Surprise Buyers—American League

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Let’s look at some teams that are unexpectedly hovering around contention, what they need and who they should pursue.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles could use a starting pitcher and a bat (or two). One of the bats has to be able to play the outfield competently.

Dan Duquette is looking pretty smart for his under-the-radar off-season maneuvers getting Jason Hammel, Matt Lindstrom and Wei-Yin Chen. He’s not going to gut the system for a big name should one come available, nor should he.

Ryan Dempster is the type of middling pitcher they should pursue. Matt Garza can be had. Cole Hamels isn’t worth the cost for a rental unless they know they’re going to sign him.

Jim Thome has been mentioned as a DH option and he’d provide an offensive boost on the field and would be a stabilizing, quietly strong veteran leader off the field.

Carlos Lee is available from the Astros; if the Cubs are willing to give them Alfonso Soriano for a moderate prospect and pay his salary, the change to a club in the pennant race could really wake up his bat—and he’s been hitting homers lately anyway.

Carlos Quentin is on the block from the Padres.

Chicago White Sox

It was supposed to be a bridge year for the White Sox with a new manager, Robin Ventura and an altered configuration and strategy. But they’ve taken advantage of a mediocre AL Central and are in first place.

They could use a starting pitcher and if they’re still hovering around the top of the division and Wild Card at the deadline, GM Ken Williams is going to go for a big name—that means Hamels or Garza.

For the bullpen they could pursue Huston Street (who I’m not a fan of), Brett Myers, Brandon League or Grant Balfour.

Cleveland Indians

It’s time to forget about Grady Sizemore and to not expect any long term health from Travis Hafner when he returns.

They need a bat that can play centerfield.

Shane Victorino is a pending free agent and the Phillies are soon going to be teetering on holding out for the return of their stars or accepting that this isn’t their season and moving forward for 2013.

Chase Headley would be an upgrade over journeyman Jack Hannahan at third base; he can also play the outfield and first base.

Casey Kotchman has been a disaster at first base. I wouldn’t give up much to get Carlos Lee, but I’d take him.

The Indians’ starting pitching isn’t impressive statistically, but there’s enough there to wait without overspending on an outsider.

They could use a bullpen arm or two and should check with the Padres on Street and the Rockies on bringing Rafael Betancourt back to Cleveland.

Kansas City Royals

What’s with all this talk of the Royals selling? They’re 5 ½ games out of first place.

Ravaged by injuries to their starting rotation, they need arms. They have the prospects to do something major like bringing Zack Greinke back. They have the money to sign him long term.

On the surface, they could use a power bat but they just got Salvador Perez back and there’s reason to believe that they have enough pop if Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer start hitting the ball out of the park.

I wouldn’t go too crazy trying to win now, but I’d explore what’s out there to improve in the short and long terms.

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The Truth About The Yankees’ Home Runs

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The simple stupidity of the Yankees being criticized for relying on the home run ball speaks for itself. Are they supposed to stop trying to hit home runs to prove they can win without it? What’s the difference how they score their runs? Are they sacrificing other aspects of their game chasing homers?

The answer to the above questions is no.

They have players who hit a lot of home runs. If they lose games in which they haven’t homered, it’s a safe bet that they ran into a pretty good pitcher.

The out-of-context stat argument is more complicated. Picking and choosing a convenient stat to bolster an argument is not the true intent of using statistics to begin with. They’re designed to promote a factual understanding and not to fool readers into seeing things the way the writer wants.

Is it a bad thing that the Yankees score via the home run? No.

Is it indicative that they’ll continue that trend once the playoffs start and do they need to be prepared to find other ways to score runs when they’re in games against better teams with better pitchers? They’ll hit their homers, but it won’t be like it is now.

The truly important factor to examine isn’t whether or not they’re hitting home runs, but who they’re hitting the home runs against.

During the regular season there aren’t the top-tier pitchers they’re going to face in the playoffs. The better the pitcher is, the better his stuff is; the better his command is; the better his control is. He’s not going to make the same mistakes as the mediocre and worse pitchers they’re fattening up their power numbers against.

I looked at all the pitchers the Yankees have homered against this season.

The list follows:

Russell Martin: Clay Buchholz, Justin Verlander, Jose Mijares, Homer Bailey, James Shields, J.P. Howell, Jonathon Niese, Jon Rauch

Mark Teixeira: Anthony Swarzak, Felix Doubront, Matt Albers, Bruce Chen, Luis Ayala, Tyson Ross, Bartolo Colon, Graham Godfrey, Hisanori Takahashi, Alex Cobb, Dillon Gee, Mike Minor

Robinson Cano: Jason Marquis, Luke Hochevar (2), David Price, Bronson Arroyo, Tyson Ross, Bartolo Colon, Ervin Santana, Alex Cobb, Johan Santana (2), Tom Gorzelanny, Anthony Varvaro, Tommy Hanson, Miguel Batista (2)

Alex Rodriguez: Ervin Santana, Clay Buchholz, Derek Holland, Justin Verlander (2) Tommy Hottovy, Will Smith (2), Octavio Dotel, Jonny Venters, Tommy Hanson, Jon Niese

Derek Jeter: Wei-Yin Chen, Hisanori Takahashi, Carl Pavano, Matt Capps, Bruce Chen, Justin Verlander, Tommy Hanson

Raul Ibanez: James Shields (2), Jason Isringhausen, Neftali Feliz, Burke Badenhop, Felix Hernandez, Hector Noesi, Bronson Arroyo, Jonny Cueto, Randall Delgado, Chris Young

Curtis Garnderson: Jake Arrieta, Ervin Santana (2), Carl Pavano, Anthony Swarzak (2), Jeff Gray, Phil Coke, Max Scherzer, Brian Matusz, James Shields, David Price, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Will Smith, Bobby Cassevah, Casey Crosby, Bobby Parnell, Tim Hudson, Tom Gorzelanny, Edwin Jackson

Nick Swisher: Joel Peralta, Kevin Gregg, Clay Buchholz, Vicente Padilla, Drew Smyly, Jose Valverde, Luke Hochevar, Tyson Ross, Johan Santana, Cory Gearrin, R.A. Dickey

Eric Chavez: Clay Buchholz (2), Jason Hammel, Tommy Hanson, Jon Rauch

Andruw Jones: Darren O’Day, Matt Maloney, Collin Balester, Steve Delabar, Tommy Milone, Johan Santana, Jon Niese

There are some names above that the Yankees might be facing in the post-season. Shields, Price, Verlander, Hanson and a few others. But they’re not going to be able to use Hochevar, Pavano or most of the other mediocrities to beat on.

I don’t see the names Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez or Yu Darvish in there.

If the Yankees don’t hit homers, then what?

Understanding the value of their homers is not the brainless bully strategy of, “Me swing hard; me hit home runs; team win.”

What was the score when the home runs were hit? What where the weather conditions? Did the pitcher make a mistake or did the hitter hit a good pitch? Was the game a blowout and the pitcher just trying to get the ball over the plate to get the game over with in either club’s favor?

These questions, among many other things, have to be accounted for.

Those who are complaining about the club needing to “manufacture” runs don’t know any more about baseball than those who are blindly defending the use of the home run without the full story.

Of course it’s a good thing that the Yankees hit a lot of home runs, but those home runs can’t be relied upon as the determinative factor of whether they’re going to win in the post-season because they’ll be facing better pitching and teams that will be able to use the homer-friendly Yankee Stadium themselves mitigating any advantage the Yankees might have. Teams that are more versatile, play good defense, steal bases and run with smart aggression and have strong pitching will be able to deal with the Yankees’ power.

Teams like the Mets are unable to do that.

The Yankees’ home runs are only an issue if they stop hitting them. Then they’ll have to find alternative ways to score when the balls aren’t flying over the fences. This is why it’s not a problem that they don’t have Brett Gardner now. In fact, it seems like the fans and media has forgotten about him. But they’re going to need him in the playoffs because he gives them something they barely have with this current configuration: he can run and wreak havoc on the bases and is an excellent defensive left fielder.

As much as Joe Morgan was savaged for his silly statements blaming the Oakland A’s inability to manufacture runs in their playoff losses during the Moneyball years, he wasn’t fundamentally inaccurate. It wasn’t about squeezing and hitting and running capriciously as Morgan wanted them to do and altering the strategy that got them to the playoffs; but it was about being able to win when not hitting home runs; when not facing a pitching staff that is going to walk you; when a team actually has relievers who can pitch and not a bunch of names they accumulated and found on the scrapheap.

The A’s couldn’t win when they didn’t get solid starting pitching or hit home runs.

Can the Yankees?

That’s going to be the key to their season. Then the true value of their homer-happy offense will come to light.

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Off Season Winners In Retrospect

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Let’s look at the teams whose off-season moves are paying off so far in 2012.

Tampa Bay Rays:

Acquired:  Jose Molina, Hideki Matsui, Luke Scott, Carlos Pena, Fernando Rodney

Subtracted: Johnny Damon, Kelly Shoppach, Casey Kotchman, Juan Cruz, John Jaso

The Rays did what the Rays always do. They cut out the players that were getting too expensive or had been signed as a short-term veteran stopgaps and replaced them with youngsters or other veteran stopgaps.

Molina hasn’t hit; Pena is doing what Pena does with a low batting average, good on base percentage and power; Rodney has been brilliant. None of the players they dispatched—Damon, Shoppach, Kotchman, Cruz, Jaso—have been missed or are doing much with their new teams.

Baltimore Orioles

Acquired: GM Dan Duquette, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Matt Lindstrom, Wilson Betemit

Subtracted: GM Andy MacPhail, Jeremy Guthrie, Luke Scott, Vladimir Guerrero

The Orioles have played over their heads but Dan Duquette got rid of Guthrie and acquired Hammel and Lindstrom who are under team control and have pitched well. Chen has been very good.

Chicago White Sox

Acquired: Manager Robin Ventura, Kosuke Fukudome

Subtracted: Manager Ozzie Guillen, Mark Buehrle, Sergio Santos, Carlos Quentin, Juan Pierre

Getting rid of the volcanic and tiresome personality of Guillen and replacing it with the laid back Ventura has been exactly what the White Sox needed. They cleared salary by getting rid of veterans Buehrle, Quentin and Pierre. They’re not as good as they look right now, but the AL Central is wide open and they have enough starting pitching to stay in the hunt. They underachieved horribly in recent years under Guillen and are overachieving now under Ventura.

Texas Rangers

Acquired Yu Darvish, Joe Nathan

Subtracted: C.J. Wilson, Darren Oliver, Endy Chavez, Matt Treanor

Darvish has been as brilliant as I expected. Nathan is having a good season. They haven’t missed Wilson on or off the field.

Seattle Mariners

Acquired: Jesus Montero, Hector Noesi, John Jaso

Subtracted: Michael Pineda, Josh Lueke, David Aardsma, Jose Campos

For Michael Pineda (disabled list), Jose Campos (hot prospect and on the disabled list), the Mariners got a top hitting prospect in Jesus Montero who’s still finding his way and showing flashes of immense power and a young starting pitcher who’s also learning his craft in the big leagues in Noesi. They got rid of the troublesome Lueke for Jaso who’s been contributing big hits of late.

Oakland Athletics

Acquired: Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Collin Cowgill, Bartolo Colon, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, Seth Smith, Kila Ka’aihue, Manny Ramirez

Subtracted: Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, Ryan Sweeney

Reddick has 14 home runs and is heading for the All Star Game. Cespedes was a silly signing for a team like the A’s, but there’s no denying his talent. We’ll see what Manny does and the young pitchers Millone and Parker are high-end arms.

Washington Nationals

Acquired: Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Ryan Perry, Mark DeRosa, Brad Lidge

Subtracted: Ivan Rodriguez, Todd Coffey, Jonny Gomes

Gonzalez has been terrific across the board and might deserve to start the All Star Game. Jackson has been consistent despite not accumulating wins.

Miami Marlins

Acquired: Manager Ozzie Guillen, Carlos Zambrano, Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle

Subtracted: Javier Vazquez, Chris Volstad, Clay Hensley, Burke Badenhop

Zambrano showed up in shape, has kept his temper in check and is showing why the Cubs gave him that contract in the first place (the majority of which they’re paying for him to pitch for the Marlins). Reyes is getting hot and Buehrle is a leader off the field and innings-eater on it. Bell’s been a disaster, but it pitching better lately.

Guillen was hired to draw attention and he did so negatively when he started trouble almost immediately with his idiotic comments praising Fidel Castro. Jeffrey Loria is under investigation for the stadium deal and looked silly using Muhammad Ali as a human shield to protect himself from getting booed at the regular season opener of the new stadium, but apart from Bell they’re getting what they paid for for the most part.

San Francisco Giants

Acquired: Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, Clay Hensley, Gregor Blanco

Subtracted: Carlos Beltran, Jonathan Sanchez, Andres Torres, Ramon Ramirez, Pat Burrell, Cody Ross

Cabrera’s not going to maintain this pace, but he’s still a good player and they got him for Sanchez who’s been hurt and had worn out his welcome with the Giants. Pagan is batting .314 with 10 stolen bases and has contributed several big hits to go along with his usual array of space cadet maneuvers. Blanco and Hensley have been solid, cheap pickups off the scrapheap.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Acquired: Trevor Cahill, Jason Kubel, Craig Breslow

Subtracted: Micah Owings, Ryan Cook, Collin Cowgill, Jarrod Parker

The Diamondbacks are struggling because they’re not getting the same above-and-beyond performances from the players that carried them to a stunning division title in 2011. That doesn’t diminish the work that Cahill, Kubel and Breslow have done. If the Diamondbacks don’t right the ship, it won’t be because of the players they acquired over the winter.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Acquired: Chris Capuano, Jerry Hairston Jr., Mark Ellis, Aaron Harang, Matt Treanor

Subtracted: Jon Garland, Jonathan Broxton, Jamey Carroll, Hiroki Kuroda, Casey Blake, Rod Barajas, Vicente Padilla

Capuano is pitching about 20 miles over his head; Hairston is hitting about 20 miles over his head; Ellis and Harang are respected, under-the-radar veterans.

The Dodgers didn’t spend a lot of money this past winter, but are getting far more than they paid for.

Off season losers and incompletes will be in forthcoming postings.

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Believe It Or Don’t—The Good

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Let’s take a look at some teams that—based on preseason expectations—are overachieving, how they’re doing it and whether or not it will last.

  • Baltimore Orioles

What they’re doing.

The Orioles are 27-14 and in first place in the tough American League East.

How they’re doing it.

Led by Adam Jones’s 14, the Orioles have the most home runs in the American League. The starting pitching was expected to be led by youngsters Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter—they’ve been okay. Two ridiculed acquisitions Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen have been excellent. The bullpen and manager Buck Showalter’s manipulation of it has been the key.

Believe it or don’t?

The Orioles have gotten off to good starts before and wilted in the summer heat. They can hit and hit for power; their defense is bad. But if Arrieta, Hunter and Brian Matusz pick up for Hammel and Chen when they come down to earth and the bullpen is serviceable, they can surprise and finish in the vicinity of .500.

They’re on the right track, but 13 games over .500 is a stretch.

Don’t believe it.

  • Oakland Athletics

What they’re doing.

The A’s are 20-21 after being widely expected to lose 90-100 games following a strange off-season in which they cleaned house of young arms Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey, but signed Yoenis Cespedes and Bartolo Colon.

How they’re doing it.

Slumps and scheduling have greatly assisted the A’s. They caught the Royals, Angels, Orioles, Tigers and Red Sox during lulls.

The starting pitching with youngsters (Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone) and foundlings (Colon, Brandon McCarthy) have been serviceable-to-good. Manager Bob Melvin knows how to run his bullpen.

I was stunned when I looked at the numbers and saw that Josh Reddick has 10 homers.

The Moneyball “stolen bases are a waste” Athletics are leading the American League in stolen bases.

Believe it or don’t?

They’ve lost two straight to the Giants and are heading to Anaheim to play the Angels and New York to play the Yankees. The Manny Ramirez sideshow is coming and no one knows if he can still hit enough to justify his presence. Cespedes’s hand injury saved him from being sent to the minors.

Don’t believe it.

  • Washington Nationals

What they’re doing.

The Nationals are 23-17 and in second place in the National League East.

How they’re doing it.

The Nationals’ starting pitching has been ridiculously good. Gio Gonzalez has been masterful; Stephen Strasburg is unhittable when he’s on (and hard to hit when he’s slightly off); Edwin Jackson, Jordan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler have been good as well.

The bullpen has been without closer Drew Storen all season, but Henry Rodriguez is filling in capably. Manager Davey Johnson is adept at handling his bullpen.

Injuries have hindered what should’ve been a strong lineup. Mike Morse, Wilson Ramos and Jayson Werth are out. Ramos is gone for the season with knee surgery; Werth broke his wrist and won’t be back until the late summer. 19-year-old Bryce Harper is adapting to the majors and showing exquisite talent and baseball intelligence amid growing pains.

Believe it or don’t?

This is a talented team whose run-scoring ability has been hampered by injuries. They’re 5th in the National League in home runs, but 14th in runs—that will get better once Morse gets back and Harper’s hitting consistently. The loss of Ramos is a big blow. The starting pitching won’t keep up this pace.

Believe it.

  • New York Mets

What they’re doing.

The Mets are 21-19 in an NL East that might be the most talented division in baseball.

How they’re doing it.

The Mets are 4th in the NL in on base percentage. David Wright has been an MVP candidate for the entire first two months; Johan Santana’s been excellent. That they’re managing to stay above .500 with Ike Davis batting .160 is a minor miracle. Everyone—especially the youngsters Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Lucas Duda—is contributing.

The starting pitching is short-handed and the bullpen has been, at best, inconsistent.

Believe it or don’t?

Unless Davis starts hitting when Wright cools down; unless the rest of the starting rotation and bullpen pick up for Santana when he slows down, they can’t maintain this pace especially when the Phillies get their bats back.

Don’t believe it.

  • Los Angeles Dodgers

What they’re doing.

The Dodgers are 27-13 and in first place by six games in the NL West.

How they’re doing it.

Matt Kemp was laying the foundation for a run at the triple crown and the MVP before he strained a hamstring. Andre Ethier is having an All-Star comeback season. Their starting pitching has been a wonder; the defense has been good. The entire organization breathed a sigh of relief when the reign of owner Frank McCourt came to an end. They’ve been reinvigorated by the enthusiastic presence of Magic Johnson as the ownership front man and the competent organizational skills of Stan Kasten.

Believe it or don’t.

Believe it within reason. They’ll be aggressive at the trading deadline to improve and are in for the long haul, but Chris Capuano and A.J. Ellis aren’t going to be as good as they’ve been so far. They’re going to need a bat and probably a starting pitcher. Ned Colletti will get what he feels the team needs to win.

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