Saturday, April 30, 2011

Can the Indians Keep Winning?

The Cleveland Indians have only played 25 games so far in 2011, a mere 15.4% of the season, but they have managed to compile a record of 17-8.  That .680 winning percentage puts the Indians on pace to win 110 games this season.  No other team in the AL Central has a record better than .500 and the Indians already have a 4.5 game lead over the second place Kansas City Royals (who thought the Royals were going to be in second place this far into the season?).  The major question surrounding the Indians shouldn't be whether or not they will 110 games, or even 100.  Fans should be asking whether or not the Indians can compete for an entire season and still be in contention for the AL Central crown in September.  Based on how the teams in the AL Central have been playing so far, the winner of the division may not even need to win 90 games.

So can the Indians actually compete for 162 games?  There are some signs that point to continued success.  Cleveland has won 11 of 13 of home and currently sports the third highest batting average in the majors (.274), the fourth highest home run total (32), and the second highest on-base percentage (.346).  The Indians are also hitting .325 with runners in scoring position.  The pitching has also been solid, as the Indians have compiled the ninth best ERA in the bigs at 3.62.

Cleveland also has some individual performers that should give Indians fans hope that their fast start isn't an illusion.  Grady Sizemore has sizzled since his return from injury, hitting .378 with 4 homers in only 45 at-bats.  Travis Hafner has also woken up after three sub-par, injury filled seasons.  So far in 2011, Hafner is hitting .342 with 4 homers.  Star rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who normally flies under the radar but is one of the better right fielders in the game, is only hitting .253.  If he can raise his average closer to his .295 career average, the Indians offense could actually improve.  Catcher Carlos Santana is one of the most promising young catchers in the game, as he showed with his walk-off grand slam on Friday.  If he can hit more like that more consistently, Cleveland will have another solid piece in the lineup.

So far in 2011, the Indians pitching staff has an ERA roughly 0.70 runs lower than the ERA they posted last season.  Justin Masterson has been spectacular, recording a 5-0 record with an ERA of 2.18 and 22 strikeouts in 33 innings.  Hitters are only batting .217 against Masterson.  Josh Tomlin has also been very good, going 4-0 with an ERA of 2.45.  If Fausto Carmona can lower his 5.15 ERA closer to the 3.77 ERA he had last season, then the Indians pitching staff may be in good shape for the long haul.  Rookie Alex White (the Indians first round pick in 2009) pitched well in his major legue debut tonight, giving up two runs in six solid innings.

Yes, the Indians are only 25 games into the season, but they have easily been the biggest surprise of the first month of the season.  There are some things that could signal a downturn.  The Indians haven't taken advantage of the rest of their division's struggles, going only 7-6 against the AL Central.  They also are 6-0 against the AL East and they are unlikely to keep playing so well against such a powerhouse division.  They definitely won't win 110 games, probably not even 100.  However, they have definitely have the potential to win the AL Central, especially with the holes that every other team in the division seem to have.  Expect the Indians to be right in the thick of things come September.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sam Fuld Keeps Raking

Despite the Rays 6-4 loss on a Blue Jays' walk off homer tonight, Rays outfielder Sam Fuld kept hitting and was again the Rays most effective player.  He went 3-5, with two singles, a triple, three runs scored and two stolen bases.  Through 18 games this season, Fuld has recorded a slash line of .366/.395/.549 (avg/obp/slg), with one home run, eight RBI, 11 runs scored, and an AL-leading nine stolen bases.

Fuld has turned out to be the Rays biggest offseason addition so far in 2011.  For many people, he was an afterthought in the deal that sent Matt Garza to the Cubs for a few of Chicago's top prospects.  He made the Rays as a fourth outfielder, but gained his chance to start everyday after Manny Ramirez suddenly retired.  His gritty play, hot hitting and absurdly good defense have made him the new star of Tropicana Field.  Rays fans love him, have already pointed out how much better he has played than their old outfield star, Carl Crawford.

Being a Cubs fan and a graduate of Fuld's high school, it was always disappointing that he never got a chance to really succeed at Wrigley.  The Cubs always had a stockpile of highly paid (underachieving) outfielders.  In the short time that Fuld spent in Chicago, he hit pretty well and became a cult hero to Cubs fans by running into the ivy-covered, brick outfield wall at full speed to make a catch.  While he never got a legitimate shot for the Cubs, hopefully he can continue to succeed in Tampa.

Here are a couple articles on Fuld:

MLB Twitter Trends: The Legend of Sam Fuld, Tampa Bay's New Hero

The Legend of Sam Fuld

Braun Signs $105 Million Extension

The Milwaukee Brewers have signed outfielder Ryan Braun to a contract extension that will keep him roaming the Miller Park outfield through 2020.  Braun is already signed through 2015, but he will now be paid $105 million from 2016-2020.  There is also a mutual option for 2021.  The extension calls for a $10 million signing bonus and then Braun will earn $19 million each year from 2016-2018, $18 million in 2019, and $16 million in 2020.  The 2021 mutual option is worth up to $20 million dollars with a $4 million buyout.  The new extension also includes a no-trade clause and Braun has agreed to defer some money to help keep the team competitive.  Braun, Joe DiMaggio, Chuck Klein, Ted Williams, and Albert Pujols are the only players to hit 125 home runs and record a .300 batting average over the first four seasons of their careers.

This is obviously a good deal for the Brewers, who will keep one of the majors most productive players in Milwaukee for another ten seasons.  Along with longer contracts that were recently signed by Yovani Gallardo, Rickie Weeks, and Corey Hart, the Brewers have a nice core of players to build around.  Now the only problem is Prince Fielder, the slugging first baseman whose contract expires at the end of this season.  The Brewers don't have the money to resign him, so they need to win this season or trade Fielder mid-season.  Even without Fielder, Braun is still a great signing by the Brewers, who will now be guaranteed to have a deadly offensive weapon for the next ten years.  

Monday, April 11, 2011

Welcome Back Beckett

Before last night's Red Sox v. Yankees matchup, the Sox record stood at 1-7 and Josh Beckett was given the task of avoiding another lost series.  That probably didn't give Boston fans much confidence in the team's ability to win on Sunday.  Beckett was abysmal in an injury-plagued 2010 campaign, which included a 1-2 record and 10.04 ERA in five starts against the Yankees.  In his first start of the season, Beckett only lasted five innings against the Cleveland Indians, giving up three runs while striking out four and walking four.  It's safe to say that many fans didn't expect what happened against the Yankees last night.

Josh Beckett pitched like he hadn't pitched in two seasons, silencing the Yankees bats that had mashed Boston pitching on Saturday and giving the Sox their first series victory of the season.  The Sox won 4-0 and in eight innings Beckett allowed only two hits and one walk while striking out 10.  He retired the first seven batters that he faced, and later on in the night he retired the last 14 batters that he faced.  He was utterly dominant, as only two of his outs even made it to the outfield.

Suddenly, things aren't so bad in Boston.  It's amazing how things can fluctuate in Boston with just one victory.  The Sox beat the Yankees on Friday and suddenly the season was back on track.  Saturday, of course, brought another whooping (and four Yankee homers) and suddenly the determination was that the Sox were finished.  Now, with their win on Sunday, the Red Sox have a real opportunity to put together some wins and fully right the ship.  They begin a series with the Rays tonight at Fenway and the Sox have a real chance to sweep, as the Rays have been absolutely pitiful through nine games.  Dustin Pedroia's nine-hit weekend has sparked the offense, and hopefully Carl Crawford can snap out of his slump by playing his old team. 

Yes, the Red Sox still have some problems (such as 16 runners left on base during Sunday's game), but things seem to be pointing in the right direction.  Jon Lester and Beckett have both pitched extremely well in their last starts and the back end of the bullpen has been solid over the last week.  After nine games, the Baltimore Orioles are in first and the Red Sox are in fourth in the AL East.  It won't finish like that and the Sox finally seem to be making a step in the right direction.  Every team slumps, the Red Sox just weren't expected to begin the season that way.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Opening Weekend MVPs

Starlin Castro scores on Friday afternoon
It took just a few games, but some big league hitters have already gotten off to incredible starts.  Yes, it's only April 4th, but let's recognize the best performances in both leagues during the opening weekend.

National League's Top Performers:

Starlin Castro, SS, Cubs:  Castro posted a .615 average in the Cubs' first three games against the Pirates.  He was 8-13, with a double and two triples and he scored four runs.  He also walked once while not striking out against Pittsburgh pitching.  Heading into today's game, his slugging percentage is 1.000, leading the NL.

Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies: There was a lot of doubt surrounding just how many hittable pitches Ryan Howard would see without Chase Utley in the Phillies lineup, but during open weekend he mashed all the ones that came his way.  Howard went 7-13 (good for a .538 avg.) with one home run and a NL-leading six RBIs.

Ryan Hanigan, C, Reds: Hanigan only played in two of the Reds three games during their opening weekend sweep of the Brewers, but he made his two starts count.  He went 5-7 (.714 avg.) with two home runs and four RBIs.  He has a ridiculous OPS (on-base plus slugging) of 2.321.

American League's Top Performers:

Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers: Kinsler killed Red Sox pitching on opening weekend (just like almost every other Rangers' player).  He went 4-10 (.400) with three home runs, three RBIs, and three walks in the series, including a home run in the Rangers' first at-bat of the season.

Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankees: Teixeira is normally a very slow starter.  He had two home runs in the entire month of April last season, but in the Yankees' first three games of 2011, Tex smashed three home runs, drove in seven runs and scored four runs.  He went 4-12 for the series against the Tigers.

Carlos Quentin, RF, White Sox:  Quentin will be one of the keys to a successful White Sox season, and he started 2011 with a bang.  In three games, Quentin went 6-11 (.545) with a home run, three doubles, seven RBIs, and three runs scored.  Last year, Quentin only hit .187 during the first month of the season, so the White Sox are hoping that his fast start will last.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Red Sox and Phillies Start in Opposite Directions

Clay Buchholz, as he is about to get pulled by Terry Francona this afternoon
The Red Sox were supposed to mash, and the Phillies were supposed to struggle through games with a thin lineup, despite a stellar rotation.  The Red Sox struggled both offensively and on the mound this weekend while losing three to the Rangers.  The Phillies, on the other hand, were dominant on the mound and scored 21 runs in a three game sweep of the Astros.  Obviously, the Rangers and the Astros are nowhere near each other in terms of level of competition, as the Rangers are the defending AL champs and the Astros are, well, the Astros (enough said).  However, Phillies fans are probably feeling a lot more comfortable tonight than they were last week, and Red Sox fans are wondering where their $160 million lineup went.

The Sox lost their three games in Texas by a combined score of 26-11 (9-5 on Friday, 12-5 on Saturday, 5-1 today).  Their pitching looked suspect, as Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Clay Buchholz all struggled, giving up a combined nine home runs.  The bullpen (ahem, Daniel Bard) blew the game on Friday and didn't have much impact the rest of the weekend.  Lastly, the offense didn't live up to its preseason billing (example: Carl Crawford only hit .182 during the series and Kevin Youkilis only hit .222).

Ryan Howard hits a three-run homer on Sunday
The Phillies, on the other hand, looked better than expected during their first weekend.  Their starting pitching was phenomenal, as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Roy Oswalt only gave up six runs while striking out 23.  The bullpen was solid, even with the absence of closer Brad Lidge.  The offense, the biggest question mark during spring training, was better than expected.  Over the first eight innings of their first game, they were manhandled by Astros' pitching, but starting in the 9th inning on Opening Day (with their walk-off win) the offense came alive.  In the three games, the Phillies recorded a team batting average of .349.

Obviously, it's impossible to tell how both teams' seasons will end up.  However, this was definitely not the start that Red Sox wanted, or imagined.  The Phillies' offense probably will sputter some as the season progresses without second baseman Chase Utley in the lineup, but for at least this weekend, they backed up their off-season hype as the best team in the National League.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Fantasy Friday: Auction Drafts

Prior to this year, I had never taken part in an auction draft for a fantasy baseball league.  However, last week I managed to draft a pretty good team, at least in my estimation.  My league has 12 owners, and each of us started with the standard ESPN 260 "dollars" to draft a roster of 21 players.  Here is my roster:

C- Victor Martinez (easily one of the best hitting catchers, and DHing in Detroit should only help his offense)
1B- Kevin Youkilis (even though he'll be at the hot corner for the Red Sox)
2B- Howie Kendrick (solid offensively for a second baseman)
3B- Aramis Ramirez (he had better have a bounce back year)
SS- Elvis Andrus (I'm banking on at least 40 steals)
OF- Ryan Braun (he should be good for around 30 home runs)
OF- Josh Hamilton (defending AL MVP)
OF- Torii Hunter (he has not hit below 20 home runs since he arrived in Anaheim)
UTIL- Bobby Abreu (he hit 20 homers last season, but he could be out of this spot early on because of age)
BENCH- Juan Pierre (I only drafted Pierre for his steals)
BENCH- Adam Lind (solid overall and could end up as my regular utility player)
BENCH- Angel Pagan (solid fantasy backup)
BENCH- Carlos Lee (if he has a bounce back year, he could be a good sleeper)
BENCH- Mitch Moreland (could be primed for a breakout season)

SP- Carlos Zambrano (just like fellow Cub Aramis Ramirez, I'm banking on a bounce back season)
SP- Trevor Cahill (he's only 23 and he's an absolute stud)
SP- Chad Billingsley (only went 12-11 last season, but still recorded a 3.57 ERA in 191.2 innings)
P- John Danks (15 wins in over 200 innings last season for the White Sox)
P- Hiroki Kuroda- (despite a losing record, he still had 3.39 ERA)
RP-Carlos Marmol (his 138 K's in only 77.2 innings was more than some starters rack up in an entire year)
RP- Francisco Rodriguez (not as good as he once was, but still can record a good number of saves)

If you've never done an auction draft before, it may be difficult to decide what strategy you want to use when drafting.  Check this out if you want some advice: Auction Draft Strategies