I am thinking now is as good a time as any to take a moment and reflect on where we are in the American League. Nothing else is happening, that's for goddamn sure (when I started this beast the Sox had been rained out twice). On the plus side here in sunny California I can just read "PPD" on Yahoo! from my desk rather than hearing it on WEEI while I'm stuck in traffic with my windshield wipers firing back and forth across my road-rage filled car. Good times. (Before anyone starts bitching about the rain let me point out that it rained 19 days in a row here in March - that's right, 19)
The only statistic that counts shows the Sox in first place with a game on the malicious Yankees, at 23-14, for a .622 winning percentage. This is nothing to scoff at, as the AL East is a pretty tough decision to win in when you are playing the Yanks and Blue Jays every week. At present the Sox are 17-9 against their division rivals, which bodes well. Loretta is hitting very well again, and Gonzalez has raised his average 40 points in the last three weeks, so those are bright signs (although I am in no way implying that Seabass will not suck all year long). Offensively Varitek continues to struggle with a .717 OPS, and one has to wonder if the WBC was a great idea for an aging catcher, but I doubt very much that he's done. The Globe thinks perhaps he has begun rebounding.
Currently the most pressing issue the team faces offensively is deciding what to do with Crisp upon his return. With Youks sporting a .423 OBP (seriously, can we take a moment for Youks? He's getting on base 42% of his at-bats, it's unbelievable) it will be tough for Tito to make the decision to move him down in the lineup. Crisp's speed gives you some more options out there but he doesn't get on like Youks does, and while Loretta hits behind runners well, it's oftentimes just as good to have a guy sitting out there anywhere at all with Ortiz and Manny coming up. Francona's comments indicate that Crisp will bat leadoff though, so we'll see. The other head in this equation is Wily Mo Pena Super Genius who just might actually be a Super Genius. You hate to see WMP losing at-bats because he just does great things when he gets to play. He's getting nothing to hit, and is still striking out almost a third of the time, but is averaging better than an RBI every 5 at-bats, which puts him in Big Papi territory. Wily Mo is results-oriented.
Pitching continues to be solid with the exception of International Man of Annoying Mystery Matt Clement. It's possible that my prediction that Matt would have a career season jinxed him, but it's probably more likely that he's just crazy as a shithouse rat. This is a guy with absolutely no faith in his stuff. He is currently the single last person on earth you want on the mound in a must-win big game, and that, generally, is not what you're looking for in a $10Mil a year starter. Dinardo, despite a couple tough-looking scorelines, is pitching pretty well, and is absolutely a serviceable 5th starter at under $400k a year. I think Lenny has a good make-up and I think he's going to get better. So, if he now begins to suck, we can attribute it and Clement's suck to my jinx. Then we can call it the Shea Suck Jinx, and I can sell it on TV for people to use on their enemies.
Overall, the Sox look like what they are - a pretty well-built team with a core of solid veterans who know how to win ballgames. Their actual winning percentage is .622, but their Pythagorean predicted winning percentage (more or less Runs Scored squared over Runs Scored squared plus Runs Allowed squared) is a mere .569. There are a couple reasons for this. One is they are 6-3 in one-run games. The other is that they are not blowing teams out, so there is no padding in the run differential overall. So, really, I guess there is one reason for this - they're not winning by a lot. (Note: since writing this they annihilated Baltimore, when I began their pythag WP was .542 and actual was .600) We should feel good that they are capable of doing so - the White Sox were 35-19 in one-run games last season. Good teams win close ballgames.
They are also a pretty lucky team. I've talked a little bit about WPA (Win Probability Added) in this space before, and the graph here tells a pretty interesting story - namely that in terms of WPA the second-best player on the Red Sox is the other teams' crappy fielding. It's pretty hard to imagine that trend continuing at this level, but every good team knows how to take advantage of a break, and the Sox are a good baseball team. It helps that we do not give runs away - the Sox have only 12 errors as a team in 2006, and the next fewest is 18.
New York obviously caught a tough break with my fantasy left-fielder Matsui (see a trend?) breaking his wrist, but age is starting to catch up with this team too. Sheffield is on the DL with a knock, Johnson is looking a little creaky on the mound, and Posada is slower than ever. Mussina, Jeter, and Giambi's performance-enhancing drugs are carrying that team right now, and when they start to regress it could get tough for Spankee fans. One thing is certain - if you have a nearly $200 Mil payroll and Bubba Crosby and Melky Cabrera are starting games, something has definitely gone wrong. Given their vast resources don't be surprised to see a trade happen at some point, where they eat another bloated contract in exchange for one of their quality low minors prospects (of which there are a few) and loads of cash. Torii Hunter must be looking real good right about now.
Toronto hangs in there at only 2.5 games behind, despite Josh Towers going 1-7 in his first 8 games - a record that is not indicative of his quality as a pitcher. If Towers returns to some semblance of form, and Toronto keeps scoring runs at their AL East-leading rate, that one game margin probably goes away. If and when Burnett comes off the DL, there is more to worry about. The Jays are built to score runs, and if their pitchers are all healthy and pitching just to projected averages, that team is going to be very, very tough to beat. The AL East could very well be decided by teams' #4 and #5 starters, and Toronto matches up well there. On the other hand, they are located in Toronto, and that has to hurt you in some way.
Baltimore is, well, Baltimore. The more things change, the more things stay the same. Leo Mazzone has not turned around a pitching staff that continues to find ways to lose. Generally their plan is to give up more runs that they score, which they have done to excess. Their 239 Runs Against leads the majors. They were hitting the ball well, but have faltered offensively a bit too. Now, I suppose there is always the chance that they are just working through adjustments, and that the Mazzone factor will kick in and they will go on a tear, but I wouldn't run to Vegas with that idea just yet. At this point in time Daniel Cabrera has 43 Ks and 39 BBs - not usually indicative of a breakout season (he has since gone on the DL). If Miggy didn't want to be traded in the offseason, I bet he does now. Maybe he'll go play LF for the Yankees (shhhh!).
Finally, Tampa Bay. Ahh, the sweet smell of a team that lives just to be the spoiler. They don't score runs, they don't prevent runs. All they do is make unreasonable trade demands. They've given up 219 runs to put them just behind Baltimore in the Majors for letting opposing players cross the plate - wonder if having two closers with ERAs well over 6 could have contributed? They've scored just 163, due to having 5 regular or semi-regular players batting under .200 for the season, watching Joey Gathright hover at .208, and dealing with Rocco Baldelli's injured Whole Body. Looking at the team stats is an exercise in depression. On the plus side, their sure-fire, can't-miss prospect Delmon Young has been suspended for 50 games because he threw a bat at an umpire. Genius.
The White Sox continue to tear it up, but Detroit, riding a maturing starting rotation and some power at the plate (tied for league-leading 56 HRs) , are only a half-game out in the Central.
The White Sox were a great team, and all they did was go add one the best sluggers in the game in Jim Thome. Now he is healthy, and he is killing the ball. Barring a spate of injuries, or the untimely decision to have Ozzie Guillen committed to an institution, this team goes the World Series again, end of story.
Detroit is an obvious surprise, in that they are doing so very well. It was clear that someday Bonderman and Robertson and Maroth would mature, but hard to say when. This year the Tigers team ERA is 3.27 and is the only Al team ERA under 4 - pretty impressive. Magglio Ordonez is on the field, which is a surprise unto itself, and he is on fire. Inge just keeps getting better, showing some pop this year to go with his increased plate discipline. And Curtis Granderson and Chris Shelton have emerged as future stars, at least in the early going. I think this team is for real, and they make the playoff picture all that much murkier. For my part, I am rooting for Detroit largely because they were Magnum PI's team of choice, and he was the greatest detective of this or any other era. Only Magnum got beat up every episode. That used to be the Tigers, but they're fighting back.
On the flip side of the coin is Cleveland. If you had told me that they would be under .500 and nearly 8 games out of first place at this point in the season I would have said you were crazy, and there would probably have been a swear in there. Yet that's what has happened, and this has occurred with Casey Blake having a career season that is now in Webster's next to "aberration". To some degree they don't deserve to be where they are - their Pythag winning percentage is .558, so they should be well above .500 strictly speaking in terms of run differential. But to another, more real degree, their starting pitching is just awful, and that's how you lose games. The Pythag is not a great predictor because teams like Cleveland can win games 15-1 and 15-3 with some regularity and it screws everything up. The thing is, if your team can score 15 runs in a game twice in a month, why can't they win more? These are tough questions.
Minnesota is another disappointment, just ask their beleaguered fans. How could it go so wrong? Their team ERA is 5.57. Santana is just 4-3. Radke is pitching batting practice out there, but both Lohse and Silva are worse with ERA's near 9. Their DH, acquired expressly to hit DH, is hitting .187 with an OPS of .420. FOUR-TWENTY!! There are enough good things happening, and enough good players on this team that we can't write them off completely, but the AL Central is a very difficult place to make a living these days, and their odds are not good. This is sad, because Twin Cities folk are good people and deserve better. Luckily, they have it, in the St. Paul Saints. Everybody wins at Saints games.
Let's not talk about Kansas City. Ok, a little bit. They are 2-18 on the road. If I were them I would seriously consider forfeiting all road games and just seeing if they could put all their money towards three great pitchers to win home games. I think their season would go better.
The West is looking pretty poor. To be honest, they look like shit.
Texas is in first place, and as we all know, Texas sucks. Case in point, just last night they blew a nine-run lead to the Yankees, and got beaten on a walk-off HR by no-talent Mr. Potato Head Jorge Posada. This game will serve two purposes. One, it will tell the Rangers and all the other teams in the division all they need to know about the Rangers. Two, and you would think there would be an inverse relationship between this and #1 but there isn't, it will add to the "Yankee mystique" that lets teams with no confidence choke away games to the Spankees and allow them to make the playoffs when they shouldn't. I'm talking to you, Oakland, Baltimore, Minnesota, Cleveland! Don't piss me off!
Short version, I don't expect Texas to be in first place for very long. Oakland's pitching is better than we have seen, although the Loioza signing was a mistake, and so is their offense. Dan Johnson is in a slump of truly apocalyptic proportions (dare I say Rondellian?) and Crosby isn't hitting yet, but they will. As they are a team that typically hits their stride in the summer, and they are a well-built team, I suspect we will see them atop the West in the next couple of weeks, now that they've gotten their roll-over for the Spanks out of the way. Moreover, As baseball television ads are the funniest ads on TV, so they get props for that.
The Anaheim Angels of Los Angeles are a bit of mystery, but it becomes slightly clearer when you realize they signed win-killing virus Jeff Weaver in the off-season. If he goes 3-4 instead of 1-6 they're just a couple games back. As it stands they're just a half-game in front of sad sacks Seattle, and their fans are wondering why in hell they're not parked on the freeway hating on each other instead. Of course those are the same fans who will claim to have been behind them the entire time when they're in the mix come August, because the team has too much talent to languish behind the goddamn Texas Rangers. In my mind, if you've got two decent starters and Vlad Guerrero, you can see the playoffs from anywhere in the AL West.
Also-rans Seattle are right on target to duplicate their .426 WP from last year. At least they're consistent. Young shortstop Yuniensky Betancourt is out-slugging both "Self-Nut-Punch Acquisition" Adrian Beltre and "Um, We Did It Again? Acquisition" Richie Sexson. Sexson by the way is below the Mendoza line. To be quite frank, neither of the two tools has an OPS over .600. Beltre has never seen a pitch he didn't like, and hasn't seen very many at all he can hit. At this point Mariners fans have only one reason to live, and that is to see King Felix reach his glorious potential, which we can assume he hasn't, sitting at 2-5 with a 5.71 ERA. For myself, I live to see Ichiro turn down a trade to the Yankees in about two weeks. But deep down I fear Shemp will convince him it's the right thing to do and then I will have to hate him. This makes me sad.
That's all for now - back to thanking Jesus that he invented the Baltimore Orioles and ruminating on what Wily Mo should call himself when he decides to become a superhero.