Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How far can the Washington Nationals go without Stephen Strasburg?

Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg moved to 15-5 with a 2.85 ERA on the season with a dominating performance over the Atlanta Braves last night.

Strasburg tossed six innings of one-run ball with ten strikeouts all while enduring a 51-minute rain delay. He is up to 145 1/3 innings on the season and closing in on the shutdown point established by Nats' management of somewhere between 160-180 innings.

No matter the number, Strasburg will not be on the mound in the playoffs assuming the Nationals don't completely crumble down the stretch. The Nats currently hold the top spot in the National League by two and one-half games over the Cincinnati Reds and their lead in the NL East is up to seven games over the Braves.

I'm not going to enter the debate of whether the Nationals are taking the right approach with their prized arm. They are going to do it and there is nothing anyone else, including Strasburg can do about it. Debating it seems pointless.

Can the Nats go far in the playoffs without Stephen Strasburg?
(Image: Scott Abelman)
What I can do, is look ahead and estimate how far the Nationals can go in the postseason without their ace. Here is what we know about the team minus Strasburg. They have four other starters to turn to who are incredibly capable, a deep bullpen and a more than competent offense.

The rotation in the postseason will be led by Gio Gonzalez who the Nationals traded for in the offseason, acquiring the lefty from the Oakland A's as part of their offseason purge. Right behind him is Jordan Zimmermann, who is two years removed from his Tommy John surgery. The next two pitchers are oft-traveled Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler who has stepped up nicely this season.

The bullpen is led by closer Tyler Clippard who wrestled the job away back in May after years of being the Nats' top set-up man. He is backed by Sean Burnett and now Drew Storen, who recently returned from the disabled list after missing most of the season due to elbow surgery.

While the pitching staff is the predominant reason for their record, the Nationals offense sits toward the top of the second-third of the league in many categories. This is not a pitch-only team. They have received a career-year from their shortstop Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman is putting in another fine year. They have benefited from solid seasons by Danny Espinosa and Adam LaRoche. Bryce Harper's call-up gave the team a boost as soon as he stepped on the big-league diamond. Jayson Werth is back in the lineup after a lengthy DL-stint and has picked up right where he left off.

So, how will the team respond without Strasburg? Can they rely on the other four starters to get the game to a formidable bullpen? Will the offense produce enough runs to win tight games which typically dominate postseason results?

The team is a combined 16-10 versus the top six teams currently in or near position to reach the NL side of the postseason (see right). The Nats are 6-2 in games Strasburg started against the same collection of teams. So, the team has fared well with and without Strasburg against potential opponents in the postseason. Also, the run differential favors Washington in total, though it is slim against the Reds and negative against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers.

Based on the chart it seems the Nats match up a bit better against the three teams directly behind them in the league's cumulative standings through last night. Right now, St. Louis is on the outside looking in while the Pirates and Dodgers would play to determine who would be the Nats' first-round opponent if the season ended after last night's games. Interestingly, these are the teams that gave the Nats the most trouble so far.

They didn't do much on offense against the Pirates and the Dodgers flat out shut down the Nats in a three-game series in L.A. in late April when the Dodgers didn't seem to lose. That said, neither the Dodgers nor the Pirates are playing as well as they were earlier in the season, while the Nats are flourishing and sit 31-games over .500.

By the looks of it, the Nationals have a very good chance of reaching going far in the postseason should they get by their first-round opponent. While it would certainly be easier to have the ability to throw Strasburg twice in a five-game series and possibly three times in a seven-game series, the Nats seem more than capable of handling these teams based on regular season results.

The long and short of it is this; the Nationals are going to miss Stephen Strasburg during the playoffs, no one would contend otherwise; however, they are not being carried by Strasburg alone right now. The team is well-balanced and confident. Those are two characteristics that can take a team a long way in the playoffs. Let's hope for Strasburg's sake this is not a one-time thing for the Nationals, but the first of many successful seasons, of which the rest will have him on the hill when it matters most.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Babies of Beantown

When will the Boston Red Sox players realize that what has happened on the field since September 2011 has more to do with them than the managers they play for?

Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports presented a tale of mutiny within the ranks of one of baseball's oldest franchises yesterday and to be frank, it was not surprising. According to Passan, the players requested a direct sit down with the ownership back in late July via a text message from Adrian Gonzalez on behalf of several players, so that they could voice their displeasure over first-year manager Bobby Valentine. The boiling point was Valentine allowing Boston "ace" Jon Lester to continue to pitch in an 11-run drubbing on July 22 at the hands of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Boo-Hoo! The Red Sox players went from beer and fried chicken to milk and strained carrots after they practically ran the anti-thesis to Valentine, Terry Francona out of Boston with their apathetic play finishing out the 2011 season.

This was a team ready to make a mark as it left August last year, but they imploded during the stretch run and have yet to recuperate. They are 64-80 since September 1, 2011 through yesterday's 7-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

Last season, Francona took the fall for "allowing" his players to skimp on workouts and sit in the clubhouse chillin' while the team was on the field trying to win. The Red Sox ownership wanted a change and used the revelation as a reason to go out and sign a difference maker, the ever enigmatic Bobby Valentine.

Valentine's my way or the highway mentality was expected to put the players in their place and rejuvenate a talented ball club. Unfortunately, they had some injuries early on to Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford that deflated their offense and they rallied against Valentine's demeanor instead of rallying around each other in an effort to win.

Valentine made enemies quickly with his handling of former third baseman Kevin Youkilis' early season slump. Dustin Pedroia flat-out called out Valentine, saying, "That's not how we do things here." At that point the writing was on the wall; unless this team began to win the clubhouse and off-the-field stories were going rule the roost.

Simply stated, the players in Boston have too much power. They inadvertently threw Francona under the bus with their lousy September and now that they're pushed to play hard every day, they cried to the owners about how they are mistreated. Imagine that, multi-millionaires whining when asked to play hard to win.

How about standing up for their play on the field? Lester isn't exactly playing well this season (6-10, 5.20 ERA) though he finally ended a personal five-game losing streak beating a Cleveland Indians team that can't hit their way out of a paper bag. The other "big-time" pitcher for the Red Sox has played no better. In fact Josh Beckett, the order taker for wing night and off-day golfer extraordinaire, has a remarkably similar line of 5-10 with a 5.19 ERA. He's allowed 14 earned runs in his last 10 1/3 innings.

Maybe Bobby Valentine is the one who should be crying? Would any team be able to survive their two best pitchers performing like this? It is highly unlikely.

The rift between the players and Valentine doesn't seem to extend the full length of the clubhouse. According to Passan's sources there are players who are on Valentine's side and feel the vocal stars are wrong in their assessment of the manager and should be more concerned with their underachieving on the field.

Regardless of the side of the fence the players sit. Each and every one of them has a responsibility to play the game. Position players must field, throw, hit and run. Pitchers must take the ball every fifth day or be ready when their name is called on the bullpen phone.

Their readiness and ability to perform should not be hindered by the gruff nature of their manager. Everyone has been waiting for this team to turn the corner and there is no way that Bobby Valentine was impeding the process. Valentine certainly has a tendency to do or say things that ruffle the status quo. It has both worked and then run its course in other organizations; but maybe not as quickly as expected in Boston. His temperament should not have been a surprise.

When ownership in the middle of the season allows the players to congregate in front of them to voice their concerns without the manager there to defend himself, then you know who has the upper hand. The Red Sox players through the meeting disrupted any form of a hierarchy the organization may have had.

While Valentine was given a vote of confidence recently, there are doubts it was nothing but empty words meant to hide the gloom at Fenway Park. The rebellious team continues to show that they are immature beyond their years and if they are not treated with kid gloves they'll run to daddy to tattle.

Of course, they had it the other way last year and got the babysitter fired. It looks like daddy should take a long look at his children and decide if Fenway Park is the right playpen for this group.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

With Evan Longoria back, can the Tampa Bay Rays duplicate their 2011 finish?

The last day of the 2011 MLB regular season was one of the more extraordinary days in the history of the game. There were multiple games played which resulted in the culmination of truly great late season surges and collapses and one of the teams involved in last season's spectacle is very much in the same position as they found themselves at this time last season. Actually, they are better off, which should be scary for the teams they'll be chasing for a postseason berth.

The Tampa Bay Rays were last season's American League Wild Card winners after a 32-17 surge which began August 8, 2011. They were ten games back of the New York Yankees in the wild card race prior to that day and wound up catching the Boston Red Sox after one of the more magnificent collapses in recent memory.

Image by Keith Allison
The Rays have become synonymous with being underestimated, though the degrees to which they have been labeled an underdog have lessened over the last few seasons (deservedly so). This year, they have managed to stay toward the top of the American League East standings and the wild card race despite playing 85 games without their best player, third baseman Evan Longoria. Believe it or not, they're in better shape now than they were a year ago today in the standings, even with the loss of Longoria for a majority of the season.

Longoria just recently returned to the field, as a DH for the time being, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Rays. The club ranks last in MLB (tied with the Oakland Athletics) with a .230 batting average and 26th with a .687 team OPS. However, their pitching staff has kept the team within striking distance all season. The Rays' hurlers rank 4th as a group with a 3.45 ERA and have held opposing teams to a .235 batting average. They are playing true to their Pythagorean Record at 57-52.

Recently the offense has been in an even larger funk than normal. Since an eight-run "explosion" against the Oakland Athletics on July 31, the Rays have scored a total of ten runs in their last five games. However, the team is 3-2 in those games. Imagine if this team could hit. Rays manager Joe Maddon suggests that Longoria's return should come with tempered expectations.
"When a guy like Longo comes back, people are really going to read into it and heap all these unnecessary, unreachable expectations."
While Maddon's words ring true, it's certain that he hopes, as do Rays fans, that Longoria's presence in the lineup at the least forces teams to approach their lineup differently. While it may be a bit before Longoria returns to his potent hitting self, if he does he can certainly carry a team.

Provided the Rays receive similar production from their pitching staff they can make a run at the division title and could easily make up the 1 1/2 games they are back in the wild card race heading into today's game. There is no reason to think that their pitching will not hold up and right now the staff is on fire. Since the All-Star break (23 games), Rays pitchers have been downright stingy as a group, leading Major League Baseball with a 2.28 ERA, 233 strikeouts and an opponents' batting average of .198.

They have received excellent work from David Price (14-4, 2.49 ERA) all season and James Shields tossed eight innings of one-run ball yesterday increasing his record to 10-7, one outing after recording a complete-game shutout. Jeremy Hellickson (6-7, 3.43 ERA) has pitched better than his record indicates and Matt Moore (8-7, 3.84 ERA) is working on a scoreless streak of 17 2/3 innings going back three starts.

It is not just the rotation that has carried the load; the bullpen led by closer Fernando Rodney, has been extremely effective as well. Rodney has 33 saves in 34 chances with a minuscule 0.70 ERA and is in the midst of a 22-inning scoreless streak. With a shutdown closer and starters giving plenty of innings the Rays should be a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of the season with or without increased offense.

Image by Keith Allison
That said, having Longoria back in the lineup provides the Rays with much needed pop and takes some pressure off the rest of the lineup. During Longoria's time on the disabled list, Carlos Pena (.196, 15 HR and 46 RBI), Matt Joyce (.270, 12 HR and 38 RBI), Ben Zobrist (.251, 12 HR and 43 RBI), Luke Scott (.225, 12 HR and 45 RBI) and Pena have been the run-producing bats. Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton and Elliot Johnson have provided speed on the bases with 20, 19 and 17 stolen bases respectively. The problem is, of the three players, Johnson has the highest OBP at .315.

The Rays elected not to make a major splash at the trade deadline, opting only to grab utility player Ryan Roberts from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Roberts could provide some extra offense if he is able to find his form from last season.

While Longoria may take some time to get back to full strength, he's still instantly the best hitter in the lineup. Opposing teams will find it just a bit harder to navigate the lineup and it is possible Longoria's bat ignites the rest of the group into an eight-week surge much like it did last season.

It was Longoria's homer that launched the team into the playoffs last season during the final at-bat of the final game of their regular season schedule and his return from injury this year may be just what the team needs to make another run to the postseason. Maybe this time it won't need to be so dramatic.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

MLB Trade Deadline provides new outlooks for several teams

Each July 31st at 4:00 pm, Major League Baseball ends one of the most fascinating times during the baseball season, the weeks leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline. Teams who feel they are in contention for a playoff berth will invest in new players to varying degrees and teams who are far removed from playoff position choose to unload veteran talent in return for younger less expensive players in an effort to rebuild.

This year was as frenzied as any other, with MLB several teams looking to change their outlooks for this season and those in the future. Let's take a look at some of the teams.

Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies lost Ryan Howard and Chase Utley for a better part of the season to injury and quickly fell off the map. Cliff Lee went months without a win, he has two for the entire season (18 starts) and Roy Halladay spent significant time on the DL. Without Cole Hamelsexcellent season, the Phillies would be even further back.

But, with the writing on the wall for the Phillies, general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. began to put word out that the team was going to unload salary. Shane Victorino's name came up most often at first, but there were several players who could be used on other teams, like Ty Wigginton, Juan Pierre and Joe Blanton. Then over the last couple of days leading up to the deadline, Hunter Pence's name began to surface as well as Lee's.

The Phillies signed Hamels to a six year/$144 million contract last week which signaled the direction the team was going. They would build around Halladay, Hamels and Lee and abscond with the high priced outfielders. In the end they moved Victorino and Pence within a couple hours on Tuesday. They received one major league ready OF in Nate Schierholtz and four minor leaguers. The Phillies called up Domonic Brown and seem intent on giving him a real chance to stick in the Phillies outfield.

It is a washed up season for the Phillies and they may still try to trade Lee during the offseason, but his contract is going to cause problems with that unless they kick some cash in. With or without Lee, the Phillies will have a great top of the rotation and can use their financial power to invest elsewhere on the roster to compliment aging stars in Howard and Utley, who they'll hope to get full seasons from.

Los Angeles Dodgers
At the other end of the spectrum there is new ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers and they have opened up their wallets. The new group led by Magic Johnson, went out and traded for Hanley Ramirez and Victorino providing Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier with two productive bats. The addition of Ramirez and Victorino adds more pop and speed in the middle of the order and should help alleviate some pressure on Kemp and Ethier.

They also received relief help getting Randy Choate along with Ramirez and Brandon League from the Seattle Mariners addressing middle relief depth.

The Dodgers are definitely all in and hope to bring postseason baseball back to Dodger Stadium this year. After getting out to a great start they are now in a tight race with the San Francisco Giants with the Arizona Diamondbacks lurking.

Miami Marlins
The Marlins opened a new park this season and made some free agent moves signifying they may be ready to turn the page on producing a winner. The worry was that the whole thing was a ploy to get the new stadium and at the first sign of trouble the team would start selling off parts. No one thought it would be this soon.

Less than four months after opening the park the Marlins began to trade away pieces and re-group. They moved long time star Hanley Ramirez, who over the last few seasons has become combative about his role with the team. They traded Anibal Sanchez and Gaby Sanchez as well. They were unable to find a partner for Josh Johnson but there is always the offseason. I wouldn't expect him to be around much longer.

The team maintains a core of newcomers Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle as well as power hitting Giancarlo Stanton and Twitter phenom Logan Morrison, who can actually handle a bat pretty well too.

Sadly, even with the new ballpark, the team is unable to draw to capacity. They have been a major disappointment on the field and that certainly hasn't helped any. Expect the Marlins to try and get something for Johnson and rebuild behind the players mentioned above during the offseason to continue their most recent purge. Unfortunately for them this decimation of the roster does not come on the heels of a World Series championship as the other two did under owner Jeffrey Loria.

Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates, who have playoff aspirations and for the first time in a long time, made moves at the trade deadline signaling a push for the playoffs and not as an aid for another team's march to the postseason.

At the deadline the Pirates found themselves in control of one of the two National League Wild Card slots and while they did not make any splashy moves, they solidified their lineup and strengthened their rotation. They acquired Gaby Sanchez from the Marlins and Wandy Rodriguez from division rival Houston Astros. They made a last second deal with the New York Yankees for Chad Qualls, sending an expendable Casey McGehee to the Bronx.

Behind NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and rotation leader A.J. Burnett, the Pirates look like a team which can keep the winning going and reach the postseason for the first time since 1992. It's been a long re-building process and this season the fans of Pittsburgh may finally be rewarded with playoff games in one of MLB's greatest ballparks, PNC Park.

Chicago Cubs
Speaking of re-building, the Cubs went into the season knowing full well they would be unable to compete in the NL Central. They hired Theo Epstein away from the Boston Red Sox to be their president and he lured his former right hand man Jed Hoyer from the San Diego Padres to be his general manager.

The team didn't disappoint as far as their performance was concerned, doing exactly what was expected of them, lose. They have moved or let go of several pieces in the offseason, understanding they would need to start from practically scratch.

At the deadline the Cubs made three moves. One was expected, but took much longer than many felt prior to the trading season setting off. That transaction was Ryan Dempster going to the Texas Rangers. Dempster is having his best season (5-5, 2.25 ERA) and it was speculated that he was going to be traded for some time. The Cubs were able to manufacture a deal for pitching prospect Randall Delgado of the Atlanta Braves, but Dempster used his 10-and-5 veto rights to block the trade.

Then the Dodgers got into the action and it looked like they'd acquire the veteran right-hander, but the Dodgers did not want to give up much for a two-month rental. The teams conversed right up until the final hour and then the Rangers, in desperation to keep up with the Los Angeles Angels, who acquired Zach Greinke from the Milwaukee Brewers a few days prior, swooped in for Dempster's services.

The Cubs made two other deadline deals, trading starter Paul Maholm to the Braves and catcher Geovany Soto to the Rangers in a separate move earlier in the day.

The Cubs are certainly not finished. They wanted to trade Matt Garza, but an injury has lessened his value for the time being and they've desired to rid themselves of Alfonso Soriano's contract for some time. Each player may pass through waivers and become eligible to be traded in August. In the upcoming offseason the Cubs will continue to grow around Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson as the core of the youth movement in Chicago.

In the end each of these teams has one thing in mind, getting better. Some are working for the short term prize of a World Series championship, and the others are hoping this is the first stage in a process that will make them buyers at a future deadline. No matter which way you view it, there is nothing more exciting off the diamond than the MLB trade deadline, and this year was no exception.