Thursday, May 13, 2010

Some early season thoughts on Padres, Athletics, Mets

I haven't written any baseball posts since my Season Preview and now that we're more than 30 games in I'd like to take a look at my three favorite teams.

San Diego Padres
Record: 22-12
Run differential: +45

They've been the baseball season's biggest surprise so far, starting the season as a projected last place team but with 34 games played they're comfortably in first place in their division and have the best record in the National League. Today they finished off a sweep of the Giants (again) on the road with a nearly perfect game pitched by Mat Latos.

I spoke very highly of the Padres' chances in my preseason predictions but I couldn't have imagined they would burst out of the gates with the second best start to a season in franchise history. Their bullpen has been the best in baseball so far and they've gotten great work out of a rotation that wasn't supposed to be very good but Jon Garland has pitched great (although a bit over his head), Mat Latos is getting better with each start (complete game one-hitter today), and lefties Wade LeBlanc and Clayton Richard have done surprisingly well. The offense doesn't look quite so good, though. Adrian Gonzalez (.265/.383/.453) hasn't heated up yet and for as great as Chase Headley's looked thus far, he's got a sub-.400 slugging percentage. I'm waiting for Kyle Blanks to gain some composure (41 strikeouts already in 89 at-bats) and start mashing like he did last year and the rest of the outfield has been weak enough at the plate that the local paper was making a case for the team to sign Jermaine Dye this week.

They've won with great pitching, defense (second-best UZR in baseball), and baserunning (league-leading 44 steals) which must make the baseball classicists feel warm inside. But can they keep us this up for very long? I'm a fan, I go see their games all the time, but I don't think so. The Dodgers and Rockies, the division's projected powerhouses, stumbled to start the year but the Padres have lost both series they've played against the Rockies so far and they haven't even played the Dodgers yet. The boys in blue are in San Diego for a weekend series and they've won their last 4, should be a fun weekend (too bad I'll be in New York for the next four days). I stand by my prediction of the Dodgers winning the division, but they have to get over their weird affection for washed up pitchers (Jeff Weaver, Ramon/Russ Ortiz). The offense is there and, despite the worries of their fans, I think the pitching staff will be fine with the top 3 of Kershaw-Billingsley-Kuroda. Crafty young righthander (you don't hear that description too often) John Ely looked good in his first three starts and I'm hoping he sticks around for the year.

Oakland A's
Record: 18-17
Run differential: -2

Similar to the Padres, they got off to great start and beat up on division rivals but they ran into a tough stretch where the AL East beasts smacked them around a little bit until Dallas Braden's world-shocking perfect game against the Rays this past Sunday. They've suffered their usual injuries already (Brett Anderson, Mark Ellis, Kurt Suzuki, Coco Crisp, and more) but have stayed competitive mainly due to strong pitching, defense, and baserunning (just like the Pads).

Daric Barton is finally playing as good as he'd been expected to for a few years and he's become my favorite player. His at-bats are fun to watch; a very composed hitter, he's got an excellent batting eye never seeming to swing at anything out of the strike zone, draws a ton of walks (his .400 OBP is 10th in the American League), and smacks line drives all over the place. He's not hitting for the type of power you'd hope for in a first baseman but his on-base percentage is so good that it makes up for the lack of power. A perfect Billy Beane player.

Although they eventually lost 2-1, the Athletics played an excellent game against the Rangers on the road today in which they executed two shortstop-to-catcher plays at the plate, the second one a game saver. I watch a hell of a lot of baseball and it seems like teams mess up that simple play often but the A's executed to perfection. They're a crisp defensive team (although Coco Crisp hasn't manned the outfield pastures yet) that rarely makes mistakes behind a strong pitching staff.

Designated hitter/third baseman Eric Chavez was once my favorite player in baseball. He remains the only player whose baseball jersey I've ever bought (I have a few nameless team jerseys, though) but he's been an immense disappointment after signing a huge contract, sitting out with a multitude of injuries for the last 4 years now. He's back and he's healthy but he absolutely sucks (.660 OPS with 1 homerun). Presumably because of his huge contract, he's been the team's regular DH. This has to change. It bothers me that Jack Cust, one of the best hitters on the team, is playing in Triple-A right now. They've also got Chris Carter, a slugging prospect, waiting to come up and knock in some runs. The division doesn't look as tight as it was expected to be (the Mariners don't score enough to compete) but if the A's are serious about winning it they've got to insert a real hitter into that DH spot.

New York Mets
Record: 18-17
Run differential: +15

This team looks alot different with Ike Davis at first base. They just don't seem nearly as bad as I thought they would be with an on-base machine like Ike manning first. He's only played 22 games but I think the 23-year-old Davis is the real deal, maybe a bit short in the power department but that will come as he gets more major league at bats. David Wright looks like himself again (7 homers, .525 slugging) even though the sports audience in New York never stops whining about him. And even the pitching staff has been good, especially the bullpen (2nd best reliever ERA in the league). My main complaint is manager Jerry Manuel and his inability to grasp simple baseball concepts, most glaringly with his lineup selection. It's simple: the higher a player bats in the order, the more chances he will get in a game and over the season as a whole. Therefore, the best hitters should bat highest in the order, putting them in a position to get the most chances. David Wright, by far the best hitter on the team, continually bats 5th in the order. Ike Davis and his .400 OBP bats 6th. Jose Reyes, whose been the leadoff sparkplug for this team his entire career, has been inserted into the #3 spot for some ridiculous reason while Manuel regularly leads off with Angel Pagan, a solid player who I like very much but who definitely should not bat ahead of the likes of Reyes, Wright, Davis or even Jason Bay. Manuel even puts Alex Cora (.316 OBP this year, .313 career) in the #2 spot often! It's insane!

Whining about the batting order is minor, though. Most studies show that batting order makes a relatively minimal difference over the year but in a division with the Phillies, Braves, Marlins, and even surprisingly strong Nationals, they need to have their best hitters come to the plate more often.

I'm off to the eastern seaboard for the weekend and most likely won't post for a little while.

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