AL Tout - 2nd Half Preview

Had someone told me at the beginning of the season that at the All-Star Break:

a) Jeremy Giambi would be hitting under .200, have only 5 home runs and was demoted to the minors,
b) Ted Lilly would be pushing 5.00 ERA and 1.400 WHIP,
c) Kevin Mench, Doug Glanville and Greg Colbrunn would have spent a combined 6 months on the DL
d) Erubial Durazo wouldn't have more than 10 home runs or Chris Woodward more than 6,

I'd have probably said that I would be near the bottom of the standings.  And yet, there I sit atop the standings, two and a half points ahead of last year's champ, Mastersball's Jason Grey.

This is not to say that I haven't had my share of good fortune this year.  Jeff DaVanon has been a pleasant surprise with the extra playing time he's received due to injuries to various Angels.  Esteban Loaiza continues to be one of the best starters in the American League and Sidney Ponson has emerged as the ace the O's had hoped he'd become.  And Jose Lima looks much closer to his 1998-1999 form than the caricature that he's been for much of the last 4 years.

Despite this success, I'm still optimistic this team can perform as well or better in the second half.  

On offense, I currently have 8 players who are performing below expectation (based on their career numbers) in home runs, 4 who are under in RBI, 4 in runs and 7 lagging in batting average.  Only one is below in stolen bases (Rivas).  Conversely, I only have 3 hitters who have been better than expectation in home runs, 2 in RBI, 1 in runs, 2 in steals and 2 in batting average.  Which means that if everyone falls (or advances) to their career mean, the offense will actually improve.  

It'll also help if guys get healthy.  Currently I'm without Matt Lawton, Greg Colbrunn, Kevin Mench and Jeremy Giambi, from whom when I drafted this team I expected a decent amount of production.  The fact that I've gotten next to nothing from them  - except Lawton who was starting to get hot when he was injured - is somewhat of a consolation.  I'm hoping their fortunes will turn for the better in the next month, but it may be too much to ask.  Lawton should be ok, but wrist injuries like the one Mench suffered often rob players of the ability to turn on pitches, which means diminished performance all around.  Giambi's problem is that he'll never get enough at bats to do anything with Grady Little as his manager, so the best hope is that they deal him for some pitching depth to a team that will give him some consistent playing time.  Colbrunn's injury, combined with John Olerud and Edgar Martinez staying relatively healthy means he probably won't get any significant time the rest of the season.

Still, I may have enough offense from Eric Chavez, Mark Teixeira, Erubial Durazo, Jay Gibbons, Ramon Hernandez and Dmitri Young to weather their absences and rehabs.  If Doug Glanville, Luis Rivas and Coco Crisp remain hot, what losses I may suffer in the power categories (home runs and RBI) might be offset by potential gains in batting average, runs and steals.  This is a very deep team and reasonably well-equipped to handle this kind of adversity.

On the pitching side, it may be a bit much to expect Esteban Loaiza to continue to pitch as well as he has, but then, it would be a bit much to ask of anyone not named Pedro, Unit or Maddux to pitch this well.  Still, his last few outings were very good (except for the run support) so there's little evidence of an impending meltdown, especially given the number of games he'll have against the Central Division in the second half.  

Sidney Ponson has also done very well, but his upcoming schedule isn't as friendly with lots of games against the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays ahead.  He may side-step that if the O's are unable to negotiate a long term deal with him and trade him by the deadline.  Plenty of teams, especially in the NL, would love to add him to their rotations, which would only help his cause this season as he'll get to face pitchers 2 or 3 times a game.  Even if he doesn't get traded, his last two outings showed that he can handle good offenses, so there's no reason to panic here either.

Kenny Rogers and Aaron Sele have been pretty ineffective to this point, but there's room for hope.  Mike Scioscia recently put Sele on a 5-inning limit and the results have been remarkable - 15 innings, 14 baserunners, 1 earned run, 3 wins.  He will eventually let Sele go a little longer once he has demonstrated the strength to do so and Sele may end up being almost as useful as he was in 2001 before his shoulder problems: 15-5, 3.60 ERA, 1.242 WHIP.  As for Rogers, he still throws the occasional good outing and with the Twins bullpen, he has a good chance to pick up a half a dozen wins in the second half.  My hope is that he can do a little better job of limiting the awful outings.  Remove his start against Seattle on June 1 and the one against Kansas City on June 17 and his numbers are: 7-3, 3.95 ERA, 1.388 WHIP.  Not great, but not exactly damaging either.

The most encouraging development, though, is that Johan Santana has been added to the Twins rotation, which should pay dividends in wins, ERA, WHIP and strikeouts.  Grant Balfour is also rumored to be moving into the rotation.  If Seattle makes the same move with Rafael Soriano, my rotation will be: Loaiza, Ponson, Sele, Santana, Soriano, Balfour, and... LIMA-time!  Jose Lima resurrected his career with the Atlantic League Newark Bears and has looked like a man on a mission in his 6 starts with the Royals.  He was recently tabbed to be the ace of their staff starting the second half.  Like Loaiza, it's unlikely he can continue at his current rate, but for a couple of years in Houston he was a very good pitcher and was a decent one in Detroit for half a season, so there is legitimate reason for optimism that he might still be pretty good the rest of the way.   If Ted Lilly turns it around and/or Kenny Rogers pitches better - and he does have a history of pitching better in the second half of the season - this could be a very interesting staff.  

Not all is rosy on the mound, though.  Ugueth Urbina, my lone contributor to the saves category was traded to the Florida Marlins and at least for the time being, will be Braden Looper's set-up man.  Jesus Colome has shown flashes of brilliance, but whenever D-Rays closer Lance Carter has faltered, so has Colome.  As it looks now, if Carter loses the job, it will be either to Al Levine or Travis Harper, not Colome that replaces him.  There is still a chance that Armando Benitez will get traded to the AL, but even if he does, I don't have enough FAAB left to compete with the reserves of  5 other teams.  So unless by some miracle I stumble on a dominant closer off the waiver wire, I'm probably going to have to trade for a closer at some point in the next month.  Unless someone like Joaquin Benoit, Lilly or Balfour pitches well enough to allow me to trade some starting pitching depth, it will be difficult to balance the gains with the losses.  

Unlike last year, I won't state that there's nowhere to go but up.  I learned my lesson that as bad as things are going, there's always a chance they could get worse.  Still, I have reason to be optimistic that a strong finish is in the offing.  I have quality depth on offense and starting pitching, and I've already weathered a number of storms so far.  I have decent talent waiting in the wings and if this team can ever get healthy, they could be very good.

After the draft, I said, "A lot could go wrong with this team - Giambi loses his DH job to David Ortiz, both rookies get sent down for significant time, Santana and Soriano spend the whole season in the pen, Loaiza underachieves again, Colome reverts to his old wildness, the older veterans show their age, etc., etc."  Five of those six, to varying degrees, have happened.  Teixeira didn't get sent down, Santana only spent half the season in the pen and Loaiza hasn't underachieved, but everything else has happened.  

I also said, "On the plus side, there's a considerable amount of potential here so I'll just have to see what shakes out and work hard through the waivers to fill the gaps."  Jeff Davanon and Jose Lima have been a huge boons off the wire and Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour could be.  This team has very few bad players and good number of good-very good ones.  The potential is here.  I have a much better feeling than I did immediately after the draft that they will realize it.