Major League Roundup: Unlikely Heroes

Most of the experts thought they had a pretty good handle on the Yankees coming into this season.  Great lineup, no rotation depth past C.C. Sabathia.  So it’s no surprise to see the Yanks leading the league in a bunch of offensive categories thus far.  However, when you look at the pitching statistics, you have to be surprised.  While Sabathia has been his usual workhorse self, the rest of the rotation has been unbelievably stellar.  Look at the stat lines for the rest of the starters:

A.J. Burnett: 6-3, 74.2 IP, 3.86 ERA, 1.21 WHIP

Freddy Garcia: 4-4, 56.2 IP, 3.34 ERA, 1.32 WHIP

Bartolo Colon: 3-3, 66.1 IP, 3.26 ERA, 1.10 WHIP

Ivan Nova: 4-3, 54 IP, 4.67 ERA, 1.59 WHIP

If you had predicted that before the season, you could have made yourself a ton of money in Vegas.  The line for Colon is particularly surprising as he has not been a consistently useful pitcher in nearly six years.  I don’t expect Colon or Garcia to continue at their current pace, but if they can stay healthy (a big “if”), they could give Joe Girardi quality innings.

Honestly, with this kind of pitching I would expect the Yanks to be more than 2 games ahead in the AL East, especially with Boston struggling out of the gate.  They may have squandered an opportunity to get a comfortable lead out in front of the charging Red Sox.  In fact, the whole division is incredibly tight with the last place Orioles sitting only six games back.  Should be interesting to watch the rest of the way.

-Speaking of the Yanks, I’m a little worried about Robinson Cano’s plate discipline.  His average is still okay and he’s hitting for power, but his walk rate is way down (4% this season, 8.2% last season) and his K’s are up (14.9% this season, 12.3% last season).  He looks a lot more like the hacktastic Cano we saw pre-2010 than the MVP candidate we saw last season.  It’s still a little early to panic, but this bears watching as his on-base percentage is suffering (.324 OBP).

-If you’re under the impression that Marlins SP Anibal Sanchez is some journeyman playing way over his head, look again.  It’s been quite a while, but this guy was once a top pitching prospect in the Red Sox organization and was one of the key cogs in the trade that sent SP Josh Beckett to the Sox and SS Hanley Ramirez to the Fish.  So he’s got the pedigree.  And his peripherals indicate that while he might not be sub-3.00 ERA good, he’s not far off.  His FIP is 3.00 and his xFIP is 3.08, indicating that his 2.57 ERA isn’t totally luck-infused.  The K-rate is excellent (9.04 K/9), the walk rate continues to improve (2.81 BB/9) and he plays in a great pitchers’ park.  What’s not to like here?

-While the experts may have been a little off on the Yankees, they hit the nail on the head with the A’s.  As most expected, Oakland’s pitching has been stellar (tied for 1st in ERA) while their hitting has been putrid (tied for 25th in runs).  It’s a real shame, because even with an average offense, it looks like the A’s would take the AL West easily.  Fear not though A’s fans, that starting rotation of Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Braden and Tyson Ross is all locked up until at least 2014.  So you’ve got a couple of years to get the offense together.

-When talking prospects, it’s easy to get carried away.  People forget that for not every farmhand that blasts minor league pitching is going to be a star.  Unfortunately for Orioles C Matt Wieters, people didn’t temper their expectations.  His minor league line (.343/.438/.504) was so amazing that people were predicting immediate All-Star appearances and future MVP awards.  Obviously that hasn’t been the case as Wieters has struggled through his first 2.5 seasons to the tune of a .266/.328/.394 line.

However, at some point you need to stop looking for the star potential the minor league numbers predicted and start looking at what you actually have.  Wieters has actually had a decent season thus far.  His .263/.326/.401 line isn’t going to make people stop and watch, but his power and batting average have increased from last season and his defense has been excellent.  Even if he never developes into the hitter we all hoped for, there’s a very good chance that he could be the AL equivalent of Cardinals C Yadier Molina.  And in today’s game, that’s a valuable commodity.

-Staying on the topic of failed over-hyped former prospects, look at what Alex Gordon is doing in Kansas City.  Yes, he slumped pretty badly through most of May, but he’s getting back on track lately and he’s doing it hitting leadoff!  That’s no easy thing, especially for a guy who has been a career middle of the order hitter.  His .285/.351/.489 line is very solid and you have to like the power/speed combo.  He’s probably never going to be the star most predicted, but he could be a very solid player, especially if the Royals can get some of these highly touted youngsters up to the majors to lend a hand.

Alex Gordon - Seattle Mariners v Kansas City Royals

-Speaking of guys hitting leadoff, if I’m a contender, I’m looking to trade for Cubs OF Kosuke Fukudome.  I know what you’re thinking: he’s old, he’s got a terrible contract and he’s just not that good of a player.  Well you’re right.  However, he’s still a useful player.

He’s posted a .428 on-base percentage so far this season.  Stop and think about that for a second.  He’s getting on base over 40% of the time.  In a league that is totally lacking in quality leadoff men, he should be a sought after commodity on the trade market.  Also, that horrid contract is up after this year, so any team that acquires him is off the hook after this season.  Where’s the downside here?

-Young Astros SP Jordan Lyles made his major league debut the other night, and I have to say I was very impressed.  Lyles was drafted by the Houston in the supplemental round of the 2008 draft, coming straight out of high school.  He shot through the system, making his first start in the bigs on Tuesday at the age of 20!  And check out the line:

7 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4 K

Not too shabby.  He’s not overpowering, but he’s got good movement on his pitches and displays good control and command.  I’ve heard varying reports on his slider and fastball (89-93 mph), though both sound like they have the potential to be above average.  His changeup, by all accounts, is very good.  I’m not expecting a ton this season, but he could develop into a John Lieber type workhorse down the road.  Keep an eye on him.

-There’s certain players that I tend to underrate because I didn’t really like them.  Case in point: Larry “Chipper” Jones.  I really didn’t like the Braves, or Chipper, for most of their period of dominance, but with Jones’ career winding down, I think it’s time to give him his due.  He didn’t display the top-end power that a lot of other guys did during the steroid era, but boy could he hit.  If this guy isn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer, there’s something wrong with the voting process.  I mean just look at his career statistics.  Wow!

A .305/.404/.533 line with more walks than strikeouts and he played third, arguably the thinnest position in the game today.  Just imagine if he hadn’t been so injury cursed during the latter part of his career.  He would easily have the requisite 500 homers that make you a shoe-in for the Hall.  Hopefully the voters look past the power and see this guy for what he was: one of the toughest outs in the league for a very long time.

-What is up with Royals reliever Joakim Soria?  The artist formerly known as “The Mexicutioner” has seen his K-rate, walk rate and home run rate all take big jumps in the wrong directions.  He’s been so bad recently that he was removed from the closer role in favor of rookie Aaron Crow.  So what’s the problem?

He’s throwing his fastball at about the same frequency as he did last year (73%), but the velocity is down from 92 mph to 90.6 mph.  That could be part of the problem.  He’s also throwing his slider more and his curve less.  His pitches across the board have been extremely ineffective, but particularly his fastball which has been his bread and butter in the past.  Command seems to be issue #1 though.  If he can clear his head and start putting the ball where he wants to, the ERA should normalize.

-The Giants’ loss of C Buster Posey, likely for the season, just cannot be understated.  No, he wasn’t hitting for quite as much power as last season, but that was to be expected and his on-base percentage (.368) was very good.  With rookie Brandon Belt struggling, Pablo Sandoval hurt and veterans Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell and Miguel Tejada bringing little to the table, Posey was really the Giants’ only legitimate middle of the order bat.  They will have to lean heavily on that great pitching staff again as the lineup just doesn’t have much punch.

-I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here, but Jose Bautista is amazing!  I mean seriously, he’s the new Albert Pujols.  Look at this line: .360/.502/.773!  That is otherworldly.  We’re talking Barry Bonds on steroids stratosphere here.  I don’t expect the average to stay that high and I think the slugging will fall a bit (some of those home runs will start falling in for doubles).  But still, he’s walked 17 more times than he’s struck out.  If the Jays can start to fill in some holes around him, they are going to seriously challenge the Yanks and Red Sox in the next few years.

-How much long can the Tigers Manager Jim Leyland actually fill out the lineup card with Austin Jackson leading off?  He’s not a victim of bad luck (.310 BABIP) and he’s striking out in nearly one-third of his at-bats (31%).  They don’t have a ton of great options, but anything is better than a .288 on-base percentage out of your leadoff hitter.  Fukudome anyone?

-Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Matt Joyce before this season.  That’s what I thought.  Once traded straight up for Edwin Jackson, Joyce is finally realizing his vast potential.  His BABIP is an unsustainable .408 right now, so the average is going to fall.  But he’s always had great power and he’s cut his strikeouts down to right around 20%.  If can get the walks up a tick, back to where they were last season, he’s going to be a very dangerous hitter the rest of the way.  Then just wait until the Rays bring up Desmond Jennings to roam the outfield with Joyce and Upton.  Yeah, that’s why they didn’t need Carl Crawford.

-The Twins are bad.  Really bad.  I think we all knew this team leaned a lot on Joe Mauer, but I couldn’t possibly have predicted they would go 14-31 without him.  Obviously though, Mauer’s injury hasn’t been the only problem.  Starter Francisco Liriano looked like his old wild self before being put on the DL, reliever Joe Nathan hasn’t been able to rediscover his pre-Tommy John stuff and 1B Justin Morneau has looked helpless at the plate.  I guess the Twins had to come back to earth one of these seasons, I just didn’t see it happening already.  This could be a long summer for people in Minnesota.

-If you had told me the Arizona Diamondbacks would be leading the NL West at this point in the season, I would have said you were crazy.  But here we are on June 3rd and the D’Backs sit tied in the win column with the Giants for first place.  How have they done it?  Starter Ian Kennedy has been excellent so far and his rotation mate Daniel Hudson has pitched well despite a mediocre line.  The bullpen has been markedly improved from last season and Justin Upton and Chris Young have been rapping out the extra base hits at an astounding rate.  I’m not sure this can continue, but with the Giants losing Posey and the Rockies looking shaky in the rotation, the young D’Backs could hang around late into the season.

Add: 3B Ryan Roberts, Arizona Diamondbacks

He walks a ton, he steals bases, he hits for some power and he plays a premium position.  What’s not to like here?  Yes, he’s 30 and he has almost no track record, but why not ride the hot hand at a thin position until he goes cold?  Hitting leadoff in front of Justin Upton, Stephen Drew and Chris Young couldn’t hurt either.

Ryan Roberts Juan Miranda #46 of the Arizona Diamondbacks high fives teammates Ryan Roberts #14 and Miguel Montero #26 after Miranda hit a three run home run against the St. Louis Cardinals during the sixth inning of the Major League Baseball game at Chase Field on April 12, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Drop: OF Alex Rios, Chicago White Sox

No, I don’t think he’ll be quite this bad all year, but I don’t think he’s going to rebound back to last season’s production levels either.  Word is that Rios has been have some serious problems with his feet and it’s affecting him in the field, at the plate and on the base paths.  He’ll probably get the average up near .280 again and he’ll flash some power eventually, but don’t expect 30+ steals again.

Trade: SP Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians

I really like him and I think this is a legitimate breakout.  However, I think he’s due for some regression in the near future.  The strikeouts and walks are a little too close together for my liking and while he gets a lot of grounders, there no way he keep the home run rate below .40 all season.  His xFIP of 3.76 says it all.  The ERA is going to creep up closer to 4 eventually.  Get out before it does.

Trade for: C Carlos Santana, Cleveland Indians

Yes, he’s hitting .234.  But his BABIP is .252, so the average is going to come up when a few more hits start falling in.  He’s walking (19%) almost as much as he’s striking out (20.4%), so you know he’s seeing the ball well.  It’s just a matter of time before everything clicks and he starts crushing everything.  Grab him before the inevitable hot streak starts.

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