THT Dartboard: July 27, 2006

Welcome to The Hardball Times Dartboard, our weekly attempt to rank all the teams in baseball. The Dartboard Factor is how many wins a team would be expected to have at the end of the season if it played a neutral schedule. Next to that, you’ll find the change in the Dartboard Factor from the previous week. An explanation of our method can be found here.

1. Detroit Tigers (Dartboard Factor = 106, +1): He may be 13-4 with a 2.69 ERA, but Justin Verlander likely isn’t even close to his peak. Verlander averaged 11.47 strikeouts per nine innings in college and 10.36 K/9 in the minor leagues, but he’s only whiffing just over six guys per game this year. Add a couple strikeouts a game, and Verlander’s ERA is half-a-point lower. Now obviously, some luck (and good defense) has gone into that 2.69 ERA, but the point is that Verlander has a long and successful career ahead of him. He’s 6’5”, only 23 years old, has a 100 mile-per-hour fastball … what’s not to like?

2. New York Yankees (Dartboard Factor = 99, -1): What do Chien-Ming Wang and Shawn Chacon have in common? Both have gained this aura in the past year—largely because they pitch for the Yankees—of being anti-DIPS pitchers, guys who defy the theory and can consistently suppress batting average on balls in play. Chacon was labeled as such last year when he had a 2.85 ERA with mediocre peripherals, and Wang is getting that label now. Wang’s Fielding Independent ERA (FIP) is actually right in-line with his 4.00 ERA, but there’s no way a pitcher who strikes out less than three batters a game can be successful for a long amount of time at the major league level. Period.

3. Boston Red Sox (Dartboard Factor = 98, 0): Take a look at what Fenway Park has done for Kevin Youkilis. All but one of his extra-base hits has been to left field, and 15 of 18 off or over the Monster. Don’t take that to mean that Youkilis is a Fenway-created phenomenon: He has .285 Gross Production Average (GPA) on the road. If anything, Fenway might actually suppress his power a little, as the Greek God of Walks has three more home runs on the road, but five more doubles at home.

4. Chicago White Sox (Dartboard Factor = 95, -3): Whether or not Alfonso Soriano would actually help the White Sox make the playoffs, it would almost certainly appear so. The Cell is a great home run park, and Soriano a great power hitter. A hitter can be expected to knock about 20% more balls out of the park playing in Chicago than he can playing at RFK Stadium, so if Soriano has 31 home runs right now, he might be expected to finish with 54. That would be over 20 home runs in just two months! Even if he regresses a bit, Soriano will still put up superficially impressive numbers if traded to the Sox.

5. Toronto Blue Jays (Dartboard Factor = 94, +1): The Blue Jays may only have a one-year window to make the playoffs. It sounds strange since this is only their first year contending—and for most teams, that generally is not their last—but the Jays are actually pretty old for a new contender. B.J. Ryan is 30 and closers age poorly. Roy Halladay’s strikeout rate is hovering around five per game, which is too low to be (highly) successful long-term. The Toronto hitters are all outperforming expectations, and should be expected to regress. If they can’t make it this year, the Jays may very well miss their opportunity at a title. On the other hand, if they do make it, the Blue Jays have two aces, a lights-out closer, and a great offense. Toronto could be near the top of the list of favorites to win it all if the Jays make it into the postseason.

6. New York Mets (Dartboard Factor = 93, 0): I’m not sure if I love or hate what the Mets are doing with their rotation. On one hand, they have two proven front-line starters in Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine, and a third would greatly improve their odds of winning the World Series. Given the ages of those two aces, and the cost at which this team was put together, it just makes sense to get a third guy who can pick up the slack if/when one of the old guys falters. On the other hand, it’s a gutsy move to put three rookies (Brian Bannister, John Maine, Mike Pelfrey) into the rotation and hope that two can pitch well this season. Of course, I love it when teams hold onto their valuable prospects instead of giving them away willy-nilly. So I really just don’t know what to think: Should the Mets go all-out, or should they build for the future while trying to build a championship team simultaneously?

7. Minnesota Twins (Dartboard Factor = 92, +2): Apparently, Brad Radke wants to retire at the end of the season. He’s only 33, and still effective, so that’s really too bad. I remember when he won 20 games for a team that won only 68 all year—he was like Steve Carlton for my generation. Except for the fact that Radke is not a Hall of Famer, though I would like to officially nominate him for the Ray Lankford Wing.

8. Texas Rangers (Dartboard Factor = 86, -3): I keep waiting for them to collapse but it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe their current four game losing streak is the beginning of the end for the Rangers. In my opinion, their offense isn’t good enough right now to carry their pitching staff, and what’s for sure is that the pitchers aren’t going to get Texas into the playoffs themselves. Honestly, I expect Texas to finish last in the AL West.

9. Los Angeles Angels (Dartboard Factor = 85, -1): So he’s on-pace to hit .316 with 32 home runs and 126 RBIs, but Vladimir Guerrero is certainly having an off-year. His OPS is 100 points below his career average, and he seems to be pressing a little bit. Guerrero has just one less strikeout than he had all of last season and is on-pace to walk about 20 fewer times.

10. St. Louis Cardinals (Dartboard Factor = 85, +2): I’m all for placing a high value on defense, and I think that Yadier Molina is a fine defensive catcher, but talk about a guy who needs to be taken out of the lineup. Molina has a .201 GPA, after posting a .222 GPA last year. That’s pitcher batting territory right there. Jason Marquis might balance things out a bit, but once you remember that the man can’t pitch, you realize the Cardinals still need all the offense they can get. That presumes a catcher who can post an OPS better than .600.

11. Oakland Athletics (Dartboard Factor = 84, 0): Eric Chavez needs some rest, I think. He’s gone from a 1.078 OPS in April to a .763 in May to a .606 OPS in June to a .476 OPS in July. Maybe some time off will do him good, because though I’m not one to put much stock into trends, I can tell you that Chavez’s is a bad one, and it suggests a more serious problem than just bad luck.

12. San Diego Padres (Dartboard Factor = 84, +1): Could it be that Mark Bellhorn needs to simply hit more ground balls to regain his touch from 2004? Bellhorn is struggling in San Diego (.258 GPA), but it may have to do with the fact that only 33% of his batted balls have been on the ground. Bellhorn is also striking out (even) more than he did in ’04, which combined with the other evidence may suggest that he’s swinging with a large upper-cut. If he just levels off his swing, Bellhorn could hit some more line drives and singles, and get his batting average to acceptable standards.

13. Cincinnati Reds (Dartboard Factor = 82, +1): The probability of Bronson Arroyo having zero hit batters just by random chance at this point in the season is just .07%. In other words, he’s made some very real changes to how he pitches.

14. Cleveland Indians (Dartboard Factor = 82, 0): Honestly, in all the time I was writing this article, I could not think of one comment to write for Cleveland. I don’t what that means. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. All I know is that currently, this team just is. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s not interesting, it’s not anything. The Indians are going to need to make some moves and make themselves relevant again.

15. Arizona Diamondbacks (Dartboard Factor = 81, +2): Orlando Hudson is making the Troy Glaus trade look better and better. After putting up a .235/.310/.322 line (that’s a .220 GPA) in the first two months of the season, Hudson is hitting .311/.372/.543 in the last two (that’s a .303 GPA). Eight of his nine home runs have also come since June. If he continues to be a Gold Glover in the field, Hudson is as good as Glaus, with a much cheaper price tag.

16. Seattle Mariners (Dartboard Factor = 81, +1): Ichiro just got his 1,279th major league hit, an important milestone because it means he’s now had more hits in America than he did in Japan. This is just a way of bringing up the following question: What kind of numbers does Ichiro have to attain in America to be considered a surefire Hall of Famer? I would consider but discount his numbers in Japan, and say that 2,000 MLB hits should get him in no question.

17. Atlanta Braves (Dartboard Factor = 79, +1): Is Chipper Jones a Hall of Famer? At 34, he’s having another great season (.337 GPA), and he’s been consistently spectacular for the past decade. Jones has decent career numbers—1,913 hits, 346 home runs, 3,385 total bases—but he needs to play about five more years at a high level to get to great career numbers. On the other hand, Jones’ rate stats are impeccable: 179 hits, 35 doubles, 3 triples, 32 home runs, 99 walks a year, 12 stolen bases, 4 caught stealing, 109 runs, and 110 runs batted in a year for almost 11 full seasons. Jones has been the constant centerpiece of the Braves dynasty, and at least in my mind, he’s a Hall of Famer even now. For the record, four of the 10 players most similar to Jones at age 33 are in the Hall of Fame, and all but one still have a pretty good shot at making it.

18. San Francisco Giants (Dartboard Factor = 79, 0): Few people realize how pivotal a time this is for Brian Sabean. On one hand, the Giants are just three games out of the NL West lead. On the other, even if they win the division (about a one-in-five shot), they have almost no shot at the World Series, and after this season, San Francisco is going to need to re-build. So does Sabean blow it up now, trading Jason Schmidt and maybe even Barry Bonds for a truckload of prospects? Or does he hold onto his aging team in hopes of one more playoff push and then watch this team fall apart next season with Moises Alou and Matt Morris leading the way?

19. Colorado Rockies (Dartboard Factor = 77, -1): Good time to be a Rockies fan: Colorado has three starters, all 27 or younger, with ERAs under 4.00, three hitters, also all 27 or less years of age, with .300+ GPAs, and a better than 10% chance of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus. (A wholly unrelated note: The Rockies pitching staff has thrown only 3.64 pitches per plate appearance, leading the league. John Apodaca, their pitching coach, deserves heaps and heaps of praise.)

20. Los Angeles Dodgers (Dartboard Factor = 76, -4): Nomar Garciaparra is batting .136 since the All-Star Break. Small sample sizes aside, it is possible that this slump will continue, simply because it has been a few years since he last played a full schedule. And that year he also slumped badly towards the end of the season, hitting .170 in September.

21. Baltimore Orioles (Dartboard Factor = 74, 0): Chris Ray is living up to THT Web editor Aaron Gleeman’s expectations, with 260.4 Win Probability Added. That’s less than the departed Ryan (341.7), but the one-and-a-half win difference between the two certainly isn’t worth the $9 million difference in salary, especially given the Orioles are not a contender and that Ray, 24, is six years younger.

22. Florida Marlins (Dartboard Factor = 74, +1): It’s not really fair to evaluate the Marlins based on their overall record because the first couple months of the season were basically a getting-to-know-you period: Players getting adjusted to the major leagues, fans learning player names, Joe Girardi memorizing his post-loss speech … those kinds of things. Florida started out the season 11-31, and has posted a 35-21 record since. That’s a 100-win pace, and the Marlins will only get better as their players move towards their peaks! I predict a playoff appearance next season, as the top spot NL East becomes a revolving door after Atlanta’s long run at the top.

23. Houston Astros (Dartboard Factor = 74, -1): The Astros are scoring exactly two runs per Roger Clemens start. Ouch. The Aubrey Huff trade isn’t going to help the Astros where they need it most—in the outfield. Their three starting outfielders have combined for a .235 GPA on the year, while Huff is replacing one of Houston’s two productive (though currently injured) offensive threats.

24. Milwaukee Brewers (Dartboard Factor = 74, -1): Ben Sheets is finally back. In his first start in two months, Sheets threw seven innings, allowed one run on a solo home run, scattered six hits, struck out five, and walked none. The Brewers still lost, so Sheets will really need to be special to keep Milwaukee’s slim playoff hopes alive.

25. Philadelphia Phillies (Dartboard Factor = 73, 0): The Phillies need to trade Bobby Abreu because his value will never be higher. This is a seller’s market, he’s still putting up good numbers, and there are a bunch of teams looking for a big outfield bat. But Abreu is clearly in decline. He’s lost all his power, his walk rate is too high to keep up (pitchers will adapt to this new Abreu and start throwing him more strikes), and Abreu is on the wrong side of 30. Someone will take on his contract if he is dealt now, and someone will give up a big-time prospect for him. The Phillies aren’t in contention … It just makes sense to pull the trigger now.

26. Washington Nationals (Dartboard Factor = 70, +4): The Nationals need to pull the trigger on the Soriano for Brandon McCarthy trade. Promising 23-year old pitchers with successful track records in the major leagues don’t exactly grow on trees.

27. Tampa Bay Devil Rays (Dartboard Factor = 68, 0): Carl Crawford is developing just as expected, going from 5 home runs his first season to 11 in his sophomore campaign, 15 the next, and a pace of 23 this year. Crawford can already hit for average, is pretty patient, and a great fielder. Once the power is set, he’ll be ready to bust out. Crawford reminds me a lot of Andruw Jones, though probably with slightly lesser physical tools (but Jones was just ridiculous).

28. Chicago Cubs (Dartboard Factor = 65, 0): Juan Pierre’s yearly home run totals since the start of his career: 0-2-1-1-3-2-1. Those first three years, by the way, were played in Colorado. What kind of general managers sees that line and thinks, “I’d like to pay this guy $5.75 million a year?” The type that builds a 98-loss team (the Cubs’ current pace) on a $94 million payroll.

29. Kansas City (Dartboard Factor = 62, +1): Let’s play a quick game: Without cheating, try to name the best player on the Royals right now. According to Win Shares, there’s actually a three-way tie between David DeJesus, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Mark Teahen. Have fun, Dayton Moore!

30. Pittsburgh Pirates (Dartboard Factor = 60, 0): Frankly, I’ve always been a big believer in Freddy Sanchez’s ability to be an effective major league second baseman. Will he continue to hit above .350 this season? Probably not. But JC Bradbury’s PrOPS system sees Sanchez as deserving a .318 batting average (fifth in the National League), and Sanchez has the profile of a good hitter for average—few walks, few strikeouts. He controls the strike zone well, makes good contact, and will be a quality player for the next half-dozen years.

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