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The 30: Stay Classy, San Diego

No one expected much from the Padres, but a series of injuries has allowed a youth movement to make some noise out west.

Kyle Blanks

As we approach the halfway point of the season, baseball’s axis is starting to tilt. Some of the hottest teams of the early season have started to teeter. Multiple teams once living in the shadows are starting to rise up. The race toward the middle is on, and these four teams are all getting sucked in.

It’s Week 11 of The 30.

Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.

10. NEW YORK YANKEES

It worked for a while.

The 2013 Yankees suffered a rash of injuries the likes of which the franchise had rarely seen … yet somehow made it work. New York somehow cobbled together a group of replacement killers that overachieved in a way no one thought possible. Lyle Overbay cranked eight homers and knocked in 28 runs in his first 46 games while slugging .484. Vernon Wells, the $21 million–a–year running joke who drove Angels fans to gin and despair, suddenly turned (back) into a world-beater, hitting .310/.394/.638 through his first 15 games and looking like the best and most unlikely reclamation project of the offseason. Travis Hafner owned a 1.104 OPS at the end of April. Spurred by these scrap-heap finds, along with a beefed-up bullpen, Hiroki Kuroda assuming the role of ace, and a few breaks, the Yanks blazed through the first few weeks of the season. That was long enough for the Bombers to stake their claim at or near the top of the AL East. By the time Curtis Granderson, Kevin Youkilis, and Mark Teixeira all returned to action, the Yankees’ successful stand-ins figured to stand down, and a near-full-strength roster could carry forward the team’s plan to surge back to the postseason.

Granderson and Youkilis are now back on the DL. Teixeira reinjured his wrist Saturday and has been ruled out for the next couple days, and maybe more. Overbay stopped hitting, as did Hafner, and Wells is hitting an unimaginably terrible .134/.141/.165 over the past month. The Yankees did snap a five-game losing streak Sunday, though just barely, turning a 6-0 ninth-inning lead into a 6-5 nail-biter. The low point came Thursday, when 5-6-7 hitters Hafner, Youkilis, and Wells combined to go 0-for-23 with nine strikeouts in an 18-inning loss to Oakland.

The Yankees are averaging just 3.9 runs per game, worse than any other AL team except the lowly Astros, Mariners, and White Sox. The last Yankees team to score fewer runs per game was the 1990 edition, a squad that averaged just 3.7 runs per contest. Much of that is related to the broader changes in the game over the past couple decades, with baseball seeing a surge in offense starting in the early-to-mid ’90s that lasted about a decade and a half, leading to a significant downturn in the past few years. But even that is somewhat offset by the Yankees’ move to the more hitter-friendly, new Yankee Stadium in 2009. Bottom line, this is a lineup stuffed with lousy hitters.

Fixing these kinds of mounting problems could pose a major challenge in the short term, given how many holes the lineup now has, how far the offense has sunk, and how few obvious in-house solutions exist. The latest report on Granderson has him potentially not returning until after the All-Star break as he rehabs a broken finger. Youkilis has had back problems for years and they are clearly getting worse. Even if he is healthy there’s no way we should expect Youkilis to hit anywhere near as well as he did in his prime. Derek Jeter has resumed baseball activities but likely won’t be back until the second half, since he’ll need a while to get back up to game shape. Francisco Cervelli? Eduardo Nunez? Alex Rodriguez? They’re all nowhere near returning and they might not be worth much even when they do. Cervelli and Rodriguez being named in the Biogenesis mess could complicate matters down the road, too. Per FanGraphs, the only Yankees position players on pace to post above-average seasons are Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano. And neither Wil Myers nor Oscar Taveras is walking through that door anytime soon.

What the Yankees do have is an impressive collection of young pitching, both on the major league roster and on the farm. Much of that talent is now toiling in the parent club’s bullpen, which ranks fourth in baseball for Wins Above Replacement. As in any other season, many teams desperately need pitching, both now and for the future. And in an odd way, the sheer misery of the Yankees’ offense works in the team’s favor, since it’s much easier to upgrade replacement-level talent like Wells, Overbay, or David Adams than it is to do so with actually competent talent. The gap between someone like Alex Rios and the Yankees’ current offerings wouldn’t be that much smaller than the difference between a just-below-elite All-Star and a league-average player.

The good news is that it could be a lot worse. With few truly elite teams in the American League this year, pitching, one or two stars, and a couple of trades could be enough to get the Yankees back to the playoffs for the 18th time in 19 years.

15. COLORADO ROCKIES

The Rockies were tied with Atlanta for the best record in baseball on April 20 after winning 13 of their first 17 games. They have played at five games under .500 since, and that’s counting taking two out of three against the scuffling Phillies over the weekend. Their best player’s now out until after the All-Star break, which probably means things are going to get worse.

Yet even without Troy Tulowitzki and even adjusting for Coors Field, the Rockies figure to remain one of the top hitting teams in baseball. Though Colorado will be without the most productive hitter in the National League, the league’s second-most productive hitter has been his running mate Carlos Gonzalez. CarGo’s two-run blast in the eighth Sunday salted away a series-clinching win. It also upped his season line to .316/.391/.650, with a league-leading 20 home runs. He is on pace to post the best three-true-outcomes season of his career, with career highs in walk rate (11.4 percent), strikeout rate (24.7 percent), and that monstrous year-to-date homer total. The power surge makes sense when you dig a little deeper and find that Gonzalez is hitting fewer grounders and more fly balls than ever before, with a third straight season of swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone. The plan has become wait for strikes, swing for the moon if you get one, and don’t sweat the whiffs, knowing talent and the hitter-friendly confines of his home park will produce numbers.

The lineup goes deeper than that. There’s Dexter Fowler, on pace for a career year at .301/.397/.494. Nolan Arenado is still working on being patient at the plate. But the rookie third baseman is starting to hit for power while flashing a terrific glove; it’s tough to single-handedly win a 10-9 game, but Arenado came close to doing so with two huge defensive plays and a walk-off bomb on June 7. Michael Cuddyer is hitting out of his mind (.340/.396/.592, albeit with a .374 BABIP). Manager Walt Weiss even learned — after seeing game after game of irrefutable evidence — that placing a Double-A-caliber hitter in the 2-hole and trying to have him bunt a lot is a terrific way to short-circuit an otherwise loaded offense.

But really, the Rockies continuing to hang in the NL West mostly comes down to two factors. The first is health. Colorado’s attempt at a four-man rotation last year failed not because the team’s pitching talent was thin, but because everyone was injured. We’re now seeing what a healthier rotation can do. Jhoulys Chacin’s peripherals are merely decent, with one of the lowest strikeout rates of any NL starter — but he’s also induced a ton of ground balls and weak contact, preventing extra-base hits and feasting on weak lineups when they’ve come his way, such as in Sunday’s start when he came within one out of tossing a Maddux at the Phillies. You could say similar things about Tyler Chatwood, Jorge de la Rosa, and Juan Nicasio, all of whom have found some degree of success by limiting extra-base hits and overcoming average or worse K rates. Add solid contributions from relievers Rex Brothers, Matt Belisle, and Josh Outman, and you have a pitching staff that’s actually outperformed the hitters on a park-adjusted basis and ranks among the league’s elite, even if superficial stats suggest otherwise.

But the bigger reason to keep an eye on the Rockies is the same one that should embolden fans of the next featured team below: There are no superpowers in the NL West. Consider the teams viewed as the three favorites this spring. The Giants have problems in the outfield and injuries at second and third, and a once-impenetrable rotation is now a mess. We’ve written so many articles about the Dodgers’ woes that it’d take way too long to link to all of them — just don’t say we didn’t warn you. The Diamondbacks look to be in the best shape of all, with a deep pitching staff, some key players coming back from injury, and one of the league’s best young sluggers in Paul Goldschmidt. But there’s still a lot of flotsam here, with Miguel Montero, Jason Kubel, Martin Prado, Cody Ross, and Aaron Hill combining to make $36 million while producing 0.1 WAR.1


1.

Hat-tip @mleewelch for that nugget — though an optimist could argue that Montero and Prado are likely to improve, and that Hill should contribute when he comes off the DL sometime in the next couple weeks.

A lot still has to go right for the Rockies to even stay in the race, from Tulo healing quickly to the starting pitching holding up, and even then adding a rotation workhorse and fixing the right side of the infield (even if it’s just leaving Tyler Colvin and Josh Rutledge in to sink or swim) would likely to need to happen. But if you’re going to be one of the many teams hovering around that vast middle, the NL West is where you want to be.

17. SAN DIEGO PADRES

I’d say “Break up the Padres!” but the injury bug, sadly, has already done that.

San Diego has the hottest team in baseball, with the Friars winning six in a row — including a weekend sweep over first-place Arizona — and 30 of their past 49 games. Incredibly, a solid offense has led the way. On a park- and league-adjusted basis the Padres rank 12th in MLB in team offense, something that’s easy to miss without accounting for Petco Park’s run-squashing environment.

The team MVP, and one of the most valuable players in all of baseball for that matter, has been Everth Cabrera. Sunday’s 3-for-4 performance upped Cabrera’s season line to .305/.382/.418. That’s a 5-foot-10, 190-pound shortstop playing at Petco Park, leading the majors in stolen bases and ranking second in Baserunning Runs, who is putting up those numbers, a year after putting up pedestrian numbers and making Padres fans wonder where they might find an above-average option at that position.2 Cabrera’s overall contributions have made him one of the 10 most valuable players in the majors by WAR, while pushing San Diego to second in baserunning contributions and seventh in team defense.3


2.

If you’re a Cabrera fantasy owner, none of this is a secret, and you’re probably blowing kisses at your TV every time you flip on a Padres game. Wait, is that just me? Oh. Carry on then.

3.

UZR isn’t perfect, Cabrera’s own ratings have been erratic since the start of his career, and there’s a lot of noise in play when we’re less than halfway through the season. Still, players like Chase Headley and Yonder Alonso come with strong defensive reputations, and fielding a lineup full of young, athletic players increases the likelihood that there’s some truth behind this rating.

In an oh-so-Padres twist, Cabrera messed up his hamstring on Sunday, and the early signs aren’t encouraging. If Carlos Quentin’s ailing shoulder knocks him back on the DL as many expect and Cabrera’s injury does the same, that would make five would-be starting position players on the shelf: Cabrera, Quentin, power-hitting rookie second baseman Jedd Gyorko, first baseman Alonso, and center fielder Cameron Maybin. It’s really tough to imagine continued success with that much talent gathering splinters.

Even after all that, there are still reasons to feel encouraged. One of the biggest, literally and figuratively, is Kyle Blanks. The 6-6, 270-pound behemoth was about to get sent back to the minors when news broke that Alonso would need to hit the DL. Kept on the roster, shifted back to first, and finally getting a chance to play every day, he’s doing big things with the opportunity.

Granted, the pitching staff has been miserable, with Clayton Richard netting just his second quality start on Sunday, in a season in which the highlight has been getting trapped in an office at Coors Field and getting crushed by his teammates for it. Jason Marquis might own the most misleading 9-2 record in team history, Huston Street was awful before the DL claimed him, too, and Edinson Volquez is still, with rare exceptions, Edinson Volquez. But even in that mess, you’ve got Luke Gregerson pitching well in short relief, Andrew Cashner staying healthy as he starts to unlock some of his considerable potential, and Eric Stults emerging as the improbable leader of the rotation, firing the Padres’ first complete game of the year on Friday and saving Mia Wallace’s life.

So look at it this way: They started miserably, and now they’re a game over .500 and playing great ball. Their raft of injuries, combined with most of the organization’s best pitchers being either still in the minors or just learning the ropes in the big leagues, mean it’s almost certainly not going to last. But really, nothing was expected of the Padres this year. Might as well enjoy the ride.

19. TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Finally … FINALLY! … the Toronto Blue Jays have come back to the land of the relevant.

Ten weeks ago, we urged calm after the Jays got off to an ugly start. They underachieved in 2012, getting buried by an avalanche of injuries and raising the possibility of a bounceback if they could stay healthy this year. And that was before Alex Anthopoulos went on a bender, pulling off a giant trade with the Marlins, another one for the reigning NL Cy Young winner, and several more moves to make the Jays Vegas’s early World Series favorite.4 Surely a few bad games to start the season would prove to be an aberration, and the Jays would climb back into the race before long.


4.

The Jays’ offseason spending spree, combined with more pent-up demand for a winner than in any North American city even close to Toronto’s size, triggered a flurry of winter ticket-buying, one that’s given the Jays the biggest year-over-year attendance boost for any team, even as they try to inch their way back toward .500.

Instead, things only got worse. Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson both got hurt (predictable). Thirty-four-year-old Mark Buehrle got hammered by AL East hitting (probably predictable). Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus continued not to hit (disappointing, but in light of what had happened after big starts to their careers, fairly predictable). Brandon Morrow stunk (the surprise there was more that he didn’t get hurt immediately). And R.A. Dickey was awful (a major shock, probably the biggest of any this season for the Jays).

On Sunday the Jays completed a sweep of the Rangers in Texas and won their fifth game in a row. They’re now 22-15 in their past 37 games, 8-2 in the past 10 (with seven of those 10 against a previously strong Rangers team). They started the season so poorly that they’re still four games below .500, and 5½ games back of the second wild-card spot. But with 90-plus games left to play and many of the worst early slumpers now producing, there’s a flicker of hope here.

It starts with Lind. The lefty-swinging first baseman/DH who came to our attention after a stellar 2009 season in which he hit .305/.370/.562 with 35 home runs while celebrating his 26th birthday. The Jays bought high the following April, handing out a four-year, $18 million deal that seemed to have no downside, especially with Toronto getting three club options at the end of the deal. Three years later, he hit just .255/.314/.414 — somehow an improvement over the previous two seasons, when he posted horrific OBPs of .287 and .295. You can live with 20-25 homers over a full season and a low on-base percentage if the same player’s a defensive whiz or a force on the basepaths; Lind was and is neither of those things.

What he is now, though, is one of the leading candidates for Comeback Player of the Year. If we’re going to give Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley a bit of the credit for Chris Davis hitting like Babe Ruth, we should probably do the same for Jays hitting coach Chad Mottola. After three-plus years of more lousy results at the start of this season from Lind, Mottola got in the cage with him and changed everything. Lind started hitting a lot more off a tee, and Mottola opened his stance slightly, raised his hands at the plate, and had him move farther off the plate. As with Davis, we can point to other factors, such as Lind’s .462 batting average on balls in play during that stretch.5 The fact that Lind has struck out about four times more often than he’s walked during this stretch makes you wonder if he’s truly suddenly mastered the strike zone, or if this is just a hot streak destined to turn sour in the near future. Still, he has been belting the ball to all fields with few cheapies during the streak; this might not be sustainable, but it’s not quite right to call it luck either.


5.

Manager John Gibbons has used Lind almost entirely as a platoon player, which you’d think would help, too. But Lind has gone 13-for-25 against left-handers this year, including a 2-for-3 effort against Rangers southpaw Derek Holland on Sunday.

Lind’s heroics highlight several strong turnarounds for formerly slumping Jays. Buehrle posted a 1.91 ERA, .581 opponents’ OPS, and 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate with just one homer allowed in his past five starts. Rasmus has cranked nine homers in his past 33 starts, including one in each of the past three games against Texas. Dickey has given up one run or less in two of his past three starts (though with the other one yielding seven runs and 10 hits in five innings, and one of the two “good” ones resulting in 10 baserunners allowed in 5⅔ innings). Even Chien-Ming Wang tossed seven scoreless innings in Arlington on Sunday, if only to balance the scales of fortune for one of the league’s most snakebit franchises.

The Jays have been playing winning baseball for a month and a half. Reyes, Morrow, and Brett Lawrie could all be back from the DL by the end of the month. The manager has enough sense to bat Jose Bautista second, instead of slotting some banjo-hitting scrub in that spot. Hell, it’s patio season on Queen Street. It might be time to start getting (a little) excited again.