wars from so long ago know that if they’re able to significantly damage the Yankees’ playoff hopes—and everyone had better understand that if the Yankees don’t win the division, they’re not making the playoffs—they’re going to do everything possible to make it happen. The compromised Red Sox are an awful team, but they haven’t forgotten that the Yankees didn’t play their regulars in their final series with the Rays in 2011 and that contributed to the Red Sox being bounced from the post-season and sent them into this downward spiral.

Put it this way: the Red Sox would prefer to see anyone other than the Yankees in the playoffs this season and their play will reflect it. The front office would prefer it as well.

Rays vs Blue Jays, Sept. 21-23 in Tampa

The Blue Jays are playing hard down the stretch and the two clubs split a four-game series in Toronto a week-and-a-half ago.

The Blue Jays record is bad, but they can hit the ball out of the park and have two talented starters in Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero, plus Carlos Villanueva who should’ve been in the starting rotation from the beginning of the season. This isn’t a gimme series.

Rays vs White Sox, Sept. 27-30 at Chicago

Either the White Sox or the Tigers are going to win the AL Central and neither team—barring a catastrophe on the East or West Coasts—is making it to the Wild Card play-in game. The Tigers have shown zero consistency in 2012, but they have a weak schedule through the end of the season. It may not matter though. If they don’t run off a winning streak, the AL Central race could be over by the time the Rays come to Chicago to play the White Sox. Then the Yankees are going to be really desperate. No one in baseball wants to help them and they’re increasingly incapable of helping themselves.

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Baltimore Orioles

The two series against the Rays are discussed above.

Orioles vs Athletics, Sept. 14-16 at Oakland

The A’s are continuing their run toward the playoffs. It’s at least as surprising as that of the Orioles, if not more. They have a deeper starting rotation, a good bullpen, and can score with the Orioles. The A’s are now ahead of the Yankees, Orioles, and Rays. They’re currently playing the Angels, who’ve launched themselves back into contention as well.

There’s an opportunity for the Orioles to make up ground on the Yankees and/or Rays and the Athletics this weekend.

Orioles vs Mariners, Sept. 17-19 at Seattle

The Mariners can’t hit, but they have a lot of starting pitching and would like to finish the season at .500. That said, I would expect the Orioles to go into Seattle and take at least two games.

Orioles vs Red Sox, Sept. 21-23 at Boston; Sept. 28-30 in Baltimore

The Red Sox don’t like the Orioles, but they hate the Yankees. We might see a lot of young players getting a “look” vs the Orioles that won’t get a “look” vs the Yankees.

All’s fair.

Orioles vs Blue Jays, Sept. 24 (doubleheader)-26 in Baltimore

That’s four games. The Orioles are 9-5 against the Blue Jays this season and the Blue Jays also wouldn’t mind whacking the Yankees out of the playoffs. They might choose to “look” at some youngsters just like the Red Sox.

The team in the driver’s seat here is the Rays. If they have a record of say, 16-6, they’re going to win the AL East. For the Orioles, they’ll have to win 13 games and I don’t know if they’re going to. 11-11 is more likely and if that’s the case, that would mean that they didn’t help the Yankees against the Rays or the A’s.

Either way, the schedule that’s being portrayed as the Yankees’ lifeline, is anything but.

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American League Fantasy Sleepers

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These names jumped out at me as I’m working on my book. (See the sidebar. Available soon.)

B.J. Upton, CF—Tampa Bay Rays

Upton is probably one of the most aggravating players in all of baseball to fans, teammates and everyone else. So talented that he can do anything—-anything—on the field, his motivation and hustle are contingent on the day and his mood.

But he’s a free agent at the end of the season and wants to get paid. Expect a big power/stolen base season and a return to the high on base numbers from 2007-2008.

Carlos Villanueva, RHP—Toronto Blue Jays

He won’t cost anything and was under-the-radar impressive when the Blue Jays put him in the starting rotation last season.

They have starting pitching, but with Kyle Drabek a question to make the team and the limits still being placed on Henderson Alvarez and Brandon Morrow, Villanueva is a veteran they could count on as a starter they don’t have to limit.

As a starter, he was able to use all of his pitches including a changeup. Strangely, he gets his secondary pitches over the plate consistently, but not his fastball.

Jim Johnson, RHP—Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles haven’t specifically said what they’re doing with Johnson. They’ve implied that he’s staying in the bullpen, but the acquisition of Matt Lindstrom frees them to make Johnson a starter where he could be very effective.

Either way, he’s not a “name” closer or guaranteed starter who’d be overly in demand.

Jacob Turner, RHP—Detroit Tigers

As the Tigers proved with Rick Porcello, they don’t let a pitcher’s inexperience dissuade them from sticking him in the rotation.

Turner has far better stuff than Porcello—a good fastball and wicked hard curve. He throws multiple variations on his fastball, has great control and is poised and polished.

Adam Dunn, DH—Chicago White Sox

I have trouble buying that a veteran who hit 40 home runs annually and wasn’t a PED case suddenly lost it all at once.

The not-so-witty line, “Dunn is Done” is a cheap shot and inaccurate.

He was terrible last season to be sure, but he was also unlucky (a .240 BAbip vs a career number of .292).

Dunn still walked 75 times and in comparison to his absurd .159 average, a .292 OBP is pretty good.

The combination of the new league; the expectations and pressure from a big contract; and a raving maniac manager in Ozzie Guillen put Dunn out of his comfort zone. A year in with the White Sox and a more relaxed and understanding manager, Robin Ventura, along with the diminished team-wide expectations will let Dunn be himself—a gentle giant who walks a lot and hits home runs.

Hisanori Takahashi, LHP—Los Angeles Angels

The Angels were kicking the tires on Francisco Cordero and Ryan Madson and it wasn’t to be a set-up man.

If Jordan Walden is suffering from shellshock after the way his massive gack against the Athletics late in the season essentially eliminated the Angels from contention, they might have to pull him from the closer’s role sooner rather than later.

Manager Mike Scioscia is loyal to his players and doesn’t make changes like this until he absolutely has to, but the Angels can’t afford to mess around with the money they spent this off-season and the competition they’re facing for a playoff spot.

Takahashi can do anything—start, set-up, close—and is fearless.

Worst case, if your league counts “holds”, he’ll accumulate those for you.

Fautino De Los Santos, RHP—Oakland Athletics

Don’t ask me what the A’s are planning this year because as the trades of their starting rotation and closer and signing Yoenis Cespedes signing prove, they’re flinging stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks.

Although Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour are on the roster, they might be willing to look at a younger, inexperienced closer at some point. Fuentes is hot and cold and Balfour has never been a full time closer.

De Los Santos has an upper-90s fastball and as the season rolls on, it’s likely that both Fuentes and Balfour will be traded. They’ll need someone to rack up the saves and De Los Santos is as good a choice as any.

Kila Ka’aihue, 1B—Oakland Athletics

His minor league on base/power numbers are absurd and the A’s first base situation is muddled at best.

The Royals kindasorta gave Ka’aihue a chance for the first month of 2011, but abandoned him when he got off to a bad start. The A’s have nothing to lose by playing him for at least the first half of the season and, if nothing else, he’ll walk and get on base.

Hector Noesi, RHP—Seattle Mariners

Noesi doesn’t give up a lot of home runs and has good control. These attributes will be magnified pitching in the big ballpark in Seattle and with the Mariners good defense. He also strikes out around a hitter per inning, so that all adds up to a good statistical season if you’re not counting wins.

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The Sixth Man in Toronto?

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If the Blue Jays win the rights to negotiate with Yu Darvish and sign him, could they make a concession to what Darvish is accustomed to while simultaneously protecting and limiting the innings and workload of their young pitchers by using a six-man rotation?

It makes sense for several reasons.

The Blue Jays have taken a conservative approach in rebuilding Brandon Morrow from his damaging days with the Mariners; they’re developing Kyle Drabek and Henderson Alvarez; with Darvish, they would have a young rotation anchored by Ricky Romero and permeated by arms in the early-to-mid 20s with substantial ability, but still under careful watch.

Since Darvish is accustomed to the extra rest, it wouldn’t affect his command or preparation; Morrow is only next year going to close in on 200 innings for the first time; and Drabek/Alvarez will be in the Morrow position of 2011 with a limit of around 170-180 innings.

As Red Sox pitching coach, Blue Jays manager John Farrell experienced the Daisuke Matsuzaka transition first hand;  Matsuzaka’s complaints about the Red Sox training regimen for pitchers and his attempts to hide injuries sabotaged his production and damaged his relationship with the club—they enabled him; Farrell’s not going to make that mistake with Darvish. If the Blue Jays are making a strong commitment to Darvish, they’ll have learned from the common-denominator mistakes made with Matsuzaka because Farrell was in the middle of them.

With the pitching depth they’ve accumulated, they have the arms to do it in the rotation and bullpen. A six-man starting rotation of Romero, Morrow, Darvish, Drabek, Alvarez and some combination from Jesse Litsch, Carlos Villanueva, Brett Cecil and Dustin McGowan would work with the odd-men out functioning as relievers.

The concept has been criticized, but given the way pitchers are babied today and the advent of bullpen roles and rosters carrying 13 pitchers, why not take advantage of the manpower while protecting the young arms?

A six-man rotation would also put a damper on pitch counts and innings limits. The pitch counts wouldn’t be an issue because 120 pitch outings would be mitigated by the extra rest; the innings-pitched would be reduced as a natural byproduct of the fewer starts made by the pitchers.

It could be tweaked as was the similarly criticized change to a five-man rotation in the 1970s and 80s. Back then the top starters were used for 36-38 starts and there was the “swing man” who pitched out of the bullpen, but also took the extra starts when the top four pitchers needed an extra day; eventually the five-man rotation became the norm.

Romero, as the ace, could get his 30-32 starts and the other pitchers would be shielded from overwork.

Pitchers are being babied today but the innings and pitch limits are hindering their growth as they’re punished for pitching deeply into games.

A six-man rotation is a legitimate and workable strategy for the Blue Jays if they land Darvish.

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