The season is just about two months over, so let's look at a few early surprises:
- Brian Roberts
Summoning the ghost of Brady Anderson circa 1996, Roberts can do no wrong with the bat and has suddenly found his power stroke. With 12 home runs in his first 1500+ at bats over four seasons, Roberts has sent 11 out of the park this year in just 200 at bats. Baltimore's second baseman hasn't lost any speed either, swiping 13 bases already. Whatever he's drinking, I'd like some.
- New York mediocrity
Despite a lengthy hot streak, the Yankees still find themselves just four games above .500, which means only four games out of first but just 1/2 game out of fourth. Expect the streaks to continue (good and bad) as the Bronx Bombers will have to rely more on outslugging their opponents than originally anticipated.
- AL Division leaders
The White Sox still have the best record in the league despite a mediocre road trip and the unforeseen pitching success keeps going and going. In Texas, Showalter and company are insistent on proving that last year was no fluke. Riding an 8-game winning streak, we are starting to believe. Last but not least, Baltimore, thanks to surprisingly strong young pitching and a solid lineup throughout, has led practically wire to wire. The pitching has slowed down, but the offense has the ability to carry the team through some hard times and could make things interesting come September.
- Houston's offense
Everyone knew Houston's days relying on Biggio and Bagwell were numbered, but did anyone think the wheels would fall off so quickly? Losing guys like Beltran, Berkman, and Hidalgo for various reasons didn't help, but it appeared the younger guys (Lane, Lamb, Ensberg, etc.) were ready to enter their prime. Instead, fans in Texas might want to start watching the Rangers and check back on Houston next year.
Arizona has made rebuilding a thing of the past quickly after losing Schilling and Johnson to the "Goliaths" of the league. Not exactly a "David," the D-Backs have built a competitive team around a steady lineup and competitive starting pitching capable of eating up a lot of innings so the questionable bullpen doesn't come into play. Unfortunately, it's the perfect recipe for a team to falter in the playoffs, but if Arizona finds itself playing in October, it will have already been a successful season.
For those of you not yet on the Jake Peavy bandwagon, hop on board now because it's filling up fast. As the driver of said bandwagon, let me tell you that J.P. threw an absolute gem last night, pitching a two-hit complete game (his first) shutout in well under 100 pitches. In un-Peavy like form, the Padres hurler struck out only two batters, which may not endear him to his fantasy owners, but from a pitching perspective, it was his best outing yet.
Peavy was constantly throwing first pitch strikes, forcing the Arizona hitters to chase the next pitch which usually resulted in easy groundball outs. The performance was reminiscent of Greg Maddux in his prime. It's not often that Maddux and Peavy are compared, but last night Peavy passed up the strikeout for the more efficient out, as Maddux has done so often in his illustrious career.
It may not be glamorous, but if Jake Peavy wants to be a commanding pitcher for another decade and a half, he would be better off watching a tape of last night's outing as opposed to any of his double digit strikeout performances.
Don't look now, but the Milwaukee Brewers are still hovering around the .500 mark 46 games into the season. How are they doing it? Like a lesser version of this year's White Sox, Milwaukee is winning with steady starting pitching despite not setting any offensive records. It's a tall order, but if the young staff on the Brew Crew can keep the ship afloat until Ben Sheets returns, a record north of .500 is a possibility, especially if Lyle Overbay can keep carrying the offensive load. St. Louis probably doesn't have to have look over its shoulder just yet, but stranger things have happened.
Closer situations have always provided more drama than your favorite daytime soap, but this year appears to dwarf the past in terms of instability in the ninth inning. Add to the list of "closers no more" Danny Graves and the recently injured Octavio Dotel. That gives youngsters Ryan Wagner and Huston Street the opportunity to prove their worth for their respective teams. It's only May, but you can practically count on one hand the closers whose jobs would still be secure after one or two rough outings (Rivera, Wagner, Hoffman, Gagne, Mesa, ?). There are a few others, but their jobs are already lost due to injury (Benitez, Percival, etc.) and the guys listed above aren't impervious to injury either, with Rivera, Wagner, and Gagne already having missed some time the past year and a half.
In other words, the strategy of building the pitching staff from the last inning forward doesn't appear to be a sound one unless the focus is less on one pitcher and more on a collective whole. Nobody except the stat geeks seem to like the "closer by committee," but if a manager is going to assign one guy to the ninth inning, he better have a committee of solid relievers in waiting because, lately, a closer's job lasts about as long as that of an NBA coach.
Need a reason to watch baseball in the regular season? The hottest team in baseball, the Chicago White Sox, headed into Anaheim (aka Los Angeles) last night with one of the hottest pitchers in baseball starting (Jon Garland, of the 8-0 Jon Garlands) against completely unknown Ervin (no relation to Johan) Santana. To top it off, MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero is on the shelf with a shoulder injury, and the Angels' closer is on the DL, forcing the bullpen to likely overextend itself for this rookie pitcher.
Surely what resulted was a Chicago victory in which Garland has command and the White Sox hitters got to the rookie and attacked the bullpen later in the game? Wrong. Unlikely as it would seem, Ervin Santana threw a complete game shutout, making the Angels the first team in 2005 to knock off Jon Garland. That's why we watch in April and May.
Fantasy owners: take note of the upcoming interleague games and make sure you're not starting a DH who will be nothing more than a good pinch hitter for the week.
I was wrong, as only Jon Garland came to the mound last night with stuff good enough to win. Willis struggled early and suffered his first loss of the season. Last year's AL Cy Young winner, Johan Santana, struggled also, but don't let that discourage you if you are coveting him in fantasy baseball. Now might be a good time to trade for him while his value is slightly lower.
Jon Garland and Dontrelle Willis (two pitchers dealt from the Cubs before their prime for Matt Karchner and Matt Clement) will both be trying to become MLB's first 8-game winner tonight. I'm not exactly going out on a limb here, but I predict they will BOTH nail down win number 8 by the end of the night. By the way, if Willis and Garland win tonight, their 16 wins will be just one less than the amount of wins Chan Ho Park has amassed in the past 3 1/2 years since signing a huge deal with the Rangers.
One stat that has been mentioned everywhere but I have yet to address is the White Sox run of leading in their first 35 consecutive games and counting. The previous major league record was 25, and the Sox are still going strong. For the short term, it is a pretty meaningless stat, but when the White Sox are just 5 games short of completing 25% of their season and you realize they have put themselves in position to win EVERY GAME so far, it is quite a remarkable feat. Of no surprise is that the pesky Twins are still lurking just 5 games behind, waiting for Chicago to falter.
Yesterday I talked about a talented 28 year-old with a history of back problems who was putting up some respectable career totals, so today let's move on to a 29 year-old with frequent back problems and even better career totals, namely Vladimir Guerrero. Playing in relative obscurity in Montreal until last year, most fans are aware of Guerrero but only got to see him a few seconds each night on Baseball Tonight. Already at 280 HRs, Vlad and his free swinging ways could make a serious run at some records with another decade of power, speed, and average.
While Barry Bonds, whom many are beginning to consider as one of the best outfielders ever (regardless of the personality issues), is sitting on a career .300 batting average, Vlad is hitting at a .325 career clip, astonishing for a power hitter. Of course, Vlad can't compare to Bonds in the OBP department, but the other stats indicate that he is in the ballpark of greatness with many years ahead. A quick rundown:
While everyone is concerned about the possibility of Barry Bonds coming back to surpass Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron on the career home run list, one current player in his prime that has been overlooked because of injuries is Troy Glaus. Heavy power right from the get go, Glaus was on a torrid pace until back injuries limited him to just 34 home runs combined over the past two full seasons. At 28, Glaus has plenty of baseball left in him, and if he can keep himself in the lineup regularly, he will reach the 500 HR plateau with ease (currently at 191). Take away the bad back and he just might have been chasing Aaron himself in 2016.
While you are busy recovering from cinco de mayo, here is my "buy low" tip o' the day:
Trade for 3B Mike Lowell soon while his average is still sub-.200. With only 92 ABs as of today, the sample size is still too small to suggest he won't turn it around. Frustrated owners will likely deal him on the cheap, and you can reap the rewards as he reaches .250 at the All-Star Break. You're welcome.
Good news for the wise fantasy owners who snagged Lance Berkman in the middle rounds, hoping his recovery would be a quick one: he returns to Houston's lineup tomorrow night, missing just over one month of the season. Berkman likely will fall way short of the 9 bases he stole last year, but, as a career .300+ hitter with 6 seasons under his belt, it is safe to expect that Berkman will provide you with a consistently high batting average along with the occasional power surge.
There are two things I heard "baseball people" mention lately which really irk me. The first is all of the talk in the media, especially after Arod's 10 RBI game, that Alex Rodriguez sure performs well when it doesn't matter, but let's see what happens when September rolls around. Puh-lease. First of all, his stats speak for themselves (and loudly at that), but if guys like Arod aren't carrying the team in April, there would be no team to carry come September. In fact, the Yankees are proving my point right now. If everyone on that squad continues to wait until the games "really matter," they'll have to do it wearing a different uniform on a contending club.
The second thing that bothered me was hearing Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, voice of the White Sox, say that the struggling Jermaine Dye gets hits when they need hits, despite hitting below the Mendoza Line. Harrelson is not the first person to make a comment like that, but the fact is if the struggling, yet "clutch" hitter was getting on base more often, that would give his teammates more opportunities to get hits with RISP, etc., thereby making his teammates more "clutch." In other words, just as April games are just as important as September games, getting on base is just as important as getting them home.
With every outing, Oakland pitcher Rich Harden (1.82 ERA) is looking more and more like an ace in the making. Fantasy owners, keep an eye on Harden and trade for him now if you can before his value climbs even higher.
Triple crown month: heading into Monday's action, Derrek Lee is leading the National League in HRs (8), RBIs (30), and is just .001 away from Clint Barmes for the lead in batting average (.416 to .417). If Lee could just learn how to pitch, the Cubs might have a chance.