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Friday, July 31, 2009

As of this evening, seventeen teams could fairly consider themselves contenders. And that's not counting Seattle or the Mets, each of which are within six and a half games of the Wild Card. However, each of them more or less announced this week that their seasons were over. The Mariners traded their second-best starting pitcher, Jarrod Washburn, to the Tigers and the Mets decided not to pursue reinforcements for the injury-devastated roster which has fallen a full ten games back of the rival Phillies in the NL East.

For the remaining eighteen, the first two weeks of August will be a bit of a gauntlet and by the middle of the month the field will probably be pared down to a dozen or less. Among them certainly will be, to nobody's great surprise, the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels. Most prognosticators considered this the most promising trio in baseball when the season began and, although each team suffered slumps which had some pundits doubting their own predictions, as August begins, they are each right where they were expected to be. Likewise for the reigning champs, the Phillies, who can pick up their 20th win of July this evening if they win the first start by newly-acquired Ace, Cliff Lee. The Dodgers, while appearing quite vulnerable in their four-game set against the revitalized Cardinals, still have the best record in all of baseball and have basically sewn up the NL West. The Cardinals and Cubs, now locked atop the NL Central, will almost certainly take their rivalry into the season's final weeks as both teams appear to be getting stronger as the season progresses. Those are the usual suspects. Here are the eleven franchises which are still trying to prove they are for real:

1. Tampa Bay Rays

The reigning AL champs have been pretty damn good again this season. The only reason I don't assume they will continue to hang around at least into September is they are going to have to leapfrog either the Yankees or Red Sox. The Rays lineup has been outstanding, but they need to get improved effort from James Shields, Scott Kazmir, and Matt Garza. They'll have a chance to gain a little momentum in the next two weeks, with seven games against the anemic offenses of Kansas City and Seattle, and only five games against contenders. They'll get to face the Angels prior to the return of Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero. If they are going to keep pace with the "dynasty" teams down the stretch, they need to be striking distance by the beginning of September, during which they have 13 games against Boston and New York.

2. San Francisco Giants

The Giants are currently atop the NL Wild Card standings and have been for most of the last month or so. There is no doubting their pitching, as Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum are probably the top two candidates for the league's Cy Young thus far. Their offense is improving. Pablo Sandoval has become a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter; the first in San Francisco since collusion drove Barry Bonds out of baseball. Brian Sabean is hoping that Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Garko will be enough to bolster a lineup which usually doesn't need to produce more than four or five runs to win. San Francisco has yet to reveal it's biggest midseason addition, as they consider if and when it is time to promote blue chip prospects Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, and Kevin Pucetas. If the team is still in a tight race for the Wild Card we may see all three getting major roles in September.

3. Detroit Tigers

They've been in first place since the middle of May, but they haven't been able to get any distance on the field, currently leading the White Sox and Twins by two games. The addition of Jarrod Washburn should solidify the back-end of the rotation, taking some pressure off of the young trio of Rick Porcello, Edwin Jackson, and Armando Galarraga. More important, however, is that Detroit gets second-half hot streaks from Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen, and Magglio Ordonez. Hard to believe that prior to 2008 many, myself included, believed Detroit has one of the most potent lineup ever assembled (and they did score 821 runs in 2008), now they are 10th in the AL in scoring, behind mediocre teams like Toronto and Baltimore.

4. Texas Rangers

Most of the April and May surprises fizzled in the summer heat. Long forgotten are the first-place Blue Jays and Mariners and the double-digit winning streak of the San Diego Padres. The Ranger, however, have hung around. Currently they're just three back of the Angels and what's most impressive about it is that the Rangers haven't hit their stride offensively. Josh Hamilton, clearly still recovering from his various injuries, has only seven homers. Ian Kinser is hitting just .242 with an OPS under 800. Chris Davis had to be demoted so that he didn't demolish the major-league record for strikeouts. And the highly-touted catching duo of Saltalamacchia (665 OPS) and Teagarden (532 OPS) has been absolutely brutal. It's hard to believe, but the Rangers are sticking around with their starting pitching. Four members of the rotation (Millwood, Padilla, Feldman, and Hunter) have winning records, and rookie Derrek Holland (4-6) has had moments of brilliance as well. One has to believe that Texas will have better offense during the dog days. If so, they may make a run at the Angels. In the next two weeks they'll make an important west coast swing, facing Seattle, Oakland, and then Anaheim.

5. Colorado Rockies

August is a make or break month for the Rockies. Twenty of their twenty-eight games come against contenders, including seven against the division rival Giants who are sitting right in front of them in the Wild Card standings. Like the Rangers, the Rockies are getting unusually strong production from their starting rotation. Their starter's ERA (4.04) is 6th best in the NL, despite having the toughest home park for pitchers. Unlike the Rangers, the Rockies are also getting it done with the bats, trailing only the Phillies in scoring. They will need to get continued production from their "Ace," Jason Marquis, who's famous for his late-season fades (4.86 career ERA after All-Star Break), if they're going to survive the month. If they do, they can look forward to 19 of 22 games against bottom-feeders, the Mets, D-Backs, Reds, and Padres, at the beginning of September.

6. Chicago White Sox

Nobody can accuse Kenny Williams of being trigger shy. He dealt his two best pitching prospects, both major-league ready, for a guy on the disabled list who may not be ready to pitch until September. What Kenny knows, however, is that after this weekend's series with the Yankees and then another home series against the Angels, the Sox get to face Cleveland, Seattle, Oakland, Kansas City, and Baltimore. If they can't keep pace through that stretch, they don't stand a chance regardless of the Peavy's health. What he needs is for Peavy to be ready to pitch when they hit a stretch of fifteen straight against the Red Sox, Yankees, Twins, and Cubs. The Sox are a "lite" version of the 2005 team which won the World Series. They've got consistent starting pitching, strong defense, and several guys who can hit the long ball. Much will depend, however, on health. Not only Peavy, but also Carlos Quentin and Alexei Ramirez, who are the only youthful energizers in the Chicago lineup.

7. Minnesota Twins

By sweeping the White Sox earlier this week, the Twins moved themselves into a tie for second place. This is not a typical Twins team. They've only got two starting pitchers with ERAs under 4.00 (Nick Blackburn and Anthony Swarzak). But, what they do have is four hitters with 17 or more homers and 50+ RBI. The middle of the Twins order - Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, and Cuddyer - is becoming one of the more imposing in the American League, and all those players, as well as leadoff man Denard Span, are homegrown. Unfortunately, their other homegrown quartet, pitchers Blackburn, Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, and Scott Baker, expected to be one of the best young rotations in the league this season, has been truly putrid. Those four have combined for a 30-25 record with a 4.72 ERA. Slowey is now out for the season and Liriano may soon follow him. Baker is showing signs of life, allowing only four earned runs in his last three starts, but if the Twins can't bolster their rotation somehow, the only interesting race in September will be Joe Mauer fighting Ichiro for his third batting title.

8. Florida Marlins

The Marlins won the World Series in 1997. They won it again in 2003. So, they're on the six-year plan, right? So...

If they're going to win again in 2009, they'll need to have a good second half. Which may be possible, as they've won eight of their last ten, including four of six against the Dodgers and Braves. In the next three weeks they'll need to do similarly well against the Cubs, Phillies, Rockies, and Astros. If the Marlins are still hanging around at that point, I'll start to be afraid. Until then, they look to me like pretenders.

9. Milwaukee Brewers

I will say this much: I don't want any part of Milwaukee if I'm another NL manager. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun are probably the most intimidating duo in baseball, combining already for 46 HR and 159 RBI. They can put a game almost out of reach by the third inning. The rest of the team, however, leaves much to be desired. Corey Hart and J. J. Hardy have been disappointments after breaking out in 2008. Manny Parra (5-8, 6.50) has not lived up to his potential either. Yovani Gallardo (10-7, 3.13) has been great, but the rest of Brewers starters have a 24-30 record. There just isn't enough pitching for the organization to make their second consecutive appearance in October.

10. Atlanta Braves

You can't say they didn't try. After their first losing season in almost two decades, the Braves management went out this offseason and acquired Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe, and Jairr Jurrjens. That trio has combined for 27-21 record and a 3.29 ERA. They also signed Kensin Kawakami, who's been respectable at 5-8, 4.37. When they couldn't find a veteran to take over the #5 spot, they turned to rookie Tommy Hanson, who's been exceptional (5-1, 3.25). Then, when the team proved to be offensively challenged, they added Nate McLouth, Adam LaRoche, and Ryan Church. None of them are huge names, but all are improvements over the players they replaced. This rotation would be a nightmare in October, but I don't think they're going to get there. This team just doesn't appear to have enough offense, especially when Chipper Jones takes his obligatory trips to the D.L. Chipper leads the team with only 13 HR. They don't have anybody on pace for 100 RBI.

11. Houston Astros

The Astros are a mirage. One which will be forgotten by the end of next week. They've already lost six of their last seven. Their next eighteen games come against other NL contenders. Their rotation includes Mike Hampton (6-8, 5.36 ERA), Brian Moehler (7-6, 4.99), and, until recently, Russ Ortiz (3-6, 5.57). Their current lineup includes Chris Coste (700 OPS), Ivan Rodriguez (679 OPS), Kaz Matsui (656 OPS), and Geoff Blum (714 OPS). Miguel Tejada is quietly having an excellent season, much to the surprise of many after his rough offseason, but most of the rest of Houston's success is smoke and mirrors.

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