A wrinkle in the AL East plan

Yankees and Red Sox, right? Well, that’s what I thought. We could very well see those two teams making the playoffs out of the AL East, but the Rays are charging, and they’re charging hard. Last weekend, they swept the Red Sox at Fenway, and now, after a three-out-of-four series win at Fenway, they’re just two games behind in the wild card chase.

So, considering that this is a pretty big development in the division, we’ll spend most of our time here going over that race, starting with some concerns about the Red Sox.

***

Boston has a very deep offense, including three players—Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, and Dustin Pedroia—who certainly will get MVP consideration. Their team OPS of .807 was the best of any major league team as of the end of last week, so their offense is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Even during their 2-9 start to September, their offense was pretty good (.768 OPS). The problem is that the Boston pitching staff is beaten up.

Josh Beckett (2.50/3.38/3.56 ERA/FIP/xFIP) has probably been the team’s ace this year, consistently putting up good performances all season long. However, an ankle injury at the beginning of the month set him back, and he just returned to the mound last Thursday.

This relatively brief setback is just one of the many problems the Sox pitching staff has had this year. The rotation looked pretty solid at the beginning of the year, consisting of Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Matsuzaka was the first to go down, as his arm trouble led to his being shut down in May; he’s gone for the season with Tommy John surgery. Next was Buchholz, who hasn’t pitched since July due to a bad back. Midseason acquisition Erik Bedard, who was picked up because of the injuries to Matsuzaka and Buchholz, now has a bad knee and hasn’t pitched since Sept. 3.

This opened the door for replacements Tim Wakefield (5.13/5.00/4.80) and Andrew Miller (5.43/5.13/4.74), who haven’t really done much. And we haven’t even talked about Lackey yet, who’s thrown almost 150 innings despite having a 6.30 ERA, a mark that would be the highest for any Red Sox starter in history.

So right now, the Red Sox have Beckett, assuming he’s healthy; Lester (3.15/3.72/3.59), who’s pitched almost as well as Beckett, and a lot of question marks in their starting rotation.

Their bullpen isn’t doing too badly, as setup man Daniel Bard and closer Jonathan Papelbon have been great, combining for 4.0 fWAR this year. Matt Albers, who was steady as the seventh-inning guy for most of the year, has seen his walks (now over four per nine) and ERA (now almost five) balloon over the past month, so he’ll probably be getting few high-leverage situations down the stretch.

Fireballing lefty Franklin Morales has been a nice pickup from the Rockies, as he’s posted a K/9 of 8.5 and a BB/9 of 2.4 since the Sox acquired him in May. Also of note is Alfredo Aceves, their swingman who is currently doing short relief work. His peripherals are unimpressive, but so far he’s helped limit disaster by keeping his ERA under three.

So, to summarize the situation the Red Sox are in: Elite offense, good relief, questionable starters. What about the Rays?

***

James Shields (2.78/3.35/3.18, with a major league-leading 11 complete games) and David Price (3.34/3.14/3.20) are a top-flight 1-2 punch at the top of the Rays’ rotation and have been all year. Behind them, though, the back end has stepped it up. Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis, who both went on DL stints during the middle of the season, have come back strong. Examine their strikeout-to-walk ratios (walks include HBPs and exclude intentional passes) before and after:

Niemann before: 31 ⅓ innings, 1.70 K/BB
Niemann after: 103 innings, 3.03 K/BB

Davis before: 103 ⅔ innings, 1.09 K/BB
Davis after: 67 ⅔ innings, 2.50 K/BB

Unlike the Red Sox, the Rays have an average offense (wRC+ of 100), so they’ll really need to lean on their starting pitchers down the stretch in order to stay in the race. With four guys hitting their strides, even if Davis’s peak doesn’t come close to Shields’ or Price’s, they could wreak havoc should they sneak into the postseason.

Oh, but you’re not as interesting

Certainly, the Rays and Red Sox are the intrigue of the division right now due to the Rays’ improbable run over the past few weeks, but there have been a few notable things going on with the other teams in the division.
{exp:list_maker}The Yankees called up super prospect Jesus Montero at the beginning of the month. He’s impressed, compiling a triple slash of .282 AVG/.349 OBP/.538 SLG so far with three home runs (two of which were hit about 400 feet to the opposite field). In our limited sample he has, however, struck out in 28 percent of his plate appearances and has failed to make contact on 29 percent of his 68 swings. I’m sure the Yankees would be thrilled if he could continue to hit for power, though.
The Blue Jays have certainly generated a buzz with the performance of top prospect Brett Lawrie, who made his debut with the club in August.
Another good young player who debuted with Toronto in the second half is hard-throwing starter Henderson Alvarez. Despite hitting 101 mph in the minor leagues, Alvarez isn’t really a strikeout guy; he gets it done by throwing strikes and getting groundballs with a lot of two-seam fastballs. His walk rate of 1.5 per nine innings is in line with his career minor league numbers; his 55 percent groundball rate through eight starts is spectacular. He also hasn’t thrown any pitches faster than 97.1 mph, so he’s certainly not too flashy, but he looks like a pretty good young pitcher.
The Orioles really don’t have a lot going for them this year, but they’ve turned it on over the past week and have relished their role as spoilers. Since Sept. 7, they’ve won two games against the Yankees, two against the Rays, and two more against the Angels. All of these wins have had an impact on the playoff situation, considering all three opponents are within striking distance of a playoff spot. {/exp:list_maker}

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