Thursday, April 18, 2019

A Realistic View Of The AL East

The title might be more of a reach as biases will surely crop up here. The one thing that is realistic is that the American League East is nowhere near where anyone expected it to be. The Tampa Bay Rays have jumped the season and its AL East rivals to build a quick five-and-a-half-game lead on the second place New York Yankees and an eight-and-a-half-game lead on the last place Boston Red Sox. How many people saw that coming?

The Yankees' rough start can be (in part) attributed to injuries. No team in baseball has a longer list of disabled players (I will never use the newfangled IL thing, so sue me). The bullpen has not been as much of a strength as expected. Who knows what having a healthy Dellin Betances available at the start of the season would have meant for the Yankees. The offense has been spotty with too many regulars missing and 4-A players getting too many at bats. Then there is the Red Sox.

The Red Sox have started the season in a real funk. Is it a World Series hangover? Did the long post-season take too much out of the starting pitchers? They have some holes, particularly at second, third and behind the plate. Expecting Dustin Pedroia to be able to come back was a pipe dream and now the Red Sox are stuck with an over-the-hill Eduardo Nunez who is terrible in the field and Brock Holt who seems unlikely to repeat last year's career year.

And, finally, there are the Bay Rays who never seem to lose in a similar way the Red Sox never seemed to lose last year. The Rays were projected as a 90-win team and, frankly, I thought that was high. The projection has now shifted to 94 wins and a division title. A lot has gone right for them so far. They lead the Majors in hard hit balls and their offensive OPS is terrific. Pitching was expected to be good, but it has been REALLY good as has the bullpen. Add to all these things the Rays' defense and you have a winning formula.

But let's be realistic here for a moment and try to remain as unbiased as possible. I do not care what the numbers are saying (run differential, offense, pitching), the Bay Rays are not this good of a team. Heck, I'll eat those words if I am wrong, but I do not think I am. Why exactly?

First, look at the early schedule thus far. Yes, they opened the season with the Houston Astros and beat them three out of four. The Astros were not themselves those first four games. The Astros started the season with a slumbering offense. That offense has since woken up and they are playing dominating baseball again. If the Rays were to play THESE Astros, the results would be far different.

After the Astros, the Bay Rays have faced the dregs of the dregs of baseball teams. The Rockies are a bad baseball team. Then they played the Giants, another bad baseball team. Those two teams are going to spar for last place in the NL West. Then they played the White Sox, another team that is not going anywhere. Then, to bring us up to date, the Rays have played five games against the Blue Jays and the Orioles. To recap, they had two series against the worst two teams in the NL West, a series against an also-ran in the AL Central and the two worst teams in the AL East.

The Rays' schedule stays somewhat soft until June. They do have two series against the Red Sox coming up, but those games are sandwiched around two series against the Royals. The other thing to look at is who the Rays are winning with on their roster. Their offense consists of a bunch of guys who they assembled and it has all miraculously worked. Ji-Man Choi? Brandon Lowe? Yandy Diaz? Austin Meadows? These guys have no track records. Are they this good? All of them? We'll see.

Plus, the only serious injury thus far is to Joey Wendle, last years ROY candidate. Ian Snell broke his toe, but he'll only miss one start. The Rays have zero depth. If anything happens to any of its players, they do not have replacements. The return to form of Kevin Kiermeier has been great and Tommy Pham was a good pickup as he has been an on-base machine.

I believe the Rays' pitching will hold up. But I do not believe in this offense over the long season. I still think that after all is said and done, they will be a 90-win team. That is good. Will it be better than the Red Sox and the Yankees?

Let's start with the Red Sox. Chris Sale will be better than he has started. He has been too good for too long to think otherwise. David Price will be fine. Nathan Eovaldi showed good signs last night of getting back to last year's form. The big question marks in the rotation are Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez. Porcello has had a very odd career where he has gone from Cy Young to terrible and back and forth. If this is another of those stinker years for him, that will hurt. Rodriguez still hasn't proved he can take his "stuff" to a winning level.

The offense will not be as good as last year, but it will be better than it is now. Mookie Betts is too talented not to think this is just a slow start. Andrew Benintendi is very good. Xander Bogaerts and Mitch Moreland will contribute meaningfully. JD Martinez is one of the best hitters in the game. The offense will be fine despite a black hole at catcher and at second. Rafael Devers is still only 22-years-old so who knows what he will be. Somehow, the Red Sox will find a second baseman and this offense will be fine.

Can they win 90 games? Yes, sure--even if it does not seem likely at the moment.

And then, there is the Yankees. Realistically, Aaron Judge has not gotten going yet. The jury is still out on Luke Voit long term. Gleyber Torres has been effective but can be so much better. Clint Frazier has found it. DJ LeMahieu has been a great pickup. Giancarlo Stanton will come back as will Gary Sanchez and the ball will start flying around the park again.

The Yankee bullpen will be fine even if Betances does not get back any time soon. Joe Harvey has been a nice find. It would do the bullpen good if CC Sabathia was treated as a five-inning "Opener" with Luis Cessa designated as his caddy (or Gio Gonzalez if they choose to go that route). The Rotation is not killer, but it is good depending on how well Domingo German can hang in there.

The bottom line? Can the Yankees win 90 games? Sure they can. Will they? I still think they will. The injuries sucked off several games of the team's original projection, but you would think things will have to improve on that front eventually.

The Bay Rays are not as good as they have appeared. The Yankees are not as mediocre and the Red Sox are not this bad. Injuries to the Yankees and the bad start by the Red Sox have guaranteed a three team race. But that is what it will be in the end. The Rays are not running away with the division, not in my humble opinion. But talk to me again in July and my perspective might be different.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A Cat Has Nine Lives - A Bird Is Not A Cat

I wrote during Spring Training about the need to resist hope about Greg Bird finally becoming the player Brian Cashman has kept saying he was going to be. Greg Bird had a great spring for the New York Yankees. There was a lot of talk from manager, Aaron Boone, and Cashman about Bird making a significant contribution to the Yankees. After yet another dismal start to Bird's season and his .555 OPS along with his failure to scoop up throws at first base, we now learn that Bird has a left plantar fascia tear and is out indefinitely. I have not been this shocked at either development since the days of Nick Johnson.

And really, that is a solid knock on Nick Johnson. Yes, Johnson had injury after injury and his career was never what it should have been. Johnson's one full season for the Nationals showed what a healthy Johnson could have been like. So, yes, Nick Johnson was a constant disappointment. But at least he produced at times when he was available. Except for Greg Bird's first 178 Plate Appearances for the Yankees in 2015, Greg Bird's production has been a black hole with scorched earth.

Sometimes I feel badly about writing such a piece. Greg Bird seems like a nice guy. He seems earnest and nice and it is not his fault that his legs have been a mine field since that 2015 season. And I am quite sure he was trying his hardest to perform better on the field than he has. Unfortunately, baseball is a business and it is about what you have produced lately and what you can be expected to produce in the future. And four years of history has shown us that he has about as much chance of being a "significant contributor" at some point for the Yankees as Jacoby Ellsbury.

It is time for the Yankees to cut the cord on Greg Bird just like they did with Nick Johnson years ago. The injury is unfortunate. The body of work, though, does not lie. And his spring did not fool any of  the smart folks who put together evaluations and projections. A .710 OPS was the highest projection he received. That is not anywhere close to what you want from a first baseman, especially a first baseman that is not very good at defending that position.

Bird's injury piles on to the Yankees' physical misfortunes thus far. But his injury is the least significant. That says something right there. Ben Heller on the DL hurts more right now than Greg Bird.

So what should the Yankees do when Greg Bird returns? That might not be a question that can even be answered right now. This particular injury is a terrible injury that could possibly end his season. He is listed on the injury report as, "No timetable for recovery."

If I were running the Yankees, I would totally and unequivocally dismiss Greg Bird from any future plans. If he comes back this year, he should either stay in the minors or be traded. Or he could be released. In some ways, Greg Bird has held first base hostage for the Yankees since Mark Teixeira's retirement and that should end immediately.

For the Yankees, it is an addiction that should be quit cold turkey. They have held onto, hoped and wrung hands that Greg Bird would take his sweet swing and become a star with the Yankees. It is not going to happen. Enough is enough and it is time to move on. I am still not convinced that Luke Voit is the answer. We will see how his season goes. Come on down, Mike Ford, whatcha got?

Personally, this Greg Bird addiction led against looking at a guy like Mike Moustakas, who has been killing the ball for the Brewers. For basically chump change, Moustakas could have stepped in at third when Miguel Andujar went down or he could have played first. Maybe Moustakas was not the answer. But something creative has to be done about the future of first base for the Yankees. Heck, Giancarlo Stanton would be a big target over there. I still think Stanton is a better player when he is not the designated hitter.

Nice guy or no, earnest or not, a Bird is not a cat. There is not nine lives and Greg Bird's Yankee lives are burned up. It is time to move on or at least let him try to move on someplace else.