Heaven Can't Wait (05/05/01)
Much of the attention so far has been on the surprise teams that have either started in first place or in last place. I figured I'd do something a little different. I'm gonna look at a couple of surprise teams that could finish in first place. All I ask is that you hold your laughter until after I explain why. Then if you feel like a good laugh at my expense, chuckle, chortle and guffaw away.
Angels in the Outfield... and elsewhere.
In the AL West, everyone is talking about what Oakland has to do to catch Seattle. They are already writing off Texas because the Rangers pitching is in shambles. But the team no one is paying attention to, the team lurking in the shadows, and the team that Oakland has to leapfrog over to catch Seattle is Anaheim.
Currently, the Angels' record sits at 14-15. However, their Pythagorean projection, which is a method for determining what their record should be based on a ratio of runs scored and allowed, indicates they have played well enough to be 16-13. They're actually a better team than that.
So far, the Angels best hitters - Darin Erstad, Tim Salmon, Troy Glaus and Scott Spiezio - have combined to hit .232. Their combined career average is .281. Erstad, Spiezio and Salmon have 4 homers between them. Last year, they combined for 76. Production from the core of the Angels offense will improve considerably over the next few months as these guys move toward their established career levels.
Their starting pitching will improve as well. We already knew they had two very talented young pitchers poised to emerge as stars this year. Ramon Ortiz's stuff is as good as anyone's in the AL. Scott Schoeneweis is the perfect counter to Ortiz' right-handed power game - a groundball lefty who takes full advantage of the Angel's terrific infield defense.
Behind them is a rejuvenated Ismael Valdes. Three years ago, the idea that he would be a bargain basement free agent was absolutely, totally and in all other ways inconceivable. He was one of the best young right-handers in the game, often being compared to Greg Maddux. But two years of nagging injuries and a reputation for malingering (whether it was deserved or not is still in question) will tend to deflate a pitcher's value pretty quickly. And just as Vizzini was proved wrong, so were the teams that passed on him this winter. He is again pitching with confidence and looking like he did from 1994-1998.
Behind Valdes the Angels have tried Jarrod Washburn and Pat Rapp. Washburn, like Valdes the past couple of years, is perpetually injured. So it remains to be seen just how much he can offer in the way of quality innings. I don't imagine anyone believes that Rapp is a real solution in the rotation.
However, the Angels do have 3 guys who began the season in AAA who just might be: Matt Wise, Steve Green and Scot Shields. Wise doesn't have spectacular stuff, but he has excellent command of 4 pitches. Think of him as Bobby Jones without all the hubbub. Both Shields and Green have been average to above average in the minors. Both should be able to handle the 5th spot/long relief without much difficulty. The Angels should be able to get 320-350 quality innings out of these 3 guys without much problem.
And the last reason the rest of the West should be concerned is the Angels' bullpen, which to this point looks awesome. Troy Percival looks as solid as he ever has, allowing just one hit in his first 8+ innings. Al Levine, Ben Weber and Mike Holtz have been utterly dominating, allowing just 31 baserunners in 34+ innings while striking out 33. Holtz and Weber have shown this kind of talent before. However, this is new territory for Levine, so I'm sure pitching coach Bud Black is telling him, "don't worry about it, just go with the flow!!" Shigetoshi Hasegawa has struggled a bit out of the gate, but he has a history of poor Aprils. In a year when Japanese players are frequenting the headlines with the their exploits, I'm sure he will make his mark soon.
Good defense, good bullpen and an improving offense and starting staff... if the A's don't get their act together soon and the Mariners don't solve their power outage, the Angels could make things very interesting in September.
Treasure of the Sierra Padre?
Did anyone notice that the Padres have the best offense in the National League? WHAT?!?! Believe it or not, the Pads are third in total runs scored behind the Rockies and the Diamondbacks, and both of those teams play in much more hitter-friendly parks than the Pads. An argument could also be made for the Dodgers having the best offense, as they play in a tough park too and are only 4 runs behind the Pads at this point. But no one, except maybe those who are in constant contact with the spirit world, expected the Pads' offense to be this good. In my spring preview I thought they had a chance to be decent, but they are on pace to score 844 runs this year, which is positively good.
'How are they doing it? They have no power in the outfield.' Well, it turns out there's more than one way to score in baseball. The Pads are scoring by drawing walks and not hitting into double plays. Currently, the Pads are on pace to walk 746 times, which would be one of the all-time top totals. It's a pace they should be able to maintain as no one in their regular line-up is walking more frequently than their career average except for catcher Ben Davis.
Davis' numbers shouldn't be discounted, though. At just 24, he's in his third year in the majors and the production we're seeing now isn't far from what he produced in the minors as one of the youngest players at each level. This very well could be the real Ben Davis.
Like the Angels, the Pads have some key hitters who are performing well below their career norms. Mark Kotsay (.280 career) is hitting .204 after battling with injury the first month. Ryan Klesko (.282 career), who is battling a balky knee, is hitting .236. Both should improve tremendously as the season wears on.
Some would point to Phil Nevin performing well above his career levels as a key why the Pads are scoring so many runs. That would be a nice explanation if it were true. The fact is that a healthy Nevin IS this productive or pretty close to it. Last year he battled injuries for much of the year and his numbers weren't too far from what they are now. He's certainly not walking any more than he has in the past. If anything is amiss, its that he's striking out more.
Which might be another key to the Pads' run scoring binge. Rather than making contact with bad pitches and hitting into double plays - they currently have hit into fewer double plays than all but 2 teams in the NL - they are missing those bad pitches entirely and striking out. As long as Bruce Bochy can refrain from putting the hit and run play on, this could be a good thing.
With the exception of a few players, the Friars aren't exactly fleet afoot. The risk with a team like that is that you'll hit into a lot of double plays if you don't give those runners a little head start with a hit and run play. With the Pads, however, who swing and miss more often than any team in the NL - an amazing feat for a team with Tony Gwynn - a hit and run play will more often than not turn into a strike 'em out, throw 'em out double play. So rather than chancing the double play with a slow runner and a free swinger, manager Bruce Bochy is letting his free swingers strike out (for just one out) and letting the next guy take his cuts. As good as the Pads are at drawing walks, that guy at first base might end up on second anyway. Forget about the hit and run entirely. He is letting the guys with speed - full-timers Kotsay, Klesko and Damian Jackson; part-timers Santiago Perez and Rickey Henderson - steal bases straight up and telling the rest of the team to take their extra bases on the extra base hits rather than on some orchestrated play. A manager who understands his team is a wonderful thing to watch.
The Pads pitching should also show some improvement as we enter the summer, especially in the rotation. Brian Tollberg and Bobby Jones have been solid so far and well within their level of talent. Woody Williams, Kevin Jarvis and Adam Eaton haven't been so good. Both Eaton and Williams have strong histories of being much better. Their early season struggles are as much due to bad luck as anything. Jarvis has showed promise at times, but his 6.15 ERA is not too far out of line with what he's done in his 6 year major league career. The good news for the Pads is that they have a plethora of options if he should continue to struggle.
Sterling Hitchcock is due to return from Tommy John surgery in the next month or two. He's a quality #2 starter on just about any staff in the majors. However, if he's completely healed, the Pads will likely try to trade him and his $5 million salary to some money-ed team for quality hitting prospects.
Jay Witasick is also a possibility. He's been dominating out of the pen so far this year and has pitched as starter for a good portion of his career. But he's pitched so well in his current role that they'd be unlikely to mess with something that's worked so well. Brian Lawrence is another possibility out of the pen. Most of his work in the minors was as a starter. Last year, he dominated AA and AAA hitters with his control, posting an ERA in the low 2s. While he's not likely to have that kind of success in the majors, he would give the Pads some quality innings.
The more permanent solution the Pads will ultimately choose is to move one of their impressive stable of young arms into the rotation. Jeremy Powell and Wascar Serrano have both pitched very well in the hitter friendly PCL this year. Both have better stuff than anyone currently in the rotation, save Eaton. The Pads probably won't call them up sooner than the All-Star break - they'll try out all their major league options first and then Hitchcock. Once they do, Powell and Serrano could take major league hitters by surprise for a month or two. Pitchers have the advantage against hitters who haven't seen them. For this very reason, pitching prospects often come out of the gates fast, looking like sure-fire stars for a few months. Once the league gets a second look at them and the scouting report gets a little more complete, they're successes tend to thin out. But if Powell and/or Serrano are called up after the break, that second look won't come until next year.
The Pads current Pythagorean projection has them at 15-14, 2 games better than their actual 13-16 record and what would be just 2 games out of first. With no one in the division looking especially strong - The D-backs still have no one after their Big Two in the rotation, the Giants pitching has been woeful, the Dodgers still have gaping holes in the line-up and the Rockies are hovering around .500 - the Padres, while unlikely contenders are not out of the race yet.
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
A Padres vs Angels World Series? Vegas probably wouldn't even offer odds. And I'm not suggesting that they should. The favorites to win the divisions probably still should be considered the favorites. But dark horse teams, like the first-place Twins, Cubs and Phillies, surprise people because they had positive characteristics that people either undervalued or didn't recognize at all. While they may have looked like doormats on paper in the general view, the Angels and Padres have the same kind of surprise potential.
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