Twenty years. It’s been 20 long years since the Pittsburgh Pirates last had a winning season. Not winning as in a World Series, division title, or playoff berth. Winning as in an above-.500 season. When you’re that bad for that long, your goals become more and more modest. A summer of not-too-stinky baseball, in which the Pirates are semi-competitive, the beer’s cold, and PNC Park’s views of downtown Pittsburgh are clear, would seem an appropriate target.
Instead, the Buccos are red-hot, they’re in first place at the All-Star break, they have a legitimate MVP candidate, and they’re reportedly kicking the tires on Justin Freaking Upton. It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world. And it’s Week 14 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
1. New York Yankees, 52-33 (412 RS, 347 RA) (last week: 2)
Trying to rank the top part-time players in the game can be tough. Typically, when a key reserve starts crushing the ball, making a highlight-reel catch a day, or both, his team will find a way to squeeze him into the lineup. Thus the line between bench player and de facto starter gets blurred, and top producers like Allen Craig and Tyler Colvin become more or less everyday players.1 Still, that line does exist. And of all the candidates to carry two of the best part-time players in baseball, you wouldn’t expect the Yankees to be the team to hold that claim. The Bombers carried too many ciphers like Bubba Crosby on their bench in the past; even during the height of the Yankees dynasty, replacement-level (or worse) players like Luis Sojo and Clay Bellinger took up valuable real estate riding the pine.
Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez are pushing for a Luis Sojo–free existence this season. Jones crushed three homers in Saturday’s doubleheader split at Fenway, giving him 11 homers and a strong .369 Weighted On Base Average in 144 plate appearances this year, while serving mostly as a lefty-mashing platoon at a corner outfield spot or DH. Chavez isn’t anywhere near the Gold Glove–caliber third baseman he was in his prime. But with Brett Gardner out for most of the first half and Raul Ibanez shunted to left, Chavez has rediscovered his long-lost power stroke. Serving as a DH against righties and as an infield fill-in, he’s hit a robust .282/.336/.504 (.354 wOBA) in 146 plate appearances. Having a $210 million payroll can certainly help a team surge to the top of the standings. But you can’t blame the Yankees’ riches on Jones and Chavez. At $2.9 million combined, they eat up about 1/70th of the team’s total salaries.
2. Texas Rangers, 52-34 (443 RS, 364 RA) (last week: 1)
So much for Roy Oswalt’s fast start — turns out it might not be a great strategy to sign a soon-to-be-35 with a history of back problems and signs of significant skills erosion and expect him to sit out nearly half the season and then come in and kick ass. Oswalt did look good in his first start of the season on June 22, firing 6⅔ innings of one-run ball. But that outing came in Arlington against the Rockies, who hit like the ’27 Yankees at home but score less than any other team on the road. In Oswalt’s next two starts, against the Tigers and White Sox, he got rocked for 16 runs (two unearned) in 10⅔ frames. From a distance, Oswalt’s most alarming stat would appear to be hits allowed: an absurd 35 in 17⅓ innings pitched. Blame a .500(!) batting average on balls in play for that result. Safe to say Oswalt’s luck will improve in time, as small samples have a way of producing distorted numbers. Still, a 24.7 percent line drive rate isn’t a good way to start the Rangers portion of his otherwise illustrious career. And it’s not like we’re talking about a bunch of dunkers here: Oswalt has given up 14 extra-base hits in those 17⅓ innings, 11 of them doubles and triples (i.e., balls in play).
Derek Holland is back off the disabled list, and Texas is targeting July 17 or 18 for Colby Lewis’s return from the DL. Scott Feldman presumably goes back to the bullpen when Lewis returns. But if Oswalt continues his piñata impression for much longer, the Rangers might reshuffle their rotation again, Luck Dragons or not.
3. Washington Nationals, 49-34 (348 RS, 290 RA) (last week: 3)
Ryan Zimmerman lives! After racking up a second straight 0-for-4 against the Orioles on June 23, the two-time Silver Slugger–winning third baseman’s season line stood at .218/.285/.305. The shoulder injury that threatened to wreck his season has apparently healed: Zimmerman’s hit .333/.387/.684 since then, launching five homers over one 10-game stretch. With Wilson Ramos out for the season, the Nats could use an upgrade over Jesus Flores at catcher. A veteran outfielder as Jayson Werth insurance wouldn’t hurt either. With the team carrying a middle-of-the-road payroll around $92 million, and a golden opportunity to claim the first playoff berth in franchise history, standing pat at the deadline wouldn’t make much sense.
4. Los Angeles Angels, 48-38 (378 RS, 334 RA) (last week: 4)
You’d never imagine the Angels would head into the All-Star break hurting for starting pitching. Not after the team spent $77.5 million on C.J. Wilson, fortifying a rotation that already included Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana, and figured to rank among the very best in the majors. But things unraveled in a hurry. Santana, an All-Star and no. 6 in Cy Young voting four years ago, and owner of a strong 3.38 ERA last year, sports a hideous 5.75 ERA and ranks second in MLB with 20 homers allowed. Haren’s been an even bigger disappointment. In his 10th season in the big leagues, Haren finally hit the DL for the first time last week, with a diagnosis of lower back stiffness. Turns out he’d been fighting back problems for weeks, which you might’ve figured after checking batters’ June stats against him: .336/.388/.630 (followed by a seven-run mash-fest in Cleveland on July 3). Two years ago, under a previous regime, the Angels swung a deadline deal for Haren, giving up top prospect Tyler Skaggs (and another solid prospect, Patrick Corbin) as part of that five-player trade. With the Trout and Trumbo show still going strong and the bullpen much improved with Ernesto Frieri firing bullets, another move for a top starter (or at least someone in the Ryan Dempster neighborhood) becomes the top priority.
5. Chicago White Sox, 47-38 (409 RS, RS 346 RA) (last week: 8)
Kevin Youkilis with the Red Sox: .233/.315/.377, four homers in 42 games.
Kevin Youkilis with the White Sox: .347/.418/.571, three homers in 12 games, one fired-up Hawk Harrelson.
They’ll sell it as change of scenery/escape from big, bad Bobby Valentine. You’ll recognize it as plain, old regression to the mean, with a little bit of “Hey, I’m not in crippling pain anymore!” Either way, Fake Jake Peavy approves.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates, 48-37 (345 RS, 313 RA) (last week: 14)
Andrew McCutchen’s MVP credentials are real, and they’re spectacular. He ranks second in the league in OPS (1.039) and wOBA (.437). Ultimate Zone Rating curiously hates his defense (as does Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved stat), or else he’d rank higher than fourth in the league in Wins Above Replacement (4.5). He’s also stolen 14 bases and played in 81 of the Pirates’ 85 games. And while you can debate the meaning of the term “most valuable,” the Pirates’ next-most productive regular is Garrett Jones, he of the relatively modest .337 wOBA.
Which brings us to those trade rumors. Fox Sports’ Jon Morosi noted that the Pirates might be kicking the tires on Padres free-agent-to-be Carlos Quentin as well as Upton. However they play it, the Bucs could use at least one more bat, and preferably more than one. No team has gotten less out of its left fielders, Drew Sutton’s small-sample-size fiesta notwithstanding. Casey McGehee’s a well-below-average first baseman, and Clint Barmes has wallowed below replacement level this season, with the added bonus that he has another year left on his ridiculous two-year, $10.5 million contract. If it feels like we’ve been agitating every week for the Pirates to make a splash, it’s because we have. Winners of 10 of their past 12, best record in baseball over the past two months, 20 years of losing, so scorching hot they’re playing H-O-R-S-E with the foul pole. Neal Huntington’s already traded for James McDonald, A.J. Burnett, Joel Hanrahan, and Charlie Morton. Time to add some bats to those arms.
7. Cincinnati Reds, 47-38 (358 RS, 316 RA) (last week: 6)
Sure, they’ve been overtaken by the Pirates. But the Reds’ second half looks bright. As Buster Olney wrote, the Reds have the easiest second-half schedule of any National League team, with 42 of 77 games at home, and just 24 games against teams currently over .500.2 If you’re looking for trade targets here, think left-handed sock. Despite Joey Votto’s outrageous numbers, the lefty-lacking Reds rank just 21st in the majors in production vs. right-handed pitching, with a .306 wOBA.
8. New York Mets, 46-40 (394 RS, 374 RA) (last week: 9)
Granted, Ruben Tejada’s surprising first half is almost entirely the result of an inflated .393 BABIP; he hasn’t hit a single home run this season and has struck out more than twice as often as he’s walked. Still, he’s respectable defensively, hitting some doubles, and doesn’t turn 23 until the end of the World Series. And then there’s this:
Ruben Tejada: 41 games, .325/.381/.405, 1.3 WAR, $491K
Jose Reyes: 84 games, .264/.336/.378, 1.3 WAR, $10 million
It’s enough to elicit the most violent high-five in the history of Western civilization.
9. St. Louis Cardinals, 46-40 (426 RS, 356 RA) (last week: 11)
Still a third-place team, but the Cardinals’ results are slowly starting to catch up to their underlying performance. They lead the NL in runs scored and run differential, with three one-run wins during their 6-2 stretch to close the first half. Unfortunately, both of the Cards’ losses during that stretch were also of the one-run variety; only the D-Backs, Phillies, and Cubs have fared worse in one-run contests than the 10-14 Cardinals. Normally you might chalk that up to bad luck, but there’s something else afoot here. For most of last year’s first half, the St. Louis bullpen was terrible — so bad that John Mozeliak shipped talented center fielder Colby Rasmus out of town in large part as a way to rebuild that pen.3 Well, turns out this year’s crew is just as bad: Only the Cubs’ relievers have delivered less value, and the Cards are one of four teams to sport a sub-replacement level bullpen this year. The good news is relief pitchers, even really good ones, come a lot cheaper than no. 1 starters or middle-of-the-order hitters. The Cardinals might not even need to ditch a future 30-homer hitter again to make a deal happen.
10. Atlanta Braves, 46-39 (391 RS, 357 RA) (last week: 12)
• Dude holding a baby sees a foul ball flying toward him, makes an amazing catch.
• Fan favorite and future Gold Glover Andrelton Simmons applauds, because game recognize game.
• Simmons, the 22-year-old rookie who’s flourished after taking Tyler Pastornicky’s job by hitting .296/.336/.452 in addition to playing killer defense, breaks his right pinkie and is now almost certainly headed to the DL. Ouch.
11. Los Angeles Dodgers, 47-40 (332 RS, 322 RA) (last week: 10)
The Dodgers’ current starting lineup, per MLBDepthCharts.com:
CF Elian Herrera
2B Mark Ellis
LF Bobby Abreu
1B James Loney
RF Juan Rivera
3B Jerry Hairston Jr.
C A.J. Ellis
SS Luis Cruz
It’s not quite as bad as it looks, with A.J. Ellis enjoying a big year and one or two of those role players performing surprisingly well. Still, Andre Ethier and Dee Gordon both hit the DL last week, and the Dodgers closed out the first half playing with a skeleton crew. That should soon change. Matt Kemp is expected back when play resumes on Friday, and Ethier might join him. The Dodgers’ incredible start also gave them so much cushion that even with all the injuries and a 5-15 end to the first half they’re still clinging to first place in the NL West, with the means and the will to make big upgrades in the next three weeks.
12. Tampa Bay Rays, 45-41 (363 RS, 359 RA) (last week: 13)
Kind of like the Dodgers, but with a hell of a lot more competition. The Rays are a huge long shot to catch the Yankees this year, heading into the break 7½ games out, missing Evan Longoria until at least August, with no track record of making major moves at the deadline to bolster a contender. If anything, the rumor mill has swirled with talk of selling, as names like James Shields (two club options left at $9 million and $12 million) and B.J. Upton (free agent at the end of this year, 24 strikeouts in his past 58 at-bats) soaking up waves of speculation, even as Tampa Bay’s front office keeps mum as always. As is, making major upgrades anywhere except at catcher and possibly shortstop might not make much sense: Leaving aside the Rays’ limited resources and their aversion to flipping prospects for win-now veterans, the team could improve in the second half by doing nothing more than waiting for their slumping lineup to start hitting. Only the Mariners and A’s have hit worse than the Rays’ .232, with players like Desmond Jennings (.231/.298/.353), Carlos Pena (.201/.337/.372), and Luke Scott (.205/.260/.409 after recently snapping out of an 0-for-41 freefall) performing well below projections. The Rays are still doing some Rays things. Ben Zobrist has swung at a lower percentage of pitches than any other hitter in baseball, and he and Pena are tied for second in the AL in walks; Fernando Rodney has been another scrap-heap jackpot for the bullpen and hasn’t walked a batter in more than a month; and the Rays are on pace to become the first team to win five straight AL stolen base crowns since the Go-Go White Sox won 11 straight from 1951 through 1961 (hat-tip Rays PR man @Jonathan_Gantt). But if Longoria can’t make it back soon enough, Matt Joyce is slow to recover from his own injury, and the team’s underachievers don’t turn things around, a Game 162–style backdoor route to the second wild card becomes a best-case scenario for the Rays.
13. San Francisco Giants, 46-40 (338 RS, 346 RA) (last week: 5)
Six runs, eight base runners, and two home runs in 3⅓ innings Sunday, and somehow that was an improvement over his last start. After brief bouts of optimism linked to a decent five-start stretch, I’m coming around to the idea of being spectacularly wrong on Tim Lincecum. We know about the velocity, with Lincecum’s fastball and slider both down about 2 mph from last year. But his pitch location’s been lousy all year, he keeps getting pummeled when pitching from the stretch, and eventually you start to wonder if all the doomsayers were right when they said that Lincecum’s slight frame and Freakish delivery would eventually catch up to it — whether through serious injury or just a sharp drop in performance. The Giants continue to get good-to-great pitching from Ryan Vogelsong, Madison Bumgarner, and Matt Cain. Plus, with the third-lowest scoring offense in the league, offensive upgrades would be the most logical path to take at the deadline. But when a supposed-to-be-bulletproof rotation keeps sending lambs to the slaughter two out of every five days (Barry Zito’s somewhat respectable 4.01 ERA can’t hide his ugly peripherals), you’ve got problems.
14. Boston Red Sox, 43-43 (432 RS, 389 RA) (last week: 7)
A week that started with the Red Sox surging and Don and Jerry dancing ended with six of seven losses and a dose of Yankees-imposed carnage. David Ortiz continued his monster renaissance season, reaching base 13 times in the four-game set against New York. Even Dustin Pedroia’s trip to the DL didn’t seem to matter, as nearly-27-year-old minor league lifer Pedro Ciriaco got called up and went 7-for-94 in the final two games of the series. Of course the offense has never been the problem. Even with a raft of injuries slicing through the lineup, the Red Sox have still scored more runs than any other team in baseball, save the Rangers. Boston figures to get some lift when Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford return, if only on the defensive side. But Cody Ross and Daniel Nava both rank among the team’s four most productive position players this year; even if you’re an optimist, is Crawford really going to outproduce Nava’s .275/.388/.427 when (if?) he comes back?
The Red Sox need starting pitching. Badly. Clay Buchholz’s injury woes have crushed his season. Josh Beckett has battled injuries and ineffectiveness all year. Daniel Bard never panned out. Dice-K is Dice-K. The Franklin Morales experiment suddenly turned ugly when he yielded six earned runs in one start after surrendering just four earned runs in his first 18 innings as a starter. And Jon Lester, while putting up solid-enough peripherals (strikeout-to-walk rate of better than 3-to-1, 3.57 FIP), has tossed a bunch of stinkers this year. The lack of a strong second wild-card contender behind the Angels gives teams like the Red Sox (and Rays, Orioles, Indians, Tigers, and Jays) some modicum of hope. But status quo isn’t likely to be enough.
15. Baltimore Orioles, 45-40 (351 RS, 387 RA) (last week: 15)
They’re reportedly pursuing Zack Greinke, and have inquired about lesser pitchers such as Wandy Rodriguez, too. Which is what you do when you’re clinging to the second wild-card slot by your fingernails, with a rotation so dysfunctional that Baltimore sent three of its starters (Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta) to the minors in the span of a week.
16. Cleveland Indians, 44-41 (385 RS, 414 RA) (last week: 17)
What’s wrong with Carlos Santana? After a hot start that suggested a repeat (or better) of his 27-homer, 97-walk 2011 campaign, Santana has been one of the worst regulars in the majors for the past two-plus months. Through May 2, he was hitting .260/.409/.466. Since then: .205/.310/.283. Though he’s still walking a ton (46 walks in 290 PA), Santana hasn’t homered since May 15, and his isolated power (slugging average minus batting average) is down a full 100 points to just .117 this year. With a home run drought about to reach two months, you start to wonder if an injury might be in play. Travis Hafner’s already homered once since coming off the DL on July 4. Anything even remotely close to vintage Hafner would be most welcome, given Santana’s woes.
17. Detroit Tigers, 44-42 (387 RS, 381 RA) (last week: 19)
Riding MLB’s longest current winning streak at five games, the Tigers finished the first half at 44-42. As the excellent Tigers blog Bless You Boys reminds us, at the same 86-game mark last year, Detroit’s record was 45-41. Little wonder many sharps still have the Tigers as the favorites to win the AL Central.
18. Toronto Blue Jays, 43-43 (430 RS, 408 RA) (last week: 18)
Another week, another tale (or two) of prodigious Blue Jays power. Colby Rasmus’s bomb off the facing of the fifth deck in right at Rogers Centre surely qualifies. But sometimes the long view offers the clearest picture: Since the start of the 2010 season, Jose Bautista leads the majors with 124 homers. Coming in second is Albert Pujols with 92.
19. Oakland A’s, 43-43 (319 RS, 316 RA) (last week: 21)
Veteran San Francisco Chronicle columnist Susan Slusser passed along this tidbit: A’s right-hander Jarrod Parker became the first pitcher since 1918 to allow one run or less in 10 of his first 14 starts. So what does Parker do for an encore? Serve up six runs and eight base runners in 4⅔ innings against a slugging Mariners offense.
20. Arizona Diamondbacks, 42-43 (375 RS, 365 RA) (last week: 18)
From 94 wins and a division title to a team now apparently fielding offers for franchise player Justin Upton, in a span of half a season. How on earth did we get here? It starts with Upton, whose bad thumb whacked his early-season numbers. There’s Stephen Drew’s ankle injury knocking him out for most of the first half. Daniel Hudson struggling to regain his old form, then going under the knife for a torn UCL. And on and on. But you wonder how much of it might be a reaction to at least some normal regression. Though they won 94 games last year, Arizona’s run differential suggested the profile of an 88-team squad. And what might seem like a normal pullback for an 88-win team (or even one a bit worse that might’ve just missed last year’s playoffs) instead looks like a colossal disappointment. Of course if the D-backs believe Upton’s injury issues extend to potentially chronic shoulder problems stemming from a 2006 labrum tear, all bets are off.
21. Miami Marlins, 41-44 (334 RS, 390 RA) (last week: 20)
Showtime’s behind-the-scenes baseball special The Franchise debuts on Wednesday, with a first look at the 2012 Marlins. The show purports to show a major league team’s inner workings, warts and all. Thing is, there hasn’t been much other than warts lately. The bullpen imploded on Tuesday, with $27 million man Heath Bell blowing the save then blowing another one by ceding five base runners in ⅔ of an inning Sunday. Then there’s the problem of the Marlins’ All-Star contingent — the problem being, there isn’t one. Twenty-two-year-old slugger Giancarlo Stanton has a knee problem that’ll knock him out four to six weeks. Leaving aside the major blow that strikes against the Marlins’ very slim pennant hopes, the injury also left the Fish with exactly zero representatives to send to Kansas City for the midsummer classic. Asked about that state of affairs, Marlins president David Samson cited Justin Ruggiano as one of the players he’d have most wanted to see go. And therein lies the problem with the 2012 Marlins: The boss proposes that a cast-off outfielder with 96 plate appearances represent the team on the big stage and the idea turns out to be perfectly defensible from a numeric standpoint, with Ruggiano locked in a virtual tie with Omar Infante for the title of most valuable Marlins position player by WAR. The Franchise‘s producers will likely be disappointed by the Marlins’ overwhelming mediocrity after their offseason spending spree. But hey, at least they’ve got Ozzie and a mic.
22. Milwaukee Brewers, 40-45 (384 RS, 393 RA) (last week: 22)
If you had to guess which team owns the biggest spread between home and road scoring, even casual baseball fans’ minds would (correctly) wander to the Rockies. Coming in second in that category are the Brewers, who’ve tallied 1.6 more runs a game at home than they have on the road. Just don’t blame Rickie Weeks for the problem. Weeks’s sub–Mendoza line performance has helped torpedo the Brewers’ season, but his OPS is actually 62 points higher on the road than it’s been at home this year.
23. Philadelphia Phillies, 37-50 (368 RS, 396 RA) (last week: 23)
If we’re going to play the on-pace game in Detroit, it’s only fair we do so for Philly, too. As the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Matt Gelb notes, the Phillies lost their 50th game last season on September 12, when they were sitting on a 94-50 record. It’s gotten so bad that free-agent-to-be Shane Victorino got benched Sunday apparently for throwing a fit because he wasn’t happy about batting seventh in Philly’s lineup.
24. Kansas City Royals, 37-47 (344 RS, 385 RA) (last week: 24)
Here’s another fun fact from a local beat writer, this time the Kansas City Star‘s Sam Mellinger: Royals starter Jonathan Sanchez has allowed a .414 on-base percentage this season. The AL hitter with the highest OBP year-to-date is Joe Mauer, at .416. The guy traded for Sanchez? Melky Cabrera, who’s hitting a mere .359/.391/.539 for the Giants.
25. Seattle Mariners, 36-51 (337 RS, 365 RA) (last week: 25)
Too bad the Mariners’ pitching and offense have been so pokey — only the Braves and Angels have posted a higher team UZR than Seattle. Brendan Ryan is hitting an abysmal .187/.287/.286, yet still ranks as one of the team’s most valuable players thanks to his perennially elite glove work.
26. Minnesota Twins, 36-49 (354 RS, 441 RA) (last week: 26)
Before we mock the Twins and Rangers for freaking out a bit too much over a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder Sunday night, let’s take a moment to appreciate the awesome power of nature, and what it can do to us.
OK, now back to mocking. Hey, Josh Willingham, find your lost contacts yet?
27. San Diego Padres, 34-53 (305 RS, 381 RA) (last week: 29)
Ernesto Frieri since going from the Padres to the Angels: 25⅓ innings, 43 strikeouts, 0.00 ERA. Alexi Amarista since switching from the Angels to the Padres: 110 at-bats, four homers, six doubles, two triples, .359 BA with a .718 slugging average in his past 39 AB.5 Gotta love those win-win trades.
28. Houston Astros, 33-53 (344 RS, 416 RA) (last week: 27)
Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein has the goods on Matt Dominguez and Rob Rasmussen, the two prospects acquired in a trade with the Marlins for Carlos Lee. Suffice to say that even a disappointing first-rounder like Dominguez and a second-tier pitching prospect like Rasmussen constitute a good return for Lee, a 36-year-old statue who doesn’t hit for power anymore and was eating up playing time better used on younger players like anyone, really. Lee’s numbers so far with Miami: 2-for-13, three walks, no extra-base hits.
29. Chicago Cubs, 33-52 (317 RS, 386 RA) (last week: 30)
Ryan Dempster returned from the DL after missing three weeks with a strained lat muscle and promptly tossed five shutout innings against the Mets, running his scoreless streak to 27 innings. With all the consternation likely to ensue as the Phillies and Brewers mull blockbuster offers for Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke, you have to figure the Cubs’ willingness to move Dempster, mixed with the smaller price he’ll command in prospects, make him a near-sure thing to get dealt by month’s end. Assuming he stays healthy, of course.
30. Colorado Rockies, 33-52 (413 RS, 479 RA) (last week: 28)
Tyler Colvin’s .305/.335/.626 season line, buoyed by his recent run of 10 homers in 76 AB (including two in one game off Stephen Strasburg) have given Rockies fans a rare occasion to cheer in an otherwise dismal season. But there’s something more afoot here. Swing-from-the-heels outfielder who can’t field a lick, can’t take a walk to save his life, hits a ton of home runs, likely to put up shiny numbers for as long as his Rockies bosses can brook his multiple weaknesses.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Dante Bichette Jr.! OK, OK another Dante Bichette Jr.!