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The best Shortstop in the American League

Derek Jeter and Elvis Andrus will represent the American League in the all-star game among shortstops.  That’s pretty cool, I guess.  But who is the best shortstop in the American League today?  And is he going to represent the AL in the all star game anytime soon?

Derek Jeter

Jeter is starting the all-star game carrying a .304/.351/.408 batting line, which is actually really good.  With the exception of Jeter’s MVP caliber 2009 season, this is really who “mid-thirties Derek Jeter” has been for the last five years.  The problem now is on defense.  It’s fair to surmise that Derek Jeter has worked incredibly hard on his defense in order to be a better shortstop throughout his thirties than his twenties.  But this year, we’ve reached the point where Jeter isn’t physically able to handle the position anymore.  It’s not a conditioning issue, clearly: Jeter is himself at the plate this season.

Jeter’s run at shortstop for the last seventeen years may turn into one of the biggest stories of the offseason for the Yankees.  It’s not clear where he will move to if the Yankees acquire a better defensive shortstop in the offseason, but Alex Rodriguez is getting very close to “full time DH” territory, and at that point, the natural move for Jeter might simply be a couple steps to the right.

Either way, when the Yankees move Jeter, that’s going to end his all-star candidacy at short.  There are three obvious picks to take his place before we get to prospect types like Francisco Lindor and Jurickson Profar.

Asdrubal Cabrera

Asdrubal Cabrera is a gold glove winning shortstop who is more similar to Jeter than different because defensive numbers have shown that Cabrera has not been a good defensive player throughout his 20’s.  There isn’t a debate though that Asdrubal Cabrera is a really fantastic hitter, regardless of his position.  Beyond that, since Jason Kipnis has locked down the second base job in Cleveland for the forseeable future, Cabrera is going to become the most attractive trade piece for the Indians as Francisco Lindor progresses through the system.  In fact, Cabrera is one of the most likely options to eventually replace Derek Jeter at shortstop for the Yankees via trade, although Lindor is not likely to see the majors in the 2013 season.

Cabrera is probably the top shortstop in the American League right now, however, there are two players who come with higher upside who are younger than Asdrubal Cabrera.

Alcides Escobar

Escobar has been a sensational defensive player for the Royals since coming over in the December 2010 Zack Greinke trade, but this year he’s added a bat to go with that glove.  Escobar always hit in the minor leagues and was a prospect of great stature in the Brewers system before struggling in the full time role in 2010.  Moving to the American League in 2011 made things even more difficult, though he showed some life with the bat during the summer last year after the Royals demonstrated great patience with him throughout the spring.

Alcides Escobar is now a .309/.352/.413 hitter up to the minute.  He’s still striking out a lot more than he walks (whereas someone like Asdrubal Cabrera is essentially one to one), and is a much better earlier in the account than he his when he sees a bunch of pitches, which has been a formula that has made him a poor hitter in the clutch this year.  But the bat is real, and he looks like a legitimate top of the order hitter for the Royals with about five gold gloves in his future.  The only problem is everything I’ve said about Escobar is true of another American League player about two years younger.

Elvis Andrus

Andrus leads all AL shortstops in fWAR with 2.7 prior to the all-star break.  He has combined consistently effective defense with a developing bat.  Andrus isn’t quite as effective with the bat this season as Escobar has been for the Royals and he is never going to be in the same class as Cabrera, but Andrus could easily have a Jeterian-like career for the Rangers.  He’s that young and that good.  There’s just one thing about that.

I think the 23 year old Andrus is the best shortstop in the American League right now, and the only threat to that title is a guy in his own system by the name of Jurickson Profar.

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The Pittsburgh Pirates are Pretty Perfectly Positioned for First Place Push

If you’re the front office of the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics, or San Diego Padres, you may want to pull out your notebook, and start taking notes.  It’s the Pittsburgh Pirates who have become the example for winning baseball games on a budget.

Since its inception in 1994, the NL Central division has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Pirates.  This is remarkable, really.  We’re talking about the NL Central.  The Pirates were run into the ground for the first twelve years of the NL Central division, and it’s still incredible they didn’t make the postseason.  The freakin’ 1998 Cubs made the playoffs.  That wasn’t a good team at all.  The Pirates have been more than just a bad team, but they’ve failed to reach levels of hilarity that would have made watching their losses entertaining.  They’ve been an attraction best defined by their ballpark.

The fact that the NL Central has lined up in such a way that two of the six teams are among the worst in baseball is hardly surprising.  In fact, if you lent any credence to the preseason previews, it’s actually not that surprising that the Pirates aren’t at the bottom of the division this all star break.  However, any spectacular achievement in the first half driven by a quality, young offensive group was certain to be drowned out by a pitching staff which entered the season hoping to be just good enough to sell off a part or two at the trade deadline.  But at the all-star break, the Pirates pitchers have been worth so much more to them than that this season.

When you look at the teams that are truly struggling this year, listed in order above, but also including the Minnesota Twins, Houston Astros, and Chicago Cubs, bad teams have struggled on the run prevention side of the baseball equation.  This is where the Pirates were projected to struggle, but their 345 runs allowed is in the upper half of all of baseball and perfectly matches their much sustainable 345 runs scored this year.

If .500 is the true talent of the 2011 Pirates, then there’s reason to believe that they aren’t overachieving much.  The Pirates pitching rotation has been unable to find a true strikeout threat between Paul Maholm, Jeff Karstens, and Kevin Correia, but only Correia is truly struggling to strike out batters.  This is reflected in his results: a pedestrian 4.01 ERA at the all-star break.  Perhaps, though, the current depressed run environment actually favors the sustainability of the Pirates’ staff.  Their one below average starter is also the team’s strikeout leader, James McDonald.  McDonald struggles with putting too many guys on and had a flyball tendency.  Even in the current environment, his 4.42 ERA plays as a fifth starter.

If this was an article about how suprising the Pittsburgh Pirates are, I’d write about Charlie Morton here.  But this is an article about the chances that the Pirates push for first place deep into September, and I think that Morton best represents the amount of depth the Pirates have created themselves.  If this team actually does make the playoffs, Morton doesn’t figure to be part of the playoff rotation.  He lacks the raw power (and lack of command) of McDonald, and isn’t as well regarded as Correia, Maholm, or Karstens.  But his 5.3 K/9 rate could help him pass for other pitchers in the Pirates rotation.

The competitive advantage of this team is that it is deep for a low-budget operation.  The bullpen has six different guys having strong years — led by fireballing closer Joel Hanrahan — and can hope for a seventh when they get last year’s all-star Evan Meek back from the DL.  They can also go to that bullpen early in games because the arms are as young as they are talented, and they’ve been there for the Pirates as they’ve been needed.

The offense has not progressed according to plan, exactly.  The Pirates entered the season ahead of the game at catcher, but both Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit have been hurt this year and neither has been much defensively when they’ve been behind the plate anyway.  Nobody in baseball likes homegrown Neil Walker’s defense at second base, but his 84 hits would lead a couple of teams at the break.  They don’t lead the Pirates, however, because the Pirates have Andrew McCutchen, a five tool prospect and budding superstar who is my pick for NL MVP at the midway point over Jose Reyes.  Opponents appear to be lost on this “McCutchen is the most dangerous player in the NL” thing because he’s been intentionally walked just once this season.  I suppose that’s understandable, because as much as teams should be fearing his bat, they are fearing what his speed on the basepaths can do to change a game.  McCutchen, who has reached base 149 times this year, has stolen 15 bases while being caught only five times.

The Pirates have issues they need to upgrade on the left side of the infield, where they’ve received sub-par performances from Ronny Cedeno as SS (which was expected) and the recently demoted Pedro Alvarez at 3B (they had hoped for better).  They have some options here on the trade market as buyers.  The Royals are looking to deal Wilson Betemit and have Mike Aviles sitting in AAA right now, and it wouldn’t be that hard for the Pirates to put together a package that lands both of them.  Even though the Indians are in the midst of a playoff run, they’d probably be willing to deal Jack Hannahan for a C+ pitching prospect.  Greg Dobbs of the Marlins could also be a target.

Unless they make a package deal with a team like the Royals, the Pirates are likely to simply sit on Ronny Cedeno at shortstop.  Cedeno isn’t a good player, but he has a strong defensive reputation, and UZR bears out his good glovework this season.  If the Bucs would consider moving Walker to third base for the rest of this season, Alexi Casilla of the Twins could be a smart pickup.  Problem there is you’re moving one of your lineup staples into a spot where he is blocking a top prospect (Alvarez).  Mark Teahen of the White Sox could be another solution.

The Pirates’ solutions to their problems could define their road to the playoffs because the main competition, the Milwaukee Brewers, have the same left side of infield needs.  The truth is though the wisest moves the Pirates could make is simply to focus on increasing the value of their roster taking advantage of a buyers market and trying to find good players at any position.  Really, in terms of building a team for the future, the only untouchable in terms of losing a job is McCutchen.  And that shouldn’t limit the Pirates options at all.

They shouldn’t be considered the favorites to win the NL Central because they simply won’t be able to match the Brewers pitching, but the Pirates could, very easily, enter 2012 as the favorite if the Brewers do not return Prince Fielder.  To do so, they will need to be smart and add value to their organization throughout July and August and into the offseason, but this shouldn’t be a problem.  After all, it’s how the Pirates got to this position in the first place.

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.

Miguel Cabrera is Most Likely the Best Hitter in Baseball

July 7, 2010 3 comments

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At the point when Albert Pujols wrested the title of “best hitter in baseball” from Alex Rodriguez, he was in the prime of his career and it just seemed like he could hold that mantle for another seven to eight years.  Pujols is still an amazing player, and while he’s not going to finish 2010 with any personal records thanks to a terrible month of May, I think the consensus is that he’s going to “rebound” back to career norms in 2011, and that this year is just another great year in the line of many.

Still, to crown Pujols as the best hitter in baseball going forward is probably ignorant without at least being informed the kind of cartoonish numbers that Miguel Cabrera is putting up for the first place Tigers right now.

Cabrera leads all of baseball with a .647 slugging percentage.  He does so in the superior American League in a neutral environment, Comerica Ballpark in Detroit.  He has a .420 on base percentage.  That’s second in the AL (Justin Morneau).  His .343 Batting Average leads all of baseball, and his .446 weighted on base percentage is second to Morneau.  Cabrera doesn’t have the plate discipline that Pujols does (Pujols walks more than he strikes out every year) — he probably never will — but there’s something to be said for raw, unbridled power.

Cabrera’s .303 Isolated Power (calculated as slugging percentage minus batting average) leads all of baseball, and there’s only two players within .15 points of him: Toronto’s Jose Bautista, and Boston’s David Ortiz.  In this measure of raw, extra base hit ability, Morneau is nearly 30 points below Cabrera, and Pujols is more than 40 points below him this year.  Pujols’ career mark is .292, so as long as Cabrera continues to crush the baseball at this rate, he will continue to rank up there with the best hitters of all time.

Miguel Cabrera is going to draw criticism for an on base percentage figure that doesn’t put him squarely in the superstar category like all of his other statistics do.  His .386 career figure is a good great percentage, but for a superstar, one who makes outs more than 61% of the time isn’t exactly hall of fame bound.

/ignores Andre Dawson.

Cabrera is over .400 this year for the first time as a Tiger, but his on base percentage figures to steadily improve over time as he ages.  Is that a byproduct of plate discipline? It’s not.  For years, Albert Pujols has lead the league in intentional walks, and no one has come close.  While Cabrera was walked in the National League plenty, he hadn’t been shown the same respect by American League managers in his first two years with the Tigers.  That’s changing now: Pujols leads the NL with 21 intentional walks.  The AL leader this year: Cabrera, with 8.  When you consider that Cabrera is offering rare power that even Albert doesn’t have, you can predict that for the next four or five years, he’s going to lead the AL in intentional walks.  This is going to skyrocket his on-base percentage, to the point where his career mark drifts north of .400.  He might even start walking more than he strikes out.

In Cabrera’s first two seasons with the Tigers, he hit one more homer than double.  But his career since age 24 has suggested that Cabrera is just as likely to hit a fly ball out of the park as he is to double to the gap.  If anything, that means his slugging percentage could go UP over the second three months of the season.  With the necessary increase in intentional walks, Cabrera should be able to increase his OPS, even if he can’t sustain his league-best .343 batting average.

Except, he probably can sustain it.  While Justin Morneau has an unsustainable BABIP over .380, Cabrera is at .357 right now, just 10 points above his career average of .347.  The only statistical reason that would suggest a second half decline for Miguel Cabrera is if AL pitchers man up and start to strike him out more than the did in the first half.  Absent of that, Cabrera is going to set career highs in every statistical category, and should win the AL triple crown as Morneau regresses a bit.  It will be well earned.

I would still take Albert Pujols on my team any day because he’s a more complete player.  He runs the bases better and fields his position as well as any first baseman ever.  His batting skill set is more balanced between power and discipline.  I can’t be sure that the Tigers were expecting this when they traded six prospects to the Marlins in February 2008, but Albert Pujols is not the best hitter in baseball right now or for the future.  That title belongs to Miguel Cabrera.

Strasburg an All-Star? Not a Very Funny Joke

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With the permission of just one man, Phillies manager (and NL skipper) Charlie Manuel, Stephen Strasburg will be headed to Anaheim to pitch in the 2010 MLB All-Star game, just seven starts into his big league career.  Strasburg’s pitching “stuff” is legendary: you just wonder how a guy like that ever made it 1) out of the grasp of MLB teams out of high school in the first place, and 2) to San Diego State University to play for Aztec head baseball coach, Tony Gwynn.

Strasburg threw for SDSU for three years, gaining national notoriety in the second, and then improving to pitch himself into a household name as a college junior.  Strasburg entered the major league baseball rule IV amateur draft a polished, potentially finished product.  A year’s time passed between Strasburg’s drafting and his major league debut, but what he accomplished in the minor leagues for about 11 starts at AA and later AAA was pretty legendary: former major league baseball players went down against Strasburg in just three pitches.  To make solid enough contact to hit a foul ball back to the screen, these accomplished hitters needed to outguess Strasburg.

His remarkable strikeout rate has held up strong at the major league level, but outside of his uncanny control, Strasburg has hit his fair share of struggles in the majors.  While it says something about the kid that he’s yet to run into a lineup that has stymied him to the point where he couldn’t find a way to record outs and progress the game, Strasburg has also faced the following lineups in the majors:

  • Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Cleveland Indians
  • Chicago White Sox
  • Kansas City Royals
  • Atlanta Braves

Strasburg hasn’t won since the Indians game because he hasn’t gotten a single run of support since that day, but you’d also be hard pressed to find a major league pitcher that wouldn’t be able to do exactly what Strasburg has against those teams, minus the obscene strikeout rate and tough luck.  The Atlanta Braves sport the one above average major league lineup from that bunch, and when they faced Strasburgh, they figured him out the third time through the lineup, made the adjustments, and blew his quality start — chasing him from the game in the 7th — and handed him his second loss.  Strasburg is neither the first nor the last pitcher to hold the Royals to a single run in six innings.  He will not be the last pitcher to strike out a bunch of Pirates, or beat the Indians in fairly unimpressive fashion.

He’s a remarkable story and a very bright hope for a Nationals team that needs him, but — perhaps due to luck — Strasburg hasn’t quite accomplished anything since he stormed onto the scene with 14 Ks against the Pirates in his debut.  Hey, for a 21 year old rookie, we probably shouldn’t expect the world from him right away.  His stuff is electric, and he can clearly command it at the major league level.  He’s going to learn how to pitch, because he was ahead of the curve in college, and already knows how to pitch a minor league baseball game.

Should he pitch the major league All-star game?  Of course not.  The game is for remarkable major league pitchers, not remarkable stories.  In the current offensive baseball environment, teams like the first three that Strasburg faced prior to his first lost…those teams aren’t scoring runs against any pitcher.

Without a doubt, this subject of this article will be good enough to consistently turn all-star hitters into outs, probably as soon as next season.  He figures to pitch in ten+ all-star games, and if Charlie Manuel really feels that he’s not leaving anyone off the NL roster to put Strasburg on, I don’t have a huge problem with that.  That would almost have to be a faulty conclusion, however.  The National League has the best pitching of the two leagues this year, had the best pitching prior to Strasburg, and probably can’t justify him on the roster on merit.

A year from now, when Strasburg shuts down some of the better offenses in the NL, he’s going to earn his spot on the all-star team.  This is a matter of time.  At this time, let’s go with the 13 or so all-star pitchers who better deserve it, and not cost a National like Josh Willingham or Ryan Zimmerman a spot in the all-star game because we’re not actually paying attention to what’s going on in Washington four days a week.

Quick Hits: July 15, 2009

July 15, 2009 1 comment

Happy that I sat and watched the final 7 innings of the MLB all-star game. I was pulling for the AL most of the way, because, well, Zack Greinke is awesome.

Zack had a 10 pitch 4th inning, so he contributed to the overall shortness of the game. He struck out David Wright looking, and then Shane Victorino on a classic slider. It was epic.

After Roy Halladay struggled to keep the NL off the board for two innings, you’d think there would be some outcry in the media that perhaps Joe Maddon didn’t do right by starting him over Greinke, but alas, second guessing appears to be used only in situations more trivial than these.