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Baseball’s Underachievers at the Break: Who Will Turn it Around?

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Inherently, the ‘underachiever’ label requires a certain level of arrogance on the part of the party that offers the label.  There is a difference — not always clear — between underachieving, and under-performing expectations for more substantial reasons.  Expectations aren’t offered by those who have any say in the building of teams, rather, they are set by the independent masses.  The five underachievers I have chosen to examine in this article were all expected to be well above their current win totals.  The other thing these teams all have in common is a realistic sense that if they could make a move or two at the deadline, they could make themselves relevant in the second half of the season.  None of these teams play in a brutal division, but they’ve all fallen well behind the pace of the other teams in their division.

For a team like the Twins, that means they’ve gone from 10 games above .500 in April to 4 games above .500 at the all-star break, playing essentially as well as the Royals over the same timespan.  They are only 3.5 games out.  Conversely, the Mariners are 15 games out and just traded Cliff Lee inside the division to the division leading Rangers.  One team still expects to make the postseason, the other team made it impossible on themselves.  This article will merely be concerned with the franchise of the two most likely to start playing better, not who is most likely to make the postseason.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins have a reputation of an average offensive team who gets by doing the small things, but really excels at pitching and defense compared to it’s opponents, and thats how they get their edge.  That reputation may discredit the achievements of a lot of really good players they have on their team, but it’s more or less been accurate this season.  The Twins have played typically great defense (this in spite of one of the most horrible outfields in recent memory), and it’s helped them assist their top four pitchers in having pretty good seasons, and Francisco Liriano in establishing himself as an ace once again.

Basically, if the Twins need to be a merely average offensive team and above average run prevention team to win the division, well, then they aren’t even underachieving right now.  But with the money the team invested in Joe Mauer, with the years that Justin Morneau and Jim Thome, and the  half season that Delmon Young is having, it sure seems like they need to be an above average offensive team.  It is here that the Twins’ lapses in concentration in baserunning and terrible offensive production from the left side of the infield are meaningful.

The Twins would be better off giving Michael Cuddyer’s at bats and playing time in the field to someone else, possibly anyone else.  Even with Cuddyer in the lineup, the Twins will probably play better in the second half than the first half.  But without a really aggressive trade deadline move, the Twins go from the team who was universally picked to win the AL Central to a team that has less upside at the deadline than the White Sox and must rely on the Sox and the Tigers to stop playing so well (in Detroit’s case, that’s likely, but the White Sox might not stop winning).  It would be horribly disappointing if the Twins failed to win the AL Central, but ultimately, this is just not the elite team we all thought they could be based on their awesome start in April.

Seattle Mariners

The Mariners are just a dreadful offensive baseball team, and trading Cliff Lee can’t possibly make them a better team, but the acquisitions of Justin Smoak and Russell Branyan will make this team a lot more bearable to watch.  They weren’t inadequate at two positions in the outfield (Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro are above average major league players), but Chone Figgins has turned out to be a dreadful signing, as the team had to decide which of their two third baseman (Figgins and Jose Lopez) would get his at bats in the lineup at second base.  Figgins’ contract will be a lot more bearable when he is playing third base next season with Lopez taking his automatic out elsewhere.

So yeah, the Mariners are going to turn it around.  They still have Felix Hernandez, and their lineup will cease to be the worst in the AL as soon as Smoak starts hitting at a big league clip.  They won’t get an automatic win once every five days anymore, but Lee wasn’t going to be pitching at that level in the future, nor would he have been doing it for the Mariners.  Branyan may or may not return in 2011, but Smoak is the future of the Mariners now, and the future is now.  They’ll be the .500 team we all expected in the second half of the year.

Milwaukee Brewers

A typical high octane offense combined with a team that gives runs away, and that was before Yovani Gallardo got hurt.  It’s still amazing that Jim Edmonds is STILL a strong offensive player in this league, but then again, it’s the National League.  It’s just as shocking that Carlos Gomez still hasn’t turned into something acceptable on offense.  Alcides Escobar is the shortstop there for better or worse, but his offense is downright putrid, and he’s no longer the premier shortstop prospect in the NL Central — that’s now Starlin Castro of the Cubs.

Yes, the defense is terrible, but the pitching is to blame for the team’s underachiving.  There are no solutions on hand either, which means that — unless the offense somehow gets even better — this is just a .450 baseball club, and is underachiving the great expectations set on it.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are almost certain to be a better team in the second half.  There’s a pretty good chance that as they start to get offensive production from all the money they’ve spent on their veteran corner infield tandem, the Cubs will have to score more than four runs a game.  It’s hard to misuse offensive personnel as badly as Lou Pinella has without having an undying loyalty to the same poor performers, and since Pinella appears to be loyal to no one at this point, the Cubs should stop playing Ryan Theriot, Kosuke Fukudome and Koyie Hill so much.

The pitching has been above average, and also figures to get better, even if the team deals Ted Lilly at the deadline.  The Cubs have the ability to be the best team in their division over the second half of the season, which would be a great accomplishment for them, but unfortunately will dump the team around .500 for the year, which figures to be a third place finish.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

You can’t blame the Anaheim offense for underachiving: they lost their most talented player to a freak injury.  This comes after losing their best baserunner to a division rival in free agency.  This has caused Torii Hunter to get even better, somehow.  Bobby Abreu is aging, but he’s still patient and dangerous enough to be valuable.  Mike Napoli is the benefit of the Kendry Morales injury, as he’s getting consistent playing time for the first time as an angel.  There’s a lot of mediocre players on this team who are getting paid to be more than mediocre, which is contributing to the true problem on this team: the pitching staff is underachieving without a typically excellent defense behind it.

The signing of Hideki Matsui has not worked out because his monopolization of the DH position without a fraction of the production that Vlad Guerrero is bringing to Texas right now has caused the Angels to have to play declining fielders to keep Matsui’s bat in the lineup.  Without him, Bobby Abreu and Howie Kendrick wouldn’t have to be full time fielders, and the overall defense would be better.

The Angels have three quality starters, including Jered Weaver who is having a breakout year that could lead him into a 5 year stretch among the elite AL pitchers.  Ervin Santana is still himself, and Joel Pinero has been a good pickup.  Meanwhile, Joe Saunders’ crafty lefty-ness is no match for most AL hitters, and Scott Kazmir has been a horrendous pitcher and an even worse acquisition from Tampa Bay.  Weaver/Santana/Pinero would be a strong playoff rotation, but Saunders and Kazmir look like they will prevent the Angels from getting there.  A bunch of small mistakes: Kazmir, Matsui, and home run celebrations look like they will keep the Angels underachiving throughout the 2010 season, although the long term prospectus is more like the past four years.  This is ultimately a one year slip up.

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