Contending Holes: American League

On September 27 of last season, the A’s took the field in Anaheim, Calif. with their season on the line. Having roared back from being over 10 games under .500 in the first half, the A’s needed a win in the second game of their season-ending series against the Los Angeles Angeles of Anaheim (they played one make-up game against the Mariners after the series) to keep their hopes of a miracle finish alive. Taking the mound? Joe Kennedy, filling in for the injured Rich Harden. Eleven outs and four runs later, Kennedy was out of the game and the A’s season was essentially over. That September, Kennedy went 0-5 with one no-decision (which the A’s lost), gave up more runs than innings pitched in half of his starts, posted a 6.16 ERA and averaged barely over five innings a start.

The point? Even the best laid plans can be undone by one weak link. No team is perfect, but winning in the marathon that is the MLB regular season is often as much about limiting your losses as maximizing your wins. So who are this season’s Joe Kennedys? As we head toward the trade deadline, having a hole isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Teams that manage to stay in contention despite carrying a Carl Everett-sized albatross around their necks can often expect the most dramatic improvement via a midseason acquisition—teams carrying sub-replacement level regulars can improve by picking up even marginal players.

This week as we head toward the trade deadline, we’ll identify the 10 biggest holes on AL contenders, defined as teams within five games of a playoff spot. Next week we’ll take a look at the NL.

10. Sidney Ponson, starting pitcher, New York Yankees

Innings: 75.1
ERA: 5.26

That the Yankees have turned to Cardinals cast-off Sidney Ponson to solve their fifth starter woes says a lot about their pitching depth. Predictably, he pitched poorly in his first start in pinstripes, giving up four runs in 6.2 innings against the Mariners. Ponson hasn’t been even a decent pitcher for a few seasons now, and his starts down the stretch could be the difference in a competitive AL East race that actually means something for once.

Still, the Yankees may be resigned to living with Ponson, having been linked to corner outfielders as opposed to starters. This probably reflects the Yankees’ lack of faith in Gary Sheffield’s recovery and the surprising fact that the Yankees are third in the American League in runs allowed, due in no small part to Jaret Wright‘s surprisingly solid performance this season.

9. Bernie Williams, right fielder, New York Yankees

Plate appearances: 294
OPS: .743

There are players having worse offensive seasons than Bernie Williams, but few are as bad in the field as Williams has been this season. Once a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, Bernie is now one of the worst everyday defensive players in the AL. And injuries to Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield have thinned the Yankee outfield.

With Matsui potentially coming back in August, the Yankees might have to make a decision on whether to keep Williams or Melky Cabrera, who’s playing only slightly better, in the lineup, a decision that the acquisition of Bobby Abreu or Alfonso Soriano could render moot. Taking defense into account, benching Bernie would be the right choice, but will Torre be able to resist the urge of riding his dependable workhorse one more time? Given their payroll resources, the crappiness of their corner outfielders, and their position in the AL East and Wild Card races, the Yankees probably have more to gain by acquiring Abreu or Soriano than any other team.

8. Jason Kendall, catcher, Oakland Athletics

Plate appearances: 315
OPS: .657

It seems like forever since Jason Kendall was a productive player, but in fact it was only two seasons ago when he hit .319/.399/.390 in his last season with the Pirates. Kendall runs well for a catcher and calls a good game, and few catchers hit well, but that can’t change the fact that the average AL catcher has posted a .770 OPS this season, which is nearly 20% better than Kendall’s paltry number.

Even his strong 2004 season is marred by a flukishly high batting average on balls in play, meaning that he was probably hit lucky that year. The past two seasons his peripheral statistics, such as his line drive and pop out rates, have remained relatively constant, meaning that his newfound level of production is likely here to stay. That he only cost Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes is little solace for A’s fans, who have to suffer the worst hitting team in the American League (yes, even worse than the Royals). The A’s lack of significant trading chits and a thin market for any kind of talent, much less catching talent, give the A’s few options other than to wait and hope prospect Kurt Suzuki develops in time to make a difference next season.

7. Richie Sexson, first baseman, Seattle Mariners

Plate appearances: 384
OPS: .727

Richie Sexson still possesses the power he showed during his Brewers days, but seems to have lost all his other hitting skills. Never a great contact hitter to begin with, Sexson is hitting a career-low .226 so far this season.

The good news is that there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between his batted-ball numbers this season and last season, when he hit .263/.369/.541. His line drive percentage is down only half a percent, and he’s hitting roughly the same number of ground balls and pop outs, which indicates that he could probably be looked at to turn things around down the stretch. PrOPS, a system that compute the predicted OPS of a set of batted-ball outcomes, supports this hypothesis, as Sexson rates as the third unluckiest batter in the AL.

6. Bobby Crosby, shortstop, Oakland Athletics

Plate appearances: 351
OPS: .653

Coming into the season, Bobby Crosby was projected to post an OPS around .800, giving the A’s above average offense at shortstop while bringing a plus glove, if only he could stay healthy. Well, he’s been healthy, but he probably wishes he could blame his struggles at the plate on an injury. His typically good glovework at shortstop has kept his season from being a complete washout, but if the A’s are to post a serious challenge for the postseason and beyond, they need Crosby to get back to being the player he was last season.

His improvement is all the more crucial to the A’s chances, as it’s extremely unlikely to be replaced via trade or benched. Three seasons into his major league career, he still has a chance to replicate Miguel Tejada’s performance with the A’s. He’s also probably better than any of the shortstop options potentially available via trade (Julio Lugo) or internally (Marco Scutaro). Like it or not, this is a hole that the A’s are likely stuck with the next couple seasons. Given the A’s relative wealth of pitching depth and anemic offense, Crosby might be the most important player to the A’s postseason hopes this season.

5. Kendry Morales, first baseman, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Plate appearances: 185
OPS: .708

At the beginning of the season, the Angels appeared to have solved their recent history of first base woes. Former top prospect Casey Kotchman had posted an .836 OPS after being given regular starts at first base late in the season, and was blossoming into a major league regular. Then the season started, and Kotchman put up an anemic .436 OPS before hitting the disabled list with mononucleosis. After finding Robb Quinlan’s efforts wholely unacceptable, the Angels turned to Cuban defector Kendry Morales to hold the fort. Now, with Kotchman’s rehab being put on hold and general manager Bill Stoneman’s public reluctance to deal prospects, it looks like Morales will have to be the answer for the surging Angels.

Still, as the saying goes, if Morales is the answer, then the question is probably something more like, “Who can we throw out there at first base to keep throws from the shortstop from going into the dugout?” than “Where can we find a quality major league first baseman?” Morales, who was hitting an underwhelming .319/.369/.472 at hitter-friendly Triple-A Salt Lake City, doesn’t appear ready to hit like a major league first baseman, leaving Angels fans hoping for a speedy recovery from Kotchman, whose return could be the difference in a tight and yet still uninspiring AL West race.

4. Brian Anderson, center fielder, Chicago White Sox

Plate appearances: 215
OPS: .612

Rated the second-best prospect in the White Sox system coming into the season by Baseball America, Brian Anderson has completely fallen on his face, posting a pathetic .201/.282/.330 while spending much of the season below the Mendoza line. He’s hit respectably so far in July, managing a .797 OPS, and has improved in every single month, so give the White Sox credit for not jerking around a player who could be a franchise cornerstone once he gets past his growing pains.

He’s also posted a strong defensive performance by a number of measures, so at least he brings something to the table. Having stuck with him this long, it’s hard to see Chicago replacing him at this point, especially given his age. Still, one way or another, the White Sox need to get more out of their center fielder if they are to catch the Tigers in the AL Central.

3. Willie Bloomquist, center fielder, Seattle Mariners

Plate apperances: 137
OPS: .615

and

3. Adam Jones, center fielder, Seattle Mariners

Plate appearances: 15
OPS: .343

Long one of the worst players in baseball, Willie Bloomquist is now the Mariners’ starting center fielder, thanks to an injury to the much more hyped by similarly poor producing Jeremy Reed.

Unhappy with their center field production, the Mariners recently called up 2003 first round pick Adam Jones, who was batting an uninspiring .277/.331/.448 in Triple-A, to challenge for the spot. Jones has talent and is still very young, but he doesn’t seem ready to contribute at the major league level.

Neither Jones nor Bloomquist brings the defensive skills to the position that Anderson does, giving the Mariners likely the worst center field production in the American League. Their best chance at upgrading appears to be acquiring a corner outfielder and shifting Ichiro Suzuki to center, but, as we’ll see, they likely have more pressing needs to fill.

2. Esteban Loaiza, starting pitcher, Oakland Athletics

Innings: 66.1
ERA: 6.38

Despite making 12 starts, Esteban Loaiza has managed to put up an incredible 0 Win Shares, and has been by far the worst regular starter pitching for a contender in the American League; only Boston fifth starter Kyle Snyder, who can look forward to a nice summer in Pawtucket the moment David Wells is ready to pitch again, keeps him from being the worst altogether. Given the three-year, $21.375 million contract he signed with the A’s in the offseason, it’s unlikely that slightly better options Kirk Saarloos or Brad Halsey would be able to bump him to the bullpen in the event that Rich Harden pitches again this season, so the best A’s fans can hope for is that he gets shipped out in the offseason, Mark Redman-style.

Only a recent run of relatively better pitching kept Loaiza from the number one spot on the list; since coming back from the disabled list in June, he’s posted a somewhat better 5.63 ERA in 48 innings, including one disaster start at Coors Field in which he gave up six runs in 3.2 innings. Given the lack of good, affordable options on the trade market, only a tremendous rookie season by Jason Windsor and the miraculous recovery of Harden will get Loaiza out of the rotation.

The good news is that Loaiza was relatively respectable last season, posting a 3.77 ERA in the pitcher-friendly confines of RFK Stadium, and that despite his adventures on the mound the A’s are still somehow second in the league in run prevention, giving up only six more runs than Minnesota. Just imagine if they had a real pitcher taking the mound every fifth day instead of Loaiza.

1. Carl Everett, designated hitter, Seattle Mariners

Plate appearances: 322
OPS: .666 (Can’t make this stuff up.)

Carl Everett has served as the designated “hitter” in 87 of the Mariners 94 games while putting up a batting line that would not look out of place in Neifi Perez‘s career stats. Any way you slice it, he’s been pathetic, whether it’s on the road (.632 OPS), at home (.698 OPS), against righties (.711 OPS) or against lefties (.512 OPS).

Everett actually managed to start “strong,” posting OPS totals of .782 and .725 in April and May, respectively, before posting OPS totals in the low .500s in June and July. Given that the average AL designated hitter has posted a .814, Everett has managed to hit a whopping 18% worse than his peers. No wonder the Mariners have been linked with not only Alfonso Soriano, but also the likes of Eduardo Perez.

With three members of their offense on this list, it’s no wonder that the Mariners have the second-worst offense of all the AL contenders (only the A’s are worse)—that they’ve managed to score more runs than three other American League teams is quite the accomplishment already. In a sense, they are better off than the Oakland A’s, as they have more obvious and easily filled holes than their division rivals to the south. That Seattle has managed to stay within five games in the American League West despite going to war with Everett, Sexson and Bloomquist in their lineup says a lot about the AL West, and also means that the addition of a hitter of Soriano’s caliber (14.3 batting Win Shares) could mean an immediate three to four win improvement in the second half and a legitimate shot at the division title.

Honorable Mention

Garret Anderson, left fielder, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Yuniesky Betancourt, shortstop, Seattle Mariners
Adam Kennedy, second base, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Andy Phillips, first base, New York Yankees
John Rheinecker, starting pitcher, Texas Rangers
Juan Uribe, shortstop, Chicago White Sox
John Wasdin, starting pitcher, Texas Rangers

References & Resources
As always, stats from ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports were used in the article, along with contract info from the invaluable Cots Baseball Contracts.

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