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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

What September means for April...

There are two teams in the AL this September that nobody wants to face.  No, not the Red Sox, nor the Angels.  These two teams don't have any chance at making the postseason.  The New York Yankees are not one of them, nor the Detroit Tigers, despite the powerful lineups they boast.  The hottest teams in baseball at the moment are the Cleveland Indians and the Toronto Blue Jays.  Sure, the extended winning streaks they've put up in recent weeks are a bit fluky, but serious fantasy baseball players should be taking note of the performances which might fly a bit under the radar, but have serious implications for 2009.

Everybody knows about Toronto's pitching staff.  You aren't going to sneak Roy Halladay through your auction or draft, nor A. J. Burnett, nor probably Shawn Marcum, Dustin McGowan, or even Jesse Litsch.  What made the Blue Jays highly beatable in the first half of the season was their paltry offense.  Vernon Wells was injured, as was Scott Rolen.  Alex Rios and Lyle Overbay slumped.  John Gibbons chose to go with mediocre veterans like Brad Wilkerson and Shannon Stewart instead of trust young players like Adam Lind.  Cito Gaston has not had the same problem.  And the Blue Jays are showing that scoring runs may not be a big an issue for them come 2009.  As a team, the Jays scored 20 more runs in August than in any previous month (that's almost a 20% spike) and they are batting .311 so far in September.   Alex Rios is batting .312 with 9 HR during the All-Star Break, much to the delight of those who "wasted" an early round pick on him.  One of Gaston's first acts as manager was inserting Lind into the lineup everyday.  Lind has rewarded him by hitting .317 with 9 HR, 39 RBI, and an 868 OPS in 64 games since, suggesting that he is definitely a candidate for a breakout season when he turns 25 in 2009.  Vernon Wells has only played about half a season's worth of games, but has managed 16 HR and 66 RBI in that half, proving that his disappointing 2007 was merely a fluke.  Joe Inglett and Travis Snider have also been impressive in limited action.  Expect them to take on larger roles in 2009.  

After trading David Eckstein and Matt Stairs late in the season, Toronto will definitely be in the market for a shortstop and a 1B/OF/DH-type during the offseason, but it is a team with great depth in pitching and very few obvious holes.  Toronto, of course, has the misfortune of playing in the AL East, but I expect them to carry their late-season momentum into next year and make a serious run at contention.

Cleveland also plays in a deep division.  They have been alternating good and bad years since '05.  If the pattern holds, they'll be due for upwards of 90 wins in 2009.  Despite the loss of Sabathia and Byrd, the Indians still have two Aces atop their rotation in Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona, plus a stockpile of high-potential young arms.  They can focus their free agent dollars on solving their bullpen issues and improving the offense, an offense which hasn't been that bad.  They are eighth in the AL in scoring, but that's without Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner.  No team can be expected to be at their best without two middle-of-the-order caliber hitters.  Ben Francisco has had a fairly successful rookie campaign, hitting 14 HR with 51 RBI in only 400 AB.  Asdrubel Cabrera and Franklin Guttierrez took modest steps backward, but still look like promising players.  Sizemore is a legit MVP candidate and Jhonny Peralta is among the most underrated players in baseball.  All of these guys should be on your radar next spring, as should Matt LaPorta and Michael Aubrey, prospects that might earn starting roles early next year.  

Monday, September 08, 2008

Some Unlikely MVPs

Cliff Lee has all but cinched the AL Cy Young, while the trio of Brandon Webb, Tim Lincecum, and C. C. Sabathia provides plenty of excellent options for NL voters.  Geovany Soto is clearly the NL's top rookie, with all respect to Joey Votto and Jair Jurrjens.  In the AL, Evan Longoria's late-season injury may have opened up a opportunity for Armando Galarraga and Alexei Ramirez.  The biggest questions remain, however, in the races for Most Valuable player in both leagues.  This year provides us with no Alex Rodriguez or Barry Bonds type performances, head and shoulders above the competition.  Ryan Howard leads the NL in two critical categories, HR and RBI, but is batting a mere .237 and is headed for upwards of 200 strikeouts.  Josh Hamilton's march toward the RBI crown has slowed slightly in the second half and, of course, he is playing on a team which was out of contention early in August.  Carlos Quentin carried the White Sox offense at various times throughout the season, but an unfortunate, fluky hand injury has left him sitting on 36 HR and 100 RBI, numbers which will merely seem reminders of what could have been. 

The scarcity of traditional choices has allowed Dustin Pedroia to emerge as a fashionable favorite in early September.  He has been very valuable to a Red Sox team which has suffered extended injuries to David Ortiz, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and J. D. Drew, as well as that whole Manny Ramirez ordeal.  Pedroia is leading the AL in runs scored (111), hits (193), and batting average (.330) and has very admirable numbers across the board, but though he has batted cleanup recently, he isn't particularly strong in the traditional MVP categories, HR (17) and RBI (74).  His run production numbers would be the lowest for an MVP since Ichiro won the award in 2001.  Besides Pedroia, whose popularity as a candidate is largely due to the ubiquity of the Red Sox, their are some other darkhorses worth considering this November.

C. C. Sabathia - SP - Milwaukee Brewers

I, personally, believe Sabathia should be given the NL Cy Young.  Although Webb and Lincecum have had fine seasons, Sabathia has dominated the league since his arrival in early July to a degree we've not seen since Randy Johnson was at the top of his game in the late nineties and early aughts.  He is 9-0 since joining the Brew Crew, the rest of the staff is 23-21.  C. C. also leads NL pitchers in innings, strikeouts, ERA, quality starts, and, of course, complete games since July 8, his first start.  If the voters demure from giving C. C. his second consecutive Cy, due to his late arrival, they might consider adding him the somewhat weaker MVP field.  A pitcher has not won the MVP since Dennis Eckersley did it in 1992 and, in the NL, the fete has not been accomplished until 1968.  But by all accounts, C. C. immediately became a clubhouse leader in Milwaukee and, of course, one cannot argue with the team's performance on the days he pitches.  They are 11-1 in his starts.  Few candidates have the advantage of such a stark assertion of "value."

Grady Sizemore - CF - Cleveland Indians

The Indians, despite a second-half resurgence, are not likely to finish within ten games of the postseason.  However, their leadoff hitter is leading the AL in Runs Created and his stats are certainly comparable, even superior, to those of Dustin Pedroia, as he will probably get close to 100 runs and 100 RBI, as well as around 35 HR and 40 SB.  Sizemore and Hanley Ramirez are the only 30/30 players in 2008, but more importantly, he is among the most intimidating hitters in the league and also plays gold-glove caliber defense at a critical position.  Working against Sizemore is not only his team (which is going to be a winning franchise after all), but also his .268 batting average.

Joe Mauer - C - Minnesota Twins

Speaking of defensive contributions...Mr. Mauer has made only two errors in upwards of 1000 innings this season, has the best CS% in the AL, and captains the young Minnesota staff which has surprisingly kept the Twins in competition deep into the season.  Oh, and he is also hitting .326 with a .416 OBP.  Much like 2006, Justin Morneau has Mauer to thank for keeping his name in the MVP conversation.

Kevin Youkilis - 1B - Boston Red Sox

Why are BoSox fans getting behind Pedroia, but not Youk?  Youkilis is better in HR (25), RBI (98), OPS (949), OBP, and SLG.  Moreover, he plays wizard defense at two positions.  He took a few days off early in September to nurse a minor injury, but like Pedroia, he has been one of the few Red Sox available every day and, unlike Pedroia, he's available to play corner spot on both the infield and in the outfield.  He doesn't exactly have Dustin's rugged good looks, but Youkilis has just as much to do with Boston's ability stay in the race.

Arguments could also be made based on Mark DeRosa's versatility, Aramis Ramirez' clutch hitting, Carlos Delgado's resurgence, and Ryan Ludwick's ascendence.  All this aside, however, I'll tell you who I would vote for if they gave me a ballot: Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.