The Great AL East Panic Of 2011

  • Thursday, April 7, 2011 10:05 PM
  • Written By: Andrew Simon

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On Thursday afternoon, the Red Sox and Rays both lost and moved to 0-6. Coupled with the Astros’ win over the Reds, this left the two AL East would-be contenders as the last teams standing – in only the loss column.

Of course, everyone is debating what these slow starts mean, particularly when it comes to the Sawx, a popular World Series pick just a week ago.

In Boston, panic has gripped the streets like in no other time since the Revolutionary War. When Darnell McDonald’s baserunning blunder accounted for the final out in Thursday’s loss to the Indians, I kind of imagined Paul Revere putting the butt of his musket through the TV, mounting his horse and galloping off to warn everyone of impending doom.

Now, the logic-inclined sector of the Internet baseball-following community has mostly refrained from stocking-up-on-canned-goods-level apocalypse angst. And not just because most moms’ basements already feature a nice stash of canned goods.

Look at it at this way: The Red Sox and Rays both have played slightly less than 4 percent of their schedules. And while both teams are now clearly in a hole, the situation is really not that dire.

In terms of the division, the Yankees are four games ahead, but Boston and Tampa each get 19 head-to-head matchups included in the remaining schedule. That’s a lot of opportunities to gain ground. And then think in terms of the wildcard. If we assume teams like Baltimore, Toronto, Kansas City and Cleveland are not serious playoff contenders – a fairly safe assumption – Boston and Tampa are right in the mix. The Twins, Tigers and Athletics are all 2-4, while the Angels are 3-3.

Just out of curiosity, I went back to the start of the six-division, wildcard format and looked at the teams with the longest season-opening losing streaks each season. Here are the results, listed with the streak, the overall season record and the finish in the division.

2010: Astros, 0-8, 76-86, 4th
2009: Nationals, 0-7, 59-103, 5th
2008: Tigers, 0-7, 74-88, 5th
2007: Astros, 0-4, 73-89, 4th
2006: Pirates, 0-6, 67-95, 5th
2005: Mets, 0-5, 83-79, 3rd
2004: Mariners, 0-5, 63-99, 4th
2003: Tigers, 0-9, 43-119, 5th
2002: Tigers, 0-11, 55-106, 5th
2001: Brewers, 0-4, 68-94, 4th / Marlins, 0-4, 76-86, 4th / Royals, 0-4, 65-97, 5th
2000: Phillies, 0-3, 65-97, 5th
1999: D-backs, 0-4, 100-62, 1st
1998: Expos, 0-7, 65-97, 4th
1997: Cubs, 0-14, 68-94, 5th
1996: Red Sox, 0-5, 85-77, 3rd
1995: Reds, 0-6, 85-59, 1st

With three teams tying in 2001, that gives us a pool of 18 teams, which averaged a 6.3-game losing streak to begin the year. These clubs went on to win an average of 70.6 games (71.1 if you account for the ’95 Reds’ strike-shortened season).

Seven of the 18 finished in last place, two finished third, none second and two first.

The 1999 Diamondbacks, in the franchise’s second year of existence and coming off a 65-win campaign, started 0-4. By May 18, they were 23-17 and leading the NL West. They took the lead for good on July 24 and went on to win the division by 14 games

The 1995 season was delayed due to the strike. The Reds played their first game on April 26, lost, then lost five more in a row. They then went 12-5 to get over .500 and were leading the division for good by June 5, going on to take it by nine games.

Of course, neither of these teams were dealing with anything like the present-day AL East, but the main point holds: Hope is not lost.

Unless you lose again today. Then you’re definitely screwed.

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MLB Predictions: What WON'T Happen In 2011

  • Wednesday, March 30, 2011 5:02 AM
  • Written By: Andrew Simon

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Months of waiting are finally over, and the 2011 season has arrived. To mark the occasion, everyone is making their predictions, saying what they think will happen this season.

What a boring, glass-half-full approach. Here is what WON’T happen in MLB in 2011.*

* To answer your first question, yes, I hate your favorite team and am out to get them, and no, I don’t know what I’m talking about. Just wanted to be upfront about that.

Last year’s World Series participants get back to the playoffs.
Since the six-division wildcard format was introduced in 1995, 19 of 30 World Series teams have returned to the postseason the next year, with five returning to the championship round. This will not be one of those years. Rather, this will be like 2006 or 2007, when neither World Series participant from the year prior played extra ballgames.

To be clear, I don’t think what the Giants or Rangers accomplished last season was a mirage. Those were both talented clubs, and they certainly have a good shot to reproduce their success. But a lot of things – not everything, of course – broke right for both teams last year, and that rarely happens twice in a row. Both San Francisco and Texas are flawed teams, flawed enough that I have them being overtaken this year by Colorado and Oakland, respectively, and finishing behind the second-place team from the East for the wild card.

The Yankees and Red Sox both make the postseason.
Sorry, TV network executives! For the seventh straight year, your dream ALCS will not come to fruition. Now, you certainly could argue that the Yankees and Sox look like the two best teams in baseball, and that would be hard to dispute. There are concerns with both, but you also know they will do what is necessary to address any issues with in-season trades.

That said, whether it’s my NY-BOS fatigue or the fact I’m currently reading Jonah Keri’s fascinating The Extra 2%, I’m going to say the Rays find a way to steal one of the two playoff spots that will almost certainly go to the AL East. Losing Carl Crawford to Boston and the whole bullpen to various other teams were tough pills to swallow for Tampa, but I think additions like Manny Ramirez and Jeremy Hellickson will push the Rays through.

The Phillies starting rotation proves to be the greatest of all time.
No, I’m not invoking the SI cover jinx. And I do believe the quartet of Halladay-Lee-Hamels-Oswalt is good enough to drag the Phillies’ wounded lineup into the playoffs and maybe even the World Series. That said, I think expectations probably have gotten a bit outlandish in the off-season.

The Big Four have been a pretty durable bunch in recent years, but of course it’s not hard to imagine one of them going down with an injury somewhere along the line. Pitching is a tough business. And consider this: The 1997 Braves had four starters with an ERA+ of at least 138 (100 is league average). The Phillies’ four have combined to reach that number in 15 of 29 seasons in which they made at least 20 starts. So while it’s certainly possible all four will enjoy great years, I think it’s pretty reasonable to believe at least one will get hurt or have a down season. And I’m not convinced run support will be in abundance, which means that those paying attention to pitcher wins might be disappointed.

The Reds take the next step toward building an NL Central power.
Those were heady days in Cincy last season. Joey Votto was NL MVP, Jay Bruce took a step forward, Scott Rolen managed 537 productive plate appearances, and Dusty Baker and company cobbled together a decent pitching staff. The result was a division title and the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1995.

Granted, the Reds played as well as their record indicated last year, based on run differential. And they are a young club with room for growth. But as we’ve seen in recent seasons with teams like Arizona, young and talented teams can hit some speed bumps after initially finding success, and I think that happens with the Reds in 2011. The rotation in particular has some blow-up potential with Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey likely starting the year on the DL, Edinson Volquez not too far removed from major arm surgery and the rest of the bunch awfully short on big league credentials. With the Brewers improved, the Cardinals still dangerous and the Cubs likely to be better, I think someone overtakes Dusty’s crew this time around.

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2010 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

  • Thursday, April 1, 2010 5:54 AM
  • Written By: Andrew Simon

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2009: 84-78, 3rd in AL East. Pythagorean record of 86-76.
Key Additions: RP Rafael Soriano, C Kelly Shoppach, 1B/3B Hank Blalock
Key Losses: 2B Akinori Iwamura, OF Gabe Gross, C Gregg Zaun, RPs Brian Shouse, Russ Springer and Chad Bradford
2010 Projections: PECOTA – 92-70, 2nd in AL East (Wild Card). CHONE – 88-74, 3rd. CAIRO – 93.1-68.9, 3rd.

Pitching: 2009 – 4.37 FIP (18th in MLB), 4.31 for starters, 4.48 for relievers
2010 – Matt Garza and James Shields should be solid at the top of the rotation, but it's hard to be sure of what the team will get from the talented but inexperienced trio of Jeff Niemann, David Price and Wade Davis. Soriano was a good addition to the bullpen, but J.P. Howell starting the year on the DL is a blow.
Hitting: 2009 – .343 wOBA (4th in MLB)
2010 – The Evan Longoria-Carl Crawford-Carlos Pena core is strong. Other than that, the Rays have some guys who probably will come back to Earth a bit (Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett) and some others whom they hope will rebound with the bat (B.J. Upton, Pat Burrell). Sean Rodriguez could be a breakout candidate.
Fielding: 2009 – UZR of 69.5 (2nd in MLB)
2010 – With guys like Zobrist and Rodriguez, who both can move around the field, the Rays benefit from having great roster flexibility. Plus, with fielders like Longoria, Bartlett, Crawford and Upton, they have a lot of defensive talent.

Reasons to Watch
1. Carl Crawford: Until a couple of years ago when they turned things around on the field and made that incredible run to the World Series, the Rays mostly were known for losing. If there was one positive they were associated with, it was Crawford, by far the best player in franchise history (that's meant as less of a backhanded compliment than it sounds like). Crawford is probably the best defensive left fielder in baseball and a well above average hitter with great speed and a little power. Yet 2009 likely will be his ninth and final season in Tampa Bay. Crawford will be an expensive free agent after this season, and the baseball calculus dictates the Rays go in a younger, cheaper direction (prospect Desmond Jennings). It's been fun watching Crawford bring a little life to The Trop over the past several years; Rays fans will have to enjoy it this season while they still can.
2. Ben Zobrist: For all of the great advances we have made in recent years in our understanding of baseball and our ability to analyze the game and project the future, sometimes events still take us very much by surprise. Case in point: Zobrist's 2009. Sure, Zobrist put up good minor league numbers and managed a solid stint with the big club in 2008. But it's not like people were falling all over themselves to proclaim as a future star a 28-year-old with a little more than 400 career major league plate appearances and no clear position. And yet, Zobrist busted out past anyone's expectations, leading all position players in wins above replacement. But what can he do for an encore? CHONE projects him to post 3.8 WAR in 2010, less than half of his 2009 total. Could Zobrist surprise again?
3. The young pitchers: The Rays play in the same division as baseball's best offense (the Yankees) and another very solid one (the Red Sox). As such, pitching is at a premium. This season, the Rays are counting on some young arms to come through and stabilize the rotation. There's 24-year-old lefty David Price, the first overall pick of the 2007 draft, who shined as a reliever in the 2008 playoffs but struggled last year as a starter. There's the 27-year-old, 6-foot-9 Jeff Niemann, the fourth overall pick in 2004, who is coming off a solid rookie campaign. And there's 24-year-old Wade Davis, a third-round pick in '04, who has all of 36 1/3 big league innings to his credit. Plus, 23-year-old former fourth-round pick Jeremy Hellickson will begin the year in the minors but figures to get a shot at some point. So who among this group will step us this season alongside Garza and Shields? At least a couple of them will have to if the Rays are going to get back to the playoffs.

Paint By Numbers: At 25 years old entering this season, B.J. Upton is still a young guy, even in baseball terms. The converted shortstop has become an excellent center fielder, and he's got a ton of speed and athleticism. The question is what has happened to his bat. A sky-high BABIP in 2007 probably set expectations for Upton at too high a level, but he also showed power and patience that season. In 2009, he slugged .373, and his 9.1 percent walk rate was significantly lower than his rate the previous two seasons. CHONE projects a solid rebound effort from Upton, back to about his 2008 level. That seems reasonable. ... Jason Bartlett led all qualified hitters with a 26% line drive rate last season while topping his previous career high by about four percentage points. His 14 home runs were five more than he had hit in his first 1,700 major league plate appearances. ... Catcher Dioner Navarro's .258 wOBA last season was the worst of any player with at least 300 plate appearances. Navarro suffered from -- among other things -- a .231 BABIP and a 4.4 percent walk rate.

Blog Jog: At DRaysBay, Tommy Rancel compares Joaquin Benoit and Mike Ekstrom, the two candidates for the team's final bullpen spot, while FreeZorilla discusses his fascination with catcher Nevin Ashley. ... The Professor at Rays Index wonders if Tampa is trying to get Hank Blalock to accept a minor league assignment. ... Michael Emdeyar at Rise of the Rays checks back on some questions he had at the beginning of the offseason.

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2 Things I Want To Happen In '10

  • Monday, February 15, 2010 7:00 AM
  • Written By: Andrew Simon

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We're getting close.

Teams officially start reporting to Spring Training on Wednesday, so with two days left before then, I give you "2 Things I Want to Happen In '10."

Just two? Well, I certainly could think of a lot more. But hey, I'm not greedy.

1. I want the Rays to recapture the AL East championship.

You see, there are these two teams, the New York Somethings and the Boston, uh, I forget. Something to do with footwear, I think? It's so hard to remember, given their obscurity and utter lack of coverage in the media (What's with that West Coast bias, ESPN?).

In all seriousness though, the Rays winning the 2008 AL East title was so refreshing, I find myself wanting more. Sure, Yankees and Red Sox fans and the TV networks don't want it to happen, but I think a lot of others do. The fact is, the Yankees are probably too good not to win, and if they don't, the Sox probably will. Yet the (Not Devil) Rays have compiled a fantastic group of talent, and with a few breaks, you never know. In fact, the PECOTA projected standings for this season see the AL East as essentially a dead heat for the top three spots.

It's a fact that for the foreseeable future, New York and Boston are bound to win the vast majority of division crowns. Yes, they have a huge monetary advantage, but both teams also are spending their fortunes more wisely than ever before. Can't stop me from hoping, though.

2. I want another one-game playoff.

Incredibly, for three straight years, 162 games have not been sufficient to decide one of the pennant races. In 2007, it was the NL Wildcard, and for the past two seasons, it has been the AL Central. I say, let's keep it going.

For one thing, there is no such as too much baseball, so an extra game is never unwelcome, especially when the stakes are so high. And that's what makes these games so riveting: Each one is like a Game 7. What's more, all three play-in games have been incredible. Three years ago, the Rockies beat the Padres, 9-8 in 13 innings; two years ago, the White Sox outlasted the Twins 1-0 on Jim Thome's seventh-inning homer; last year, the Twins beat the Tigers 6-5 in one of the greatest games I've ever seen, finally pulling it out in the 12th inning.

On one hand, it seems unlikely this could happen for a fourth consecutive season. On the other hand, there figure to be several tight races in 2010 -- including in the AL Central, of course -- so don't count out the possibility. I know I'll be wishing for it.

4 Series to Mark on Your Calendar

  • Saturday, February 13, 2010 5:43 AM
  • Written By: Andrew Simon

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Four more days until the first pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. Therefore, it seems like a good time to look ahead to four potentially interesting series on the schedule for this season.

I didn’t include matchups between division rivals here, since those are pretty obvious and provide intrigue every year.

April 12, 14-15, Red Sox @ Twins – On the 12th, outdoor baseball will return to Minneapolis for the first time since 1981, the last year of old Metropolitan Stadium. Ever since, the Twins have been safely tucked away in the ugly but warm confines of the Metrodome. Until this season, that is. Target Field is opening its doors for this prime series against the Red Sox. These two teams figure to put on a good show, as long as they’re not frozen solid. The average temperature in Minneapolis in April is a high of 57 and a low of 36, with the record low being a balmy 2 degrees. At least all three games in this series are day games, with the first night contest taking place to start the following series against the Royals. For the sake of Twins fans, let’s hope Target Field has hot chocolate dispensers in the backs of every seat.

June 22-24, Cubs @ Mariners – This interleague series is certainly interesting on its own merits. These two teams figure to be playoff contenders, and the Cubs have visited Seattle only once before, in 2002. But these three games have another storyline as well: Milton Bradley’s first appearance against his last team. Bradley’s brief tenure in Chicago ended with him getting suspended late in the season. The veteran outfielder might have gotten some undeservedly rough treatment from fans and the media – his on-field performance wasn’t as bad as many perceived – but he never fit in a clubhouse that generally got along well. Even Ryan Dempster, a first-class act, said after Bradley’s suspension, “It became one of those things where you see him putting the blame on everybody else, and sometimes you have to look in the mirror and realize that maybe the biggest part of the problem is yourself and wanting to be there and wanting to play every day and wanting to have some fun. It didn't seem like he wanted to have very much fun, even from Spring Training.” There could be some serious tension here, assuming Bradley is still on the active roster at that point.

June 25-27, Yankees @ Dodgers – This will be the Bronx Bombers’ first trip to Chavez Ravine since 2004. These are two franchise with a ton of history between them, including 11 clashes in the World Series (four since the Dodgers left Brooklyn). And this series figures to come with both squads near or at the top of their respective divisions. A lot will be made of Joe Torre managing against his old club, but what’s really more interesting is what happens on the field, and this series could feature some exciting matchups. Personally I’m eager to see LA’s 22-year-old lefty strikeout machine Clayton Kershaw test his stuff against New York’s nightmare-inducing lineup, or closer Jonathan Broxton try to finish off a close game against A-Rod. Not to mention that Manny Ramirez against the Yankees tends to be entertaining.

Sept. 17-19, Angels @ Rays – Most of the series at the very end of the season are divisional matchups, as they should be, but this is one late-season interdivisional series that could have huge playoff implications. The Rays seem to be in position to stand up to the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East again, while the Angels likely will have their supremacy in the AL West challenged by at least two division competitors. Depending on how things shake out, this could even turn into a crucial battle for a wildcard berth. Plus, you have a showdown of the minds between Mike Scioscia and former bench coach Joe Maddon, now managing Tampa, and Angels pitcher Scott Kazmir potentially squaring off against his old team for the first time.

Tomorrow: 3 teams to keep an eye on