We’re only three games beyond the All-Star break, yet the pennant-race craziness has already begun.
The NL Central is a free-for-all following the Brewers’ big slump. The AL East is full of mediocre-to-bad teams that believe they still have a shot. The NL West is a seesaw between the Giants and the Dodgers, with L.A. unable to hold a division lead for more than a few days despite a $229 million payroll. We’re seeing dominant performances from breakout players, major contributions from new faces in new places, and plenty of late-inning drama. Even the noncontenders are getting feisty, with lousy pitchers griping for no good reason and rebuilders taking detours to glory. What a country.
It’s Week 16 of The 30.
Bat Flip of the Week
We’re going down to the farm this week. If you’re not a prospect hound, you might not have seen Joey Gallo — the player whom Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh dubbed “The Most Interesting Man in the Minors” — in action before the All-Star break. But you sure as hell got to see Gallo’s greatness during the Futures Game. First came Gallo’s jaw-dropping power display during batting practice, the next-best thing to a minor league home run derby. Then came the clincher: a two-run homer in the sixth inning of the game, propelling Gallo’s USA side to a 3-2 win.
The home run itself was a monstrous 419-foot blast onto the right-field terrace, and the resulting bat flip was a thing of understated beauty:
All My Hexes Live in Texas
The Rangers and Astros bring up the rear this week.
30. Texas Rangers (39-59, -110 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Houston Astros (41-58, -86, LW: 28)
28. Colorado Rockies (40-58, -56, LW: 27)
27. Arizona Diamondbacks (43-56, -63, LW: 29)
26. San Diego Padres (43-55, -44, LW: 26)
25. Chicago Cubs (40-57, -38, LW: 25)
24. Philadelphia Phillies (43-55, -54, LW: 24)
23. Miami Marlins (45-52, -28, LW: 18)
22. Minnesota Twins (44-53, -26, LW: 22)
I’m not a big fan of multiyear contracts for closers, and I’m even less of a fan when the team spending the money isn’t a contender. I have to concede, however, that San Diego ultimately did pretty well with Huston Street.
On Friday, the Padres sent Street and Double-A right-hander Trevor Gott to the Angels for pitchers R.J. Alvarez and Elliot Morris and infielders Taylor Lindsey and Jose Rondon. Baseball America writer J.J. Cooper considered Lindsey, Alvarez, and Rondon the three top prospects in the Angels’ farm system, and rated all four players among the Angels’ top 10 prospects. At first glance, that seems like a serious haul for a pitcher in the second year of a two-year, $14 million contract,1 albeit one who’d allowed just 25 baserunners in 33 innings this season while striking out 34 and posting a 1.09 ERA.
Not so fast:
Here’s what we know about these four prospects: Last winter, Baseball America tabbed Lindsey as the Angels’ top prospect and third-best 25-and-under player, behind Mike Trout and Garrett Richards. The lefty-swinging second baseman hit .274/.339/.441 at Double-A Arkansas last year, but posted a mediocre .247/.323/.400 line in the big-offense Pacific Coast League this season before the trade. He projects as a good-bat/so-so glove guy, much like San Diego’s current second baseman, Jedd Gyorko.2 Alvarez, meanwhile, has struck out 155 batters and allowed just four home runs in 103 career minor league innings. He’s considered a potential big league closer, with a fastball that can touch the high 90s and an improving high-80s slider; unless he’s a future Craig Kimbrel, though, it’s hard to get too excited about any pitcher with a 60-inning ceiling. Then there’s Rondon, a 20-year-old Venezuelan shortstop whom Baseball Prospectus projects as a future utility player, and Morris, a 22-year-old right-hander who throws hard but is dealing with command issues in the California League this year. So, yes, the Padres got a nice return for a short reliever who wasn’t going to help turn them into a contender, but they didn’t exactly get four sure things.
And that’s OK, because the Padres made an aggressive move to upgrade their young talent base, which they desperately needed to do given their spectacular scouting and player development failures over the years. They already got a steal from the Rays in impressive rookie Jesse Hahn, and they could trade Joaquin Benoit, Chase Headley, and others for more potential future reinforcements.3 Those reinforcements could further bolster what’s already an intriguing pitching staff, with Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross at the top of the rotation, Hahn providing potential support, and Cuban mystery man Odrisamer Despaigne a wild card. Sunday, in his fifth career start, Despaigne came tantalizingly close to tossing the first no-hitter in franchise history, while also delighting those who were following along using the MLB At Bat app.
For a team that’s on pace for one of the worst offensive seasons of the past century, it’s all about glimmers of hope — regardless of whether those glimmers come from baseball’s worst farm system.
The AL Legion of Mediocrity
Seven American League teams fighting for traction … plus the ascendant Mets.
21. Chicago White Sox (47-52, -25, LW: 19)
20. New York Mets (46-52, +13, LW: 21)
19. Boston Red Sox (46-52, -30, LW: 23)
18. Tampa Bay Rays (47-53, -16, LW: 20)
17. Kansas City Royals (48-49, -4, LW: 14)
16. Cleveland Indians (50-48, +1, LW: 17)
15. New York Yankees (50-47, -29, LW: 16)
14. Toronto Blue Jays (51-48, +21, LW: 15)
If we’re going to spill thousands of words about Clayton Kershaw, it seems only fair to do the same for Chris Sale. Yes, Kershaw plays for a more glamorous and successful team, and yes, he’s been dominating a little longer than his fellow lefty. Still, compare the 2014 stat lines4 and it’s tough to ignore the similarities: Right now, Sale looks like the AL version of Kershaw.
To toast Sale’s excellence, here are some fun facts about one of the best and most underrated pitchers in the game:
• Sale leads all left-handed AL starters with as many or more innings pitched in ERA (2.08) and FIP (2.48).
• Opposing batters are hitting .190 against Sale, with a .237 on-base percentage. Both of those marks lead the AL. Opponents are slugging .271 against Sale, second only to the Angels’ Richards (more on him later).
• Sale ranks second in the AL in strikeout rate (28.3 percent), trailing only Yu Darvish; second in swing-and-miss rate (12.5 percent), trailing only Masahiro Tanaka; and sixth in walk rate (4.4 percent).
• In 14 starts, Sale has allowed more than three runs only once: a seven-inning, five-run affair against the Angels, the top-scoring team in baseball.
• Left-handed batters are hitting .118/.183/.132 against Sale. Check out Sale’s heat map against lefties:
When Sale gets two strikes against lefties, he throws his slider away, and those hitters take a seat. Sale against lefties is basically baseball’s version of this:
The White Sox are headed in the right direction, as GM Rick Hahn’s roster makeover continues behind Sale and the great Jose Abreu. Take the $68 million deal that binds Abreu to the team through 2019, and the $32.5 million pact that locks up Sale through 2017,5 and the White Sox boast the best pair of long-term contracts in all of baseball.
The Wild, Wild Central
Baseball’s most competitive race finds a friend in the Pacific Northwest.
13. Cincinnati Reds (51-47, +20, LW: 12)
12. Pittsburgh Pirates (52-46, +3, LW: 13)
11. Seattle Mariners (52-46, +56, LW: 10)
10. Milwaukee Brewers (54-45, +13, LW: 7)
9. St. Louis Cardinals (54-45, +16, LW: 11)
The Mariners just completed a pretty ugly weekend in Anaheim. The first two games of the series totaled 28 innings, instantly wearing down a bullpen that had just gotten fresh over the All-Star break. The M’s had multiple opportunities to win both of those marathon contests, but had to settle for the split. Then they suffered a walk-off loss Sunday, one made all the more painful due to some archery-themed comeuppance: After Seattle closer Fernando Rodney finished the eighth inning, he fired one of his trademark imaginary arrows toward the Angels’ dugout, only to see Albert Pujols and Trout mock the gesture while celebrating Grant Green’s game-winning hit.
Though Rodney has been erratic at points throughout his career (especially in 2010 and 2011 with the Angels), he’s actually been terrific this year in Seattle: Pujols’s game-tying double was the first extra-base hit Seattle’s flamboyant closer had allowed to a right-handed hitter all season (h/t Rany Jazayerli). Even the best closers blow games occasionally, though, and the Mariners’ bullpen has been elite all year long. M’s fans should be truly furious about something that occurred a few minutes before Rodney blew the game, in the top of the ninth.
The Mariners led 5-4 heading into the ninth inning. Facing lefty Joe Thatcher, the first two batters went down quietly. Mike Zunino and Brad Miller then followed with back-to-back singles, putting two men on with two outs. The Angels were going to be sending a half-billion dollars’ worth of lumber to the plate in the bottom of the inning in Trout, Pujols, and Josh Hamilton; an insurance run or two could have been huge for the Mariners’ chances. So who did Lloyd McClendon send to the plate in this hugely important spot? Endy Chavez.
In his 13-year career, Chavez has won his share of admirers. Though he’s posted above-average offensive numbers in only two of those 13 seasons,6 he’s been a useful part-time player for a while thanks to his combination of speed and defense. He was once an Expo, which is saying something, because there are only five former Expos remaining on active major league rosters. He also forever earned a soft spot in Mets fans’ hearts by pulling in one of the greatest catches in playoff history:
Unfortunately, Chavez is past his prime, and not someone who should be starting for a team with legitimate playoff aspirations. He’s also not someone who should be up against a left-handed pitcher in a big spot. Entering Sunday’s game, Chavez had gone 0-for-19 against lefties this year, and his struggles extended beyond that, with a .296 on-base percentage and .294 slugging percentage in 136 at-bats against lefties from 2011 through 2013. Yet not only did McClendon start Chavez against lefty Tyler Skaggs and have Chavez lead off, he let Chavez stay in the game for that ninth-inning battle … which predictably ended in an inning-ending groundout to short.7
If the M’s truly fancy themselves contenders, neither Chavez nor rookie James Jones — who, after a brief hot start to his major league career, has posted a .288 OBP and slugged .314 over his last 51 games — should be seeing more than occasional playing time. Neither has anything resembling real power, and, according to Baseball Info Solutions, Mariners center fielders (i.e., Jones and Chavez almost entirely) have combined to cost the team 10 runs compared to the average player at that position.
Finding a replacement who can both hit and field at one of baseball’s toughest positions won’t be easy. Michael Saunders has quietly developed into one of the team’s better hitters, and he could be back off the disabled list by next week, assuming his oblique strain heals as hoped. However, he rates much higher defensively as a corner outfielder than in center, where BIS ranks him as one of the worst in the league. Various rumors have linked the Mariners to players like Marlon Byrd and Ben Zobrist, and though neither would solve the center-field defense issue, either would give Seattle’s offense a solid boost.
And that could be enough. While fans of pennant-chasing teams like to dream about acquiring superstars like David Price at this time of year, the truth is that upgrading from replacement-level talent to above-average talent can be as beneficial as going from good players to great ones. Short of peak Ken Griffey Jr. magically lacing up his spikes, that more modest approach could do wonders for the Mariners and their playoff chances.
The Best, Jerry, the Best
AL West rivals continue to lead the way.
8. Baltimore Orioles (53-44, +21, LW: 9)
7. San Francisco Giants (54-44, +32, LW: 8)
6. Atlanta Braves (54-44, +19, LW: 6)
5. Washington Nationals (53-43, +65, LW: 5)
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (55-45, +48, LW: 4)
3. Detroit Tigers (54-41, +41, LW: 3)
2. Los Angeles Angels (59-38, +90, LW: 2)
1. Oakland A’s (61-37, +150, LW: 1)
It’s practically a mantra in this column, but I’ll say it again: If a team is going to have a weakness, it might as well be a leaky bullpen. As frustrating as it can be to watch lousy relievers blow late leads, contenders know that a glut of relievers will become available at this time of year, and often with tiny price tags.
As discussed, the Angels gave up a lot to get Street. In so doing, however, they acquired one of this season’s most effective closers. The move also allowed the Halos to shift Joe Smith back to the setup role with which he’s most accustomed, and combined with the recent acquisitions of Thatcher and Jason Grilli,8 it helped the Angels engineer one of the biggest in-season bullpen improvements in recent memory.
I mentioned earlier that the Angels giving up four of their best prospects isn’t the same as another team doing it, since the Halos ranked dead last on Baseball America’s organizational list at the start of this season. Still, it’s time to defend the Halos’ much-maligned farm system. Yes, it helps to play in a major market and rank sixth among Opening Day payrolls, but the Angels wouldn’t be the hottest team in baseball9 or have the second-best record in the game without major contributions from their top homegrown players. To prove my point, I’ll skip over the best player in baseball as well as guys like Jered Weaver, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, and others who came up through the Angels’ system to focus on two of the team’s younger players, both of whom have broken out this year and contributed greatly to the club’s success: Richards and Kole Calhoun.
Richards boasts a 2.47 ERA (third among qualified AL starters, and fourth if we include Chris Sale), 2.66 FIP (third, fourth counting Sale), 25.5 percent strikeout rate (tied for ninth, tied for ninth counting Sale), .192 batting average allowed (first, second counting Sale), and .253 slugging average allowed (first). The Angels sorely needed a third quality starter to emerge alongside Weaver and C.J. Wilson in order to make a playoff push this year, and Richards has met and exceeded that bar, emerging as the team’s best pitcher and making the All-Star Game Final Vote.
Calhoun’s contributions haven’t been trumpeted as loudly, but they should be. The 26-year-old right fielder was an eighth-round pick in the 2010 draft and never really earned much buzz, even in the Angels’ thin farm system. He got his first taste of semiregular playing time last year and fared well, batting .282/.347/.462. This season started in ugly fashion as Calhoun hit the disabled list just 14 games in and missed five weeks with an ankle injury. Since returning from the DL, though, he’s raked, hiking his season line to .305/.365/.517, including a big three-hit performance in Sunday’s series clincher against the Mariners.
Among outfielders with 250 or more plate appearances, Calhoun is tied for eighth in wRC+, a stat that measures every aspect of offensive production and adjusts for park and league effects. For some context: Nelson Cruz ranks second in the majors in homers and fourth in RBIs, but by wRC+, he and Calhoun have been equals as hitters on a per-at-bat basis.
Combine that offensive production with defense that BIS rates as average or a tick above (with occasional gusts up to highlight-reel worthy) and Calhoun looks like one of the best young outfielders in the game — and another argument against the theory that the Angels are little more than big-money mercenaries.10
The Halos are a balanced team with young stars and a freshly upgraded bullpen, and they’re capable of making a major playoff run. If they can sprint past the A’s to win the AL West, the Angels might actually be the favorites to win it all in 2014.