Every week throughout the season I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. First up, it’s the NL. It’s The Senior Class – Week 10! (All records correct as of Saturday morning).
- San Francisco Giants (4-2 last week, 40-21 overall) → As Buster Olney proffered on the Baseball Tonight podcast earliest this week, the Giants are official ridiculous. At 40-21 overall, they’re on pace for a 106-win season, and unsurprisingly have the best playoff odds of any NL team (95.7%). And while they’ve largely done it with pitching (they rank 3rd amongst all ML teams in ERA and BAA, and second in WHIP), their offense has kicked it up a notch of late too. Pablo Sandoval, who was hitting .171 heading into a May 10th game against the Dodgers, has been on fire ever since, batting .340 with six homers and a .932 OPS in a 105 plate appearance sample size. Buster Posey meanwhile, looks to be finally getting back to his MVP-level usual at the dish; his two-run homer (his eighth of the year) off reliever Carlos Torres broke a 2-2 tie in the eighth inning yesterday, not only gave the Giants the lead for good, but extended his hitting streak to five games and concluded his second three-hit effort in less than a week. Every single everyday player in fact, now has an OPS+ over 100 (league average). The moral as always: beware the Bay in an even-numbered year.
- Washington Nationals (5-1, 31-28) ↑ Doug Fister‘s stats in the five games he has started since his disastrous Nationals debut: 32.1 innings pitched, 25 hits allowed, 2 walks permitted, opposing batters line of .212/.236/.347, 2.23 era, 5-0 record. Hold on, I’m busy getting flashbacks of my feelings circa 2010 about the robbery of Pau Gasol by the Lakers. What a steal.
- Los Angeles Dodgers (3-3, 32-30) → Jonah Keri did a fantastic job yesterday breaking down the Matt Kemp quandary, and the Dodger’s unenviable outfield problem: in Keri’s words, “They have four outfielders making too much to sit on the bench, and, despite the seemingly impossible math, Kemp is the fifth-best option.” And that doesn’t even factor in the team’s top prospect, Joc Pederson, who is raking at Triple-A at the moment and would immediately be their best defensive center fielder if he were to be called up to the majors. The Giants are now 8 games ahead in the NL West by the way.
- Atlanta Braves (3-2, 32-27) → Congratulations to Craig Kimbrel, who at the tender age of 26, yesterday surpassed John Smoltz as the Braves’ all-time leader in saves, notching no. 155 in a 5-2 win over Arizona. Since debuting in 2010, his 43.1% strikeout rate leads all relievers, as does his 1.41 ERA. During that span, he’s been worth 10.3 WAR (the next highest is Greg Holland at 8.4), and blown just 17 save opportunities. Without question, the best closer in baseball.
- Milwaukee Brewers (3-4, 36-26) →
- St. Louis Cardinals (2-4, 31-31) ↓
- Miami Marlins (4-3, 32-29) ↑
- Colorado Rockies (0-6, 28-32) ↓ Did I, or did I not say regarding Eddie Butler‘s debut, “He’ll be going up against Hyun-Jin Ryu and the Dodgers when he makes his debut at Coors Field on Friday, so perhaps don’t rush out to add him in your fantasy leagues just yet.” 5.1 Innings, 13 base runners, and 6 earned runs later, you can’t say you weren’t warned. The Rockies are in the mire right now, and looking at their upcoming schedule (they’re facing Greinke and Kershaw this weekend, before series vs. Atlanta, at San Francisco, at L.A., vs. MIL, vs. STL, at MIL, at WASH, vs L.A.) there’s not much relief on the horizon. Oh well, Colorado: Contenders, was fun while it lasted.
- New York Mets (3-4, 28-33) →
- Pittsburgh Pirates (4-2, 29-31) ↑ Cannonball coming! Since losing the first game of a doubleheader to the Yankees back on May 18th, the Bucs have walked away victorious in 12 of their last 18 outings. Josh Harrison has been a minor revelation in that time, batting .325/.366.519 while playing some nice defense out in right field, putting some pressure on Starling Marte out in left. Though an excellent defender, Marte has batted just .234 with a .665 OPS this year, and has been banished to the bench by Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle for the Pirates’ last three games. With Gregory Polanco presumably on the way in the very near future, could it in fact be Marte most at risk of losing playing time? Just two games behind the Cardinals for second place in the NL Central, and with an extremely favorable schedule over the next month, the Pirates have a real chance to make a push for the postseason at the moment. Playing their best guys would be a good idea (#FreePolanco!).
- Cincinnati Reds (3-3, 27-32) ↓ I’d have laid big money on Johnny Cueto notching another shutout against the hapless Phillies offense yesterday. Instead, it was the Reds who were anemic on O, and Cueto gave up four runs on six hits, walking one and striking out five over five innings in the 8-0 loss. Can we tie this Cincinnati season in a bag, weight it down, and toss it overboard yet? Please?
- San Diego Padres (2-4, 27-34) →
- Philadelphia Phillies (1-6, 25-34) → As much as I like Aaron Nola as a pitching prospect, I’m still struggling to figure out why the Phillies popped him at no. 7 overall in the 2014 Amateur Draft. The LSU junior projects to have one of the quickest progressions to the majors, á la Michael Wacha, which would make sense if the Phillies were in the pennant race this year and needed immediate back-end rotation help, or expected to contend in 2015. Unfortunately, Philadelphia are neither, and having gone 5-12 in their last 17 games, are in imminent danger of being surpassed by the Diamondbacks in these rankings.
- Arizona Diamondbacks (3-3, 26-37) →
- Chicago Cubs (5-1, 24-34) → After the selection of Kyle Schwarber, a catcher at Indiana, but likely left fielder or first baseman in the majors, as the no. 4 overall pick on Thursday, a trade of some of the Cubs’ ultra-stocked position player crop for some young pitching talent (or perhaps, David Price) has to be on the horizon right?
Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings – The Designated 15: Week 10!
Every week throughout the season (minus last week, when I was vacationing at Safeco Field), I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. First up, it’s the NL. It’s The Senior Class – Week 9! (All records correct as of Saturday morning).
- San Francisco Giants (9-3 over the last fortnight, 36-19 overall) → After initially hoping they’d be able to avoid a roster move, Matt Cain was finally placed on the DL yesterday, and Yusmeiro Petit will take his turn against the Cardinals today. With Pablo Sandoval and the rest of the offense rolling, and ten consecutive games against sub-.500 teams after this series with St. Louis is complete, there’s probably no better time for the Giants to lose Cain for a stretch.
- St. Louis Cardinals (7-6, 29-26) ↑ With Matt Adams banished to the DL with a calf strain, the Redbirds finally pulled the Super-2 trigger yesterday and called up their top prospect, Oscar Taveras. The jewel of St. Louis’ loaded farm system, Taveras was batting .325 in 49 games with Memphis with seven homers and 40 RBIs, and is being counted on to provide an injection to a languishing Cardinals offense that after leading the senior circuit in darn near every metric last year, is producing just 3.93 runs per game in 2014 (10th best among NL teams). The 21-year-old Dominican will apparently bat sixth in the order, and also presumably push Allen Craig to first base while he plays in right field. The real fun however, will come when the Cards finish up their early June interleague schedule and Adams returns; someone is going to be squeezed out of playing time, a problem shared by the…
- Los Angeles Dodgers (6-7, 29-27) ↓ An awkward situation resolved itself on Wednesday when left fielder Carl Crawford was placed on the DL with a left ankle sprain. For the previous 5 days, Matt Kemp had found himself riding the pine, replaced in center field by Andre Ethier – something that apparently didn’t sit too well with the highly-paid Kemp. Crawford’s injury permitted Kemp back into the lineup, but starting in left field for the first time since his rookie year, the 29-year-old hasn’t exactly excelled since his return; he’s gone 0-13 over the last four days, and is now batting .242 with a .719 OPS on the season. Given how Don Mattingly is making noise that he might not even start Kemp today, it might be time to go out and grab Joc Pedersen in your fantasy leagues.
- Atlanta Braves (7-7, 29-25) ↑
- Milwaukee Brewers (6-7, 33-22) ↓ After racking up 13 saves with a 12.9 K/9 ratio in April, the Francisco Rodriguez revival train came off the tracks in May. Over the past 30 days, K-Rod has allowed 7 earned runs and three homers in just 11 innings pitched, his strikeout rate falling to a meager 6.5/9 in that span. Paging Jim Henderson…
- Colorado Rockies (4-7, 28-26) ↓
- Washington Nationals (4-8, 26-27) ↓ Ryan Zimmerman went 0-3 as a designated hitter in his first rehab game at Class-A Potomac yesterday, but the bigger news is where he’ll be playing today. Working his way back into the swing of things after breaking his right thumb back on April 12th, Zimmerman will be playing left field, his first experience of the outfield, as the Nationals experiment with him at positions other than third. The 29-year-old will also apparently get time at first base, which he could man for the Nationals while Adam LaRoche remains on the DL.
- Miami Marlins (6-5, 28-26) → In some much-needed good injury news, right-hander Henderson Alvarez has been cleared to pitch Tuesday after complaining of a sore elbow in his most recent start. The last thing the Marlins need is another promising starter following Jose Fernandez to the operating table.
- New York Mets (6-7, 25-29) ↑ Rafael Montero has been demoted, clearing the way for Daisuke Matsuzaka to start next Wednesday. I would argue, but the Mets have 35 quality starts this season, the third-highest mark in the majors. They must be doing something right.
- Cincinnati Reds (5-8, 24-29) ↓ With a team OPS of .673 for the season, the Cincinnati offense is officially floundering. Jay Bruce is back, but has done little, scratching his way to a .111/.111/.148 triple slash line since making his return. Perhaps worse, he’s now being out-slugged by Billy Hamilton. Only two members of the Reds starting lineup, Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco rank above league average by OPS+. Joey Votto, the only other Red who can claim such a title, is eligible to come off the DL today, but unfortunately doesn’t yet appear ready to return. Thank goodness for Mike Leake, Johnny Cueto, and the rest of the excellent starting pitching, a staff should be further boosted by the imminent return of Mat Latos. Without them, my Reds would be dead and buried already.
- Pittsburgh Pirates (8-6, 25-29) ↑
- Philadelphia Phillies (7-6, 24-28) ↑ Ruben Amaro remains a contentious figure at best, but it appears he at least got something right – keeping Chase Utley. After receiving a lucrative contract extension in the midst of a successful streak last summer, the 35-year-old has continued his hot-hitting ways in 2014, batting .323/.379/.525 so far. At the keystone, that’s incredible production, and well worth the $15 million the Phillies have invested in him this season. Whether he can avoid injury and keep it up for the remaining length of the contract however, well into his late thirties, remains the funkier angle of Amaro’s logic.
- San Diego Padres (5-7, 25-30) ↓
- Arizona Diamondbacks (5-6, 23-34) → Believe it or not, the D’Backs have actually been relatively respectable in May, going 14-12 over the past month. Arizona’s pitching remains a mess, but with Aaron Hill supporting Paul Goldschmidt nicely, their offense isn’t half the train wreck. They travel to Coors Field this week, so expect the trend of horrific pitching, good hitting to continue.
- Chicago Cubs (6-6, 19-33) → Going into Thursday’s game, Kris Bryant was batting .349 with 15 home runs and 44 RBIs for the Tennessee Smokies, with a .452 OBP (he’s added another home run since, obviously) .Accordingly, he was bumped up to no. 8 in Keith Law’s most recent prospect rankings, leapfrogging fellow Cubs prospect Javier Baez, who checked in at no. 9. The first round selection of the Cubs last year, Bryant has destroyed Southern League pitching to such an extent that a promotion to Triple-A can’t be far away, which will hopefully serve as a prelude to a September cup of coffee in the big leagues. Until then though, it’s another dull losing season at Wrigley.
Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings – The Designated 15: Week 9!
Every week throughout the season I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. First up, it’s the NL. It’s The Senior Class – Week 7! (All records correct as of Saturday morning).
- San Francisco Giants (4-3 last week, 27-16 overall) → Bruce Bochy‘s gang continue to quietly roll on atop the NL West, but the injury bug that they had mostly evaded for the first 6 weeks of the season has begun to bite; after losing Brandon Belt for six weeks after he underwent surgery to repair his fractured thumb, Tim Hudson missed his Friday start against the Marlins with a strained hip.The 38-year-old should be back in time for his next start, but probably won’t be too miffed if he’s held out again – he’ll otherwise be taking on the Rockies at Coors Field.
- Los Angeles Dodgers (4-2, 23-20) → Yasiel Puig so far in May: 67 plate appearances, .421/.507/.772 triple slash line, 10 walks, 12 strikeouts, and five home runs. The wild horse is loose, and bat-flipping like his life depended upon it.
- Milwaukee Brewers (5-1, 27-15) ↑ In his 152 plate appearances this year, Khris Davis has 3 walks, good (bad?) for a 2.0 BB%. In his 152 plate appearances this year, Khris Davis has 42 strikeouts, good (bad?) for a 27.6 K%. And yet by OPS+ (he has a disgusting mark of 73, 13th worst among Senior Circuit qualifiers) the artist formerly known as Khrush is by far Milwaukee’s best option to play left field. Dear Lord do the Brewers need a outfield bench upgrade from the pitiful trio of Logan Schafer, Elian Herrera and Kaleb Gindl.
- Colorado Rockies (2-3, 24-19) ↓
- Washington Nationals (3-3, 22-19) → Doug Fister‘s second start as a National went a lot better than his first, as he allowed just five hits over seven innings, striking out six and walking none, in Wednesday’s win. Then again, he was only facing the Diamondbacks.
- St. Louis Cardinals (4-2, 22-20) → After playing 26 of the first 38 games on the road, the Redbirds returned home to Busch Stadium on Monday and were promptly hammered 17-5 by the Cubs. They’ve won 3 straight since though, and remain the sleeping giants of the NL in my eyes. With Trevor Rosenthal struggling in the closer role of late, keep an eye on Jason Motte‘s imminent return in your fantasy leagues.
- Atlanta Braves (3-3, 22-18) ↑ The Braves released renderings for their new $672 million stadium in Cobb County this week. In other news, aside from Freddie Freeman and his dancing, Atlanta’s offense still stinks.
- Miami Marlins (2-4, 22-21) ↓ I’m still not ready to write about how I feel regarding Jose Fernandez‘s Tommy John surgery, but thankfully Bill Barnwell has moved on already. In his Friday post for Grantland, Barnwell astutely illustrated how Fernandez was the perfect prototype for aggressively calling up stud young pitchers – demonstrating how he was basically the same guy in High-A ball as he was in the major leagues. By promoting him straight from Class-A ball however, the Marlins extracted over 200 innings of Cy Young worthy pitching from Fernandez before his injury, while fellow heralded prospects Dylan Bundy and Jameson Taillon lingered in the minors before blowing out their arms. A great piece, and an interesting future strategy, though being labeling Fernandez a prototype rather than a cautionary tale does little to soften the blow of losing the most exciting pitcher in the game.
- Cincinnati Reds (3-3, 19-21) → I hate to think about where the Reds would be this year without Johnny Cueto; with Mat Latos yet to make a start, Homer Bailey scuffling, and Tony Cingrani ineffective, not to mention an offense already without Jay Bruce and perhaps now Joey Votto too, Cueto has been carrying Cincinnati almost single-handedly thus far in 2014. This week apparently, everyone else aside from Reds fans like me also caught on to how good he has been; amongst many other pieces, the Dominican Republic native was most notably given the spotlight treatment from Dave Schoenfield on the ESPN Sweetspot blog, and the subject of a brilliant PitchCraft feature from Shane Ryan on Grantland. Sam and Ben on the Effectively Wild Podcast too, noted how Cueto’s ERA+ since 2011 is second only to Clayton Kershaw amongst all qualified starters during that time. Knowing Cincinnati’s (lack of) injury luck this season though (the Reds are second only to the Rangers in DL assignments thus far), he’ll be down within the next week now.
- San Diego Padres (4-2, 20-23) ↑ With Carlos Quentin back from injury, the battle for outfield playing time is officially on. Considering how Seth Smith‘s recent tear will likely grant him a corner spot, that leaves 2 positions to be filled by either Quentin, Will Venable, Chris Denorfia, or Cameron Maybin. With the Padres ranking last among all teams in the majors in batting average (.219), on base percentage (.274), and slugging percentage (.342), you would have to think manager Bud Black will prioritize offense when filling out his lineup card.
- New York Mets (3-4, 19-22) ↓ Both Rafael Montero and Jacob deGrom were more than solid in their big league debuts on the mound this week, limiting the Yankees to just four runs in 13 innings between them. They received absolutely zero run support though, the offense behind them tallying only 7 cumulative hits in those two games. deGrom however, did finally end the Mets pitchers’ streak of futility at the plate – the group are now 1-66 on the season.
- Pittsburgh Pirates (2-3, 17-23) ↓ Jason Grilli reckons he’s ready to return from the DL, and wants to step straight back in as closer. He probably will too given Mark Melancon‘s performance on Thursday; the 29-year-old failed to record an out, and allowed two hits and two walks en route to his second blown save in seven opportunities, bringing the Pirates’ blown save total to 10 already this season. After nailing down 55 of their 70 opportunities last year, Pittsburgh are currently on pace for the most blown saves ever, a record currently held by the 2004 Colorado Rockies (34).
- Philadelphia Phillies (1-4, 17-22) ↓
- Arizona Diamondbacks (3-3, 16-28) → Jonah Keri made the point here somewhat, but when will the Kevin Towers and the Diamondbacks accept their fate and start to sell off some of their few desirable players?
- Chicago Cubs (1-5, 13-27) → As good as he’s been so far this year, if the Cubs could get Jon Gray for Jeff Samardzija, as proposed by Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post here, they should pull the trigger in a millisecond. Sounds pretty darn unlikely though.
Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings – The Designated 15: Week 7!
Every week throughout the season I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. First up, it’s the NL. It’s The Senior Class – Week 4! (All records correct as of Saturday morning).
- Atlanta Braves (4-2 last week, 15-7 overall) → The Atlanta rotation continues to amaze, and will only be getting stronger this week when Mike Minor returns. Minor will likely supplant David Hale, who owns the highest ERA of the starting crew (2.93), but his status as the team’s top lefty might well be in danger; fellow southpaw Alex Wood looked like Chris Sale on Tuesday, allowing only four hits and one run with no walks and a career-high 11 strikeouts in eight innings against the Marlins. Jose Fernandez however, was somehow even better, saddling Wood with the tough-luck loss. In other news, B.J. Upton wore prescription glasses for the first time in his major-league career on Friday, and noted an improvement in his vision. Perhaps the benefit of some visual clarity will help him boost his horrific .207/.286/.293 season line and ignite the Braves offense.
- Milwaukee Brewers (5-1, 17-6) ↑ The Brew Crew rolled against a weak schedule last week, beating up on the lowly Pirates, Padres, and Cubs, and now have a 4.5 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central lead. Even if they regress to the .500 form that many predicted for them before the season, the wins they’ve banked already will mean they’ll end up with a 86.5-win season; that wouldn’t have been enough for a Wild-Card berth last year, but Milwaukee are showing no signs of slowing down – Baseball Prospectus‘ Effectively Wild podcast with Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh did an excellent job of breaking down how the Brewers have the most improved playoff odds since the start of the year. Francisco Rodriguez by the way, who was only meant to be covering for Jim Henderson as closer for the first few games, may now have locked down the ninth-inning job; K-Rod now has 10 saves and hasn’t allowed a run in his 13 innings, striking out 20 in the process.
- St. Louis Cardinals (2-4, 13-11) ↓
- Los Angeles Dodgers (2-4, 13-11) ↓
- San Francisco Giants (3-3, 13-10) → After missing a great portion of 2013 with a particularly bad hamstring injury, the rerun of Angel Pagan has been huge to the Giants thus far. Batting .337 atop the lineup, along with the production of fellow outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Morse (who has 4 HRs in the last week), the 32-year-old’s contact skills have been especially crucial in masking the early struggles of Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, and thus keeping the San Francisco offense mildly respectable. It was worrying then, when an MRI this week revealed a slight tear in Pagan’s patella tendon – he should be able to play through the injury, though of course now there is the inherent risk that the tendon could completely tear, and the Giants could be without their spark plug center-fielder for an extended stretch once again.
- Washington Nationals (3-4, 13-11) →
- Cincinnati Reds (4-3, 11-12) → Aroldis Chapman threw some BP, Johnny Cueto had another complete game. Aside from Devin Mesoraco‘s inevitable BABIP regression hitting soon, things are looking up in Cincy (YES!).
- Colorado Rockies (4-2, 13-11) →
- New York Mets (5-2, 13-10) ↑ Faced with a seemingly tough series against St. Louis this past week, the Metropolitans naturally took 3 0f the 4 games. Jenrry Mejia was particularly fantastic in Monday’s game, tossing 6.2 scoreless innings while striking out 7, lowering his ERA to 1.99 on the season. He’ll get another good chance to lower that number against the Marlins today. Elsewhere in Flushing this week, Daisuke Matsuzaka racked up the first save of his career on Thursday with a 1-2-3 ninth inning. Having already seen Bobby Parnell, Jose Valverde, and Kyle Farnsworth in the role, perhaps Terry Collins has found someone to his liking.
- Pittsburgh Pirates (1-6, 9-15) ↓ Of their last 15 games (all against NL Central foes), the Pirates have won… 3. Things have got ugly in Pittsburgh fast; aside from their poor recent record, the Carlos Gomez brawl last Saturday led to both Travis Snider and Russell Martin receiving suspensions, and now key cogs Martin (hamstring) and closer Jason Grilli (left oblique) have been placed on the DL. With upcoming games against the Cardinals, and then interleague sets with the Orioles and Blue Jays, it’s likely going to only get worse for the Bucs in the next week or so.
- Philadelphia Phillies (4-3, 11-12) ↑ The Phillies last week went to L.A. and came away with a 3-1 series win. More significantly however, was the return of Cole Hamels; after recovering from biceps tendinitis, the 30-year-old southpaw made his season debut on Wednesday and threw 6 very solid innings of 2-run ball. Along with Cliff Lee, the presence of Hamels will once again give the Phillies one of the most-envied top of the rotation combinations around the majors – whether the pair can lift up the rest of the pitching staff and keep the team in contention however, will, like last year, be the burning question around Citizen’s Bank Park all season long.
- San Diego Padres (3-4, 11-13) ↓ Josh Johnson will be out for the season after his recent elbow injury necessitated Tommy John surgery. *Yawn*.
- Miami Marlins (3-3, 10-13) ↓ The Jose Fernandez Show should carry a R rating. HE IS FILTHY.
- Arizona Diamondbacks (3-4, 8-18) → Even when the Diamondbacks win, they somehow lose; after staging a stunning ninth-inning rally to win at Wrigley Field on Wednesday, it was announced newly-added slugger Mark Trumbo will be out for an extended period of time with a stress fracture in his foot. Trumbo suffered a similar injury back in 2011, an ailment which took 5½ months to heal. If it takes that long this time around, he might have a new manager to frustrate upon his return.
- Chicago Cubs (3-4, 7-15) → The Cubs celebrated Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary on Wednesday with not just a loss to Arizona, but a 400-pound cake. Naturally, the amazing-looking Wrigley Field replica was later found ingloriously disposed of in a dumpster outside the real stadium. Because #Cubs.
Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings – The Designated 15: Week 4!
Throughout the year, I’ll be separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings won’t be dependent on record alone and will factor in such aspects as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. Last week, in The Senior Class – Week 1, I gave every team a comment in light of it being Opening Week. Week 2 sees a revert to my normal writing plan – 3-5 brief recaps for the most interesting teams of the week. Without further ado, I present The Senior Class – Week 2! (All records correct as of Saturday morning).
- Washington Nationals (3-1) ↑ The Nats took care of business this week, sweeping their opening series away to the NY Mets – beating a bad team like any good team should. With the Dodgers and Cardinals both scuffling this past week however, the Nats’ early dominance jumps them to the head of the elite pack. Even without Bryce Harper hitting (perhaps due to his continued aggression elsewhere on the field aside from the plate), Washington’s offense has been potent, with Jayson Werth in particular continuing his strong play from the second half of 2013, and Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman both also looking good. The offense needed to be on form to overcome a poor Opening Day start from Stephen Strasburg and his new slider (which made poor David Wright look silly), but Gio Gonzalez‘s and Jordan Zimmermann‘s impressive showings ensured the Nats easy wins, and highlighted the deep quality of the rotation (even without Doug Fister still). They have the Braves, the suddenly-mighty (see below) Marlins, and Atlanta again on the schedule this week, so will be tested a little more strenuously than by simply the Mets, but should they get contributions from Messrs. Harper and Strasburg, stand a good chance to be on pole again this time next Saturday.
- St. Louis Cardinals (2-2) →
- Los Angeles Dodgers (2-2 last week, 4-2 overall) ↓
- Atlanta Braves (3-1) →
- Pittsburgh Pirates (3-1) ↑
- San Francisco Giants (4-1) ↑ Last week I wondered if I was too down on the Giants by ranking them eighth; as it turns out, I was. SF are riding a three game winning patch (in my subjective opinion, it’s only a streak when it hits five) and are yet to play at home – not that Brandon Belt will ever want to go back to AT&T Park again. The focus of my pre-season Giants preview, the young(ish) lefty racked up 3 home runs against Arizona alone, propelling the Giants’ 3-1 win of the early intra-division series, and spearheading an offense that – with the starting pitching being rather touched up – has had to do some heavy lifting so far. That poor early pitching will be a concern to the Giants – only Tim Hudson‘s start on Wednesday saw San Francisco give up less than four runs, and reliever Jean Machi has picked up 2 of the team’s wins – but a series back at their friendly home confines against the rather anemic Diamondbacks offense should set things right. If Belt, Buster Posey, and Angel Pagan keep up their early raking, the early struggles of Tim Lincecum et al. might not come into play much anyway.
- Miami Marlins (4-1) ↑ As first posited by Michael Baumann, “Break up the fish!” While there was some pre-season conjecture that the Marlins were actually a team of secret operatives attempting to infiltrate the largest drug cartel on the Eastern seaboard while posing as a major-league baseball club, Miami have looked like a real legitimate baseball team over the last week. Sure, Baumann’s surveyance “Taking three out of four at home against a terrible Colorado Rockies team may not be much to brag about” might well be true, but the Marlins have, excuse the pun, made quite the splash this opening week – hence their jump up the rankings. After a ridiculous (in the ‘deserving or inviting derision or mockery’ sense of the word, rather than crazy good), positives were everywhere; José Fernández was electric on Monday, striking out nine in his six innings of work while ceding only one run on a Carlos Gonzalez jack – a shot that even titillated Fernández briefly amidst his dominance. Giancarlo Stanton – as is his wont – crushed some baseballs, and would have had three HRs but for a rocket going just foul on Wednesday (a crushing blow which would have nullified Henderson Alvarez giving Colorado a six run lead to work with, and put Miami at 5-0). Young pitching hope Nathan Eovaldi looked solid too, his average fastball velocity of 95.9mph on Tuesday sitting only behind Fernández (96.3) for the highest mark of the young season so far. Really, the only bad thing to happen in Miami this week was Dan Marino being let near a broadcasting headset; other than that, it’s been a wonderful week to be a Marlins fan (should any still exist thanks to Jeffrey Loria).
- Milwaukee Brewers (2-2) ↑
- Cincinnati Reds (1-3) ↓
- San Diego Padres (1-3) ↓
- Colorado Rockies (2-3) ↓
- Arizona Diamondbacks (1-4, 1-6) ↓ Yeeeeesh. With their .143 winning percentage, the Diamondbacks currently prop up the Senior Circuit, and have looked particularly brutal on their way to doing so (despite Paul Goldschmidt continuing his amusing one man assault on Tim Lincecum). Without Patrick Corbin, the pitching has been especially horrible (S/O to Trevor Cahill!), both hemorrhaging runs to the Giants at home this week, and giving up twelve to the Rockies at Coors yesterday; you have to wonder, if the team are serious in their thrust for contention this year, how long they can continue to hold down Archie Bradley in the wake of such a poor first turn through the rotation. If things continue in such a woeful vein too, Kirk Gibson could well soon be questioning Kevin Towers’ roster moves along with the rest of us from outside the organization.
- New York Mets (1-3) →
- Philadelphia Phillies (2-2) →
- Chicago Cubs (1-3) → Junior Lake wore the wrong jersey in a game this week. Your (early April) Cubs everybody!
On Friday my 2014 MLB Season Season Preview Series covered the emergence of Padres RHP Tyson Ross, of whom San Diego will be hoping can parlay his post All-Star break surge last season into a full season of domination in 2014. Today, I round out the NL West as my focus moves up the California coastline to San Francisco, who had their own second-half breakout performer in 2013; after having experienced a couple of rough seasons since entering the majors as a much-hyped prospect, Brandon Belt looks ready to become one of the best first basemen in the game.
I first hopped on the Brandon Belt bandwagon by playing simulation baseball when I should have been revising for my exams – Out Of The Park Baseball was just far more interesting to me than Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry, as any sane person will attest. Anyhow, with his entrancing 5-star potential drawing my hypothetical GM attention, Belt was always a prime trade target for my many simulated franchises. And such was his top prospect status at the time, he always raked. Accordingly, when the lanky first baseman made it to the majors in 2011, there was one guy across the Atlantic Ocean who joined the thousands of Giants fans in San Francisco in expecting big things. The significant geographic removal however, did not diminish my disappointment when the lynchpin of my fake teams appeared not to be the destined star I, and many Giants fans, had assumed.
Selected in the fifth round of the 2009 draft, Belt spent two years in the minors, advancing quickly by virtue of his posting a slash line of .343 .457 .596 over 189 games. As a much-hyped rookie in 2011 then, Belt struggled to a .225 batting average in 209 PAs and often found himself relegated to the bench – losing playing time to both over-the-hill World Series hero Aubrey Huff and .233-career hitter Brett Pill. Though 2012 saw Belt’s core statistics improve (he hit .275 with a .360 OBP, though just 7 HRs), his playing time still suffered on account of his platoon splits; manager Bruce Bochy‘s reluctance to provide Belt much-needed playing time against fellow lefties drawing the ire of many internet commenters who saw his development stall while buried on the bench. Without the trust of his manager entering 2013, Belt did little to improve his own situation; stubborn to adjust the approach that had brought him so much success in the minors, he continued to hit poorly – at least by a first baseman’s standards – his batting average falling to .260, and continued to play inconsistently.
The turnaround for Belt came on an otherwise innocuous trip to Philadelphia in late July – which he entered with a 1-19 streak – where at the behest of hitting coach Hensley Meulens, he sought out Phillies outfielder Dominic Brown. Brown had significantly cooled down from his ridiculous 12 HR month of May, but was nonetheless enjoying a undeniable breakout – a fact Meulens had noted when coaching him at the All-Star game, along with the physical similarities of Brown and his struggling first baseman. As reported by Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News, Brown had told Meulens how he had simply changed his grip on the bat, and had seen immediate results. Willing to try something new in attempting to turn around his season, Belt decided to give it a go too, figuring “if it only took him a couple of days, maybe I can do it in a couple of days, too.” Belt spent three days on the bench in Philadelphia working on developing his new swing in conjunction with moving back in the batter’s box; when he returned from the self-enforced absence, Belt was a different player.
In the month of August, Belt hit .350 with a 1.051 OPS; in September and October, .341 with a .910 OPS. Armed with a new, more level swing, he not only successfully lowered his strikeout rate (23.5% in the first half, 19.8% in the second), but more importantly cut his FB% from 43.9 to 38.9. With his home AT&T Park the biggest drain of lefty power across the majors in 2013 per Fangraphs thanks to the cavernous dimensions of right field, Belt started lacing line drives into the gaping space rather than continually sending fly balls to die; his second half line drive rate of 27.7% marked a raise of 6.2% from his pre-break rate. By then end of the season, Belt had pulled his slash line up to .289/.360/.481 while also setting career highs home runs (17), runs scored (76) and RBIs (67). Despite his slow start too, his eventual 139 wRC+ led the team; by statistical measures at least, the man affectionately dubbed ‘Baby Giraffe’ had become the Giants’ best offensive player.
With runs once again expected to be at a premium in San Francisco, the Giants will certainly need their lanky lefty’s breakout to be real if they are to return to the top of the NL West; a stern task in a division which includes the reigning Dodgers, gritty Diamondbacks, and supposedly improved Padres (sorry Rockies fans – it just ain’t happening this year). Slated to be the club’s no. 3 hitter on Opening Day – ahead of the big bats of Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, and just plain big Pablo Sandoval – Belt will have every chance to demonstrate last year’s development was legitimate. It might have taken a couple of years to earn the opportunity, but Brandon Belt finally looks poised to lead the Giant’s offense.
They can only hope he produces like he did on my simulation teams.