Mariners Musings

Musings about, um... well, the Seattle Mariners as well as a love affair with this game baseball. By Peter J. White

Monday, March 17, 2003

Preseason Predictions: Part 4 – AL East

For five consecutive years, the AL East has finished in exactly the same order – Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Devil Rays. That has never happened before in the history of baseball. The AL East sports two of the best teams in baseball, two of the worst, and a team on the rise. They also sport some of the AL’s best pitchers that don’t wear green.

The question is: Will anything good every happen in Tampa Bay? To the baseball team, that is. Last year the Devil Rays managed 29th in run differential, beating only the Tigers. Their offense scored 673 runs to rank 25th, putting them between the Mets and the Devil Rays. Leading the stink was Greg Vaughn, .163/.286/.315, comparable to my career Little League numbers. Come on, good things, good things. Ah, Aubrey Huff pulled his weight by swatting .313/.364/.520 with 23 home runs. Not too shabby. Randy Winn was selected to the All-Star team and has since been traded for a manager, who we might add hates losing like God hates sin, gets a tad impatient with untalented players and gets a little grumpy when upper management doesn’t give him what he wants. It should at least be entertaining this year at Tropicana Field. They’ve added Lee Stevens and Travis Lee (platoon partners Bill James would get excited about), and they’ve got young ‘uns Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli to fill Winn’s shoes in the outfield. Then there’s the addition of all-glove-no-hit Rey Ordonez. It’s pretty safe to say the Rays won’t score more than 673 runs this year.

On to pitching, the Devil Rays surrendered 918 runs, dead last in all of baseball. The “ace,” Tanyon Sturtze, tellingly lost 18 games. On the bright side, on May 21 Joe Kennedy blanked the then first-place Mariners 1-0, outdueling Jamie Moyer. It seems Lou Piniella’s been impressed enough to grant him the token of Opening Day starter. But don’t get too excited about Kennedy. His ERA was 4.53 and his SO/9 were 4.99. It’s not really fair that he’ll be facing Pedro Martinez come March 31. It’s hard to have hope with this team. The good news is Orioles are just as bad, and with just a little luck, the Devil Rays may just leapfrog into 4th place.

Baltimore flirted with .500 all year. Then they reached that plateau only to fall straight off a cliff. To call it a tailspin is generous. They finished the season winning only 4 out of their last 36 games. They won only 4 games for the entire month of September. They lost their final 12 games in which they scored 3 or more runs only twice. I guess somebody forgot to tell the Orioles they actually had to play in September. And if you think that’s bad, all three of their upper level minor league teams were even worse. So don’t expect any farmhands to save the day in ’03. When it was all said and done, the Orioles finished 25th in run differential, between the Rockies and Royals. The offense, for lack of a better word, scored 667 runs, on par with the Padres and Devils Rays. Where have you gone Cal Ripken? Perusing the hitting stats for the Orioles in 2002, one batter posted an OPS over .800, and that was Sidney Ponson (it seems the pitcher hit a double in his 3 at bats). The best among the regulars was Jay Gibbons at .247/.311/.482. Their offensive additions over the winter include Deivi Cruz, B.J. Surhoff and Jack Cust; not exactly awe-inspiring. Acquired just this week, Cust just may be the player the Orioles are looking for. He mashed the ball through the minors, but struggled in Denver, of all places, last summer.

The Orioles pitching staff allowed 773 runs, good for 19th, between the Marlins and Reds. Rodrigo Lopez (3.57 ERA, 15 wins) and Jorge Julio (1.99 ERA, 25 saves) were both pleasant surprises on an otherwise dismal staff. The additions of Pat Hentgen, Omar Daal and Rick Helling give the Orioles some much-needed veteran depth in the rotation, allowing flexibility if someone goes down (as Scott Erickson already has, surprise, surprise) or trade bait to restock the farm system. This rotation could be respectable or very ugly if the vets prove fragile. With nearly 20 manager replacements in just the last year, there’s hope that we may see an entire season without a firing. But if I had to pick who the next one might be, my money’s on Mike Hargrove. Given their horrible end last year, if Baltimore stumbles early in March and April, he could be gone in a hurry. The Orioles’s organization reeks of ineptitude from the top of the organization to the bottom. They changed general managers over the winter, so maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for the future.

Speaking of hope for the future in the AL East, the Jays are it. They’ve got a disciple of Billy Beane heading up their front office. They’ve got a load of talent that got their first taste of big league experience last summer. All they need is a couple of blunders/injuries by the Yankees, and, like the Padres in the NL, the Blue Jays are not far from a 21st century dynasty. But back to the present. They finished last year 15th in run differential, dead in the middle, between the Expos and Mets. Not bad at all considering they sported the 3rd youngest lineup in the AL and the 4th youngest pitching staff. Consider that the offense scored 813 runs, comparable to Seattle and Oakland. Carlos Delgado bounced back from his off-2001 hitting .277/.406/.549 with 33 homers. Eric Hinske won the Rookie of the Year hitting .279/.365/.481 with 24 home runs. Vernon Wells was second to Delgado on the team with 100 RBIs. Josh Phelps sported a .925 OPS with 15 home runs in only 265 at bats. A full year without Raul Mondesi will be a blessing, and they’ve turned Jose Cruz into Frank Catalanotto for this year. There’s much to be thankful for and excited about in the very near future.

That’s all the good news. Pitching wise, Toronto allowed 828 runs (ranked 24th), matching Milwaukee and Cleveland. Estaban Loaiza (5.71 ERA, 9-10 in 25 starts) and Luke Prokopec (6.78 ERA, 2-9 in 12 starts) were the biggest millstones. They’re both gone for 2003. Roy Halladay finally put up Cy Young-worthy numbers, winning 19 games, and posting a 2.93 ERA. Mark Hendrickson looked promising in 3 starts in September. They’ve picked up Cory Lidle, who was overshadowed behind the Three Aces of Oakland, and Tanyon Sturtze, who must feel like he’s won the lottery to be out of Tampa Bay, to fill out the rotation. The pitching should be at least middle of the pack for 2003. If the injury bug attacks the Yankees and Red Sox, the Jays could be a dark horse for the wild card this year, not to mention serious contenders in the future.

We have seen the beginning of the end. The Boss is nervous. And when The Boss is nervous, he makes stupid, expensive mistakes on expensive, mediocre veterans like Rondell White, Raul Mondesi and Sterling Hitchcock. In 2001, the Yankees lost the World Series on the last pitch. In 2002, the Yankees lost to a scrappy Angels team that ran laps around them in the AL Division Series. This year, I predict with all confidence, the Yankees will not even see the playoffs. Sure, they’ve got a talented, relentless offense and money to burn, but Father Time is not on their side. And The Boss is getting nervous. In 2002, the Yankees completed the season 3rd in run differential, behind Boston and ahead of San Francisco. Their offense pummeled their opponents for 897 runs, tops in the majors, 40 better than runner-up Boston. Newcomer Jason Giambi led the slugfest with his usual MVP-caliber numbers, .314/.435/.598 with 41 home runs. Alfonso Soriano broke out as the premier offensive second baseman of the American League slugging 39 home runs and 51 doubles, while stealing 41 bases. Bernie Williams, the unsung hero of this Yankees dynasty, batted .333 with a .908 OPS. If there was a weak link in this lineup, it was left field. But the Yanks have brought in Japanese import Hideki Matsui. Now, he’s a completely different style of hitter than Ichiro, so it’s hard to guess how he’ll fair. Baseball Prospectus projects him to hit .281/.407/.547. Those are some pretty fine numbers. Even if he doesn’t live up to those numbers, he can’t be worse than the Rondell White/Shane Spencer platoon. I’d say it’s safe to ink him in for Rookie of the Year already. The Yankees offensive machine might just be better this year.

The pitching staff last year allowed 697 runs, 10th place and comparable to Houston and Seattle. Mike Mussina was one of only two starters not to hit the DL and won 18 games despite a 4.05 ERA (his worst since 1996). David Wells was the other, winning 19 with a 3.75 ERA. Roger Clemens posted 9.60 SO/9 in 180 innings. Jeff Weaver was less than effective after coming over from Detroit at the deadline and was sent the pen. They’re not Oakland, but they are solid, though they certainly got chewed up and spit out by Anaheim in the playoffs. After dealing Orlando Hernandez and signing Cuban ace Jose Contreras, the Yankees now have six starters, a luxury they can’t afford to be without, given the health history of the rotation. With Clemens, Wells and Andy Pettitte, it’s a matter of when and not if they will spend time on the DL. If two, or all three, or Weaver or Mussina miss any time, the Yankees are shot because there’s nobody else but mortal AAA pitching in the minors. I say Contreras is going to be a huge bust, and the Yankees are walking a fine line with this geriatric staff. Expect meddling, panicked shenanigans by the trading deadline for Vlad Guerrero, Carlos Beltran, Migual Tejeda, you name it, every so-called “A-list” free agent for 2004. It won’t be enough.

This is Boston’s year. It should have been last year. The Sox were 2nd only to Anaheim in run differential. Okay, so they beat the Yankees by .001, and if you park adjust it, the Yankees win by ½ a game. This is Boston’s year. Last year the offense scored 859 runs, second only to the Yankees. Had Manny Ramirez not missed six years with a broken finger, he very well could have been the MVP. He won the batting title, hitting .349, posting a 1.097 OPS with 33 home runs. Nomar Garciaparra hit an .880 OPS with 56 doubles. Cliff Floyd had a .935 OPS in 47 games. He’s now gone, but new GM Theo Epstein (another disciple of Billy Beane) has brought in Kevin Millar, Jeremy Giambi, David Ortiz and Todd Walker to fill out the right side of the field. It’s safe to say, the hitting is improved.

On defense, the Red Sox allowed 665 runs, 7th in baseball, between Oakland and Arizona. Those are interesting comparables because the Red Sox have the strongest one-two punch in the rotation East of Arizona, even better than any two of the three-headed monster in Oakland. Pedro Martinez bounced back to his normal form after an injury-plagued 2001. He posted a 2.26 ERA, 10.79 SO/9 and went 21-4. In the second half, it was a superhuman 1.61 ERA, and he held batters to a microscopic .174 batting average. Derek Lowe transitioned from the bullpen to the rotation with ease winning 21 games with a 2.58 ERA and competed for the Cy Young Award. I’d have to say, though, that the surprise of the year, and the key to 2003’s success, was Tim Wakefield, who posted a 2.81 ERA. True, the Sox could have added Bartolo Colon to this mix, but it would have been costly. Namely, Casey Fossum who now has the added pressure of being in Sox fans’ eyes, the pitcher they kept for Colon. But if he’s everything Epstein believes, then Boston should once again field one of the best pitching staffs in the American League.

It’s never happened five times, and it won’t happen six times in a row, and I’m betting my money on the crumbling Yankee dynasty. Perhaps, though, it’s just that eternal Red Sox hope that’s gotten into me.
|| Peter @ 3/17/2003