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The Baseball Notebook


May 28, 2010 2:29 PM

The AL East's Fourth Wheel

Just as they did last year, Toronto has gotten off to a nice start and threatened to throw a monkey wrench into the AL East mix. Last year they faded quickly and were not a threat in the second half of the season. They sit at 27-22 today, tied with Boston for third place, only two games back of the Yankees for the wild-card spot. Can they stay in it all year? Let's take a look.

Toronto has perhaps the most bizarre offensive profile I've ever seen. They're tied with Boston, not just in the standings, but for the league lead in runs scored. That's not the bizarre part. They've gotten there by ranking dead last in on-base percentage, but being #1 in slugging percentage. I have never seen that kind of discrepancy before, and certainly not seen it actually work in terms of scoring runs. However, I think it's seriously unlikely the Blue Jays can continue to score unless that OBP improves drastically.

Alex Gonzales is the poster child for this offense, with a woeful .296 OBP and a solid .516 slugging, keyed by 10 home runs. Gonzalez's history suggests the power is more likely to disappear than the ability to get on base is to increase. Aaron Hill and Lyle Overbay are struggling in both areas and are better candidates for an upgrade. Adam Lind has hit seven home runs, but his low totals in both categories suggest those are about the only seven moments he's had all year.

The big leader of the power surge is third baseman Jose Bautista. Not even expected to start in spring training, he's mashed 15 home runs and is churning on out OBP on top of it. A great turnaround story, but how much longer can Bautista keep hitting like this? John Buck is giving the Jays real power behind the plate. Like Gonzalez, his OBP is low. And like Gonzalez, his history suggests decline in the immediate future. The hopes for the offense over the long haul are going to be built on Vernon Wells, enjoying a comeback year after a mysterious disappearance for the last three years. Wells is hitting for both power and with consistency and surely has Toronto glad they didn't give up on him. Overall though, while the power and OBP are likely to draw closer together, I see it coming more as the former coming down than the latter going up.

That places the burden of keeping Toronto in contention on the pitching staff. Shawn Marcum's return from the elbow problems that cost him the last two years has been an unqualified success. He's 4-1 with a 2.82 ERA and as long he's healthy that should continue. Overall, while the Jays are only 8th in ERA, they rank sixth in keeping runners off base and third in power prevention. That suggests to me that simply maintaining current performance should result in a decent uptick as luck evens out. I don't see any individual arms pitching way over their head. Ricky Romero's 3.42 ERA may go up, but it's even more likely that Dana Eveland's 6.45 ERA will come down, or he'll be replaced by someone who will bring it down. The bullpen has usually been pretty respectable in the setup area and that's the case again in 2010. Kevin Gregg is a respectable closer, although in many respects he's symbolic of his team--he's not as good as Rivera, Papelbon or the emerging Soriano, and those are the guys closing for teams Toronto has to beat. Overall, the Jays look headed for a slippage as the power starts to run out. Not as drastic as last year, so long as the pitching stays healthy, but in the unforgiveable world of AL East baseball, enough to make them a .500 team.

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One of the main arguments for the designated hitter is that it extends the career of aging players and that's the case with the American League's two best this year. Vlad Guerrero, after losing production both at the plate and in the field in his final years in Anaheim, is having a big year as the Texas DH. Jim Thome has made a living at this position for a few years now, and is doing it again in Minnesota. Of the two, Thome's been slightly more effective at getting on base, while Guerrero has a bigger edge in power. I lean Guerrero at this point in the season, although it's very close. The two players begin a head-to-head series tonight as the Twins visit the Rangers and they'll be in ESPN's Sunday night showcase.

David Ortiz fits the same DH mold as Guerrero and Thome, and after an awful start, he's rounding into form in May. He's part of a group of three that hit for power, but need to improve their on-base percentages. Baltimore's Luke Scott falls in this category, as does Kansas City's Jose Guillen. On the reverse side is Travis Hafner, who's back to being on the bases, but needs his power stroke back.

And finally we come to two vets who appear to have hit the end of the line. New York fans were frustrated with the Yankees let World Series MVP Hideki Matsui walk to Anaheim, but Matsui's early numbers suggests Brian Cashman's decision was justified. While Matsui may still rebound, it takes a huge leap of faith to think the same applies to Ken Griffey Jr. in Seattle, a future Hall of Famer that's seeing the end in sight.

We'll see you Sunday night to recap Week 8.

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