Part 2 of the AL East Roundtable focuses on the 2nd half of the season. I expect I might take some heat on my opinion of the outfield defense, but I will say that recently I feel that Adam Jones has picked up his defense and I wish I'd mentioned that in the discussion.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): What surprising story lines from the first half of the season have shaped the standings the most?
R.J. Anderson (DRaysBay): The Rays ferocious offense and lackadaisical starting pitching. Nobody expected Scott Kazmir, Andy Sonnanstine, and probably even David Price to struggle this much.
Tom Dakers (Bluebird Banter): For us, injuries to starting pitchers. 7 pitchers that have started for us are injured at the moment and 2 others have spent time on the DL.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): For all the Jays pitching injuries, it seems every piece of spaghetti has stuck to the wall.
Daniel Hugo (Bluebird Banter): It's true. The injuries have really given the Jays a chance to showcase their pitching depth. Not all the replacement starts have been great, but by and large the pitchers called up from the minors have done a tremendous job.
Stacey Long (Camden Chat): There have been plenty of surprises in Baltimore this year, but given the overall ineptitude of the team they've hardly shaped the standings. I think the offensive outburst by the Blue Jays to start the year was the most surprising thing to me in the East. I mean, Aaron Hill and Marco Scutaro aren't bad players, but really? They've come back to earth now but the fact that the Jays were in first place for nearly two months is mind boggling.
Tom Dakers (Bluebird Banter): Hill and Scutaro were balanced out by our two best offensive players from last year (Vernon Wells and Alex Rios) forgetting how to use their bats. Wells might be pulling out of it. Rios, not so much. But nothing good is going to happen unless we go a little while between pitcher injuries.
Stacey Long (Camden Chat): Fair point about Rios and Wells but the fact remains I couldn't have imagined the Blue Jays putting up the run totals they did before the season started. It seemed like every time I looked at the scoreboard in the first part of the season the Jays were tossing up a ton of runs. Of course, playing outside the division for such a long stretch helped.
Travis Goldman (Pinstripe Alley): How good Brett Gardner has been. We knew he could run and play D, but his batting line has made him (to this point) one of the best CFers in the game. Yes, you read that right. He's been the ninth best this season, ahead of guys like BJ Upton, Adam Jones and Jacoby Ellsbury. We would've been happy with just steals and defense, but his impressive batting line of .287/.360/.416 is what's propelling him that high.
On the other side, Chien Ming-Wang has been dreadful. That also has been a surprise. Despite coming off a serious injury, we expected at least league average innings from him. Instead we've gotten one of the worst stretches in MLB history. He's on the DL for the second time this year. Is it the injuries, or has he forgotten how to pitch?
Randy Booth (Over The Monster): I guess there really isn't any surprising story lines anymore. The biggest story line at the beginning of the season was the mysterious case of David Ortiz, but since then he's figured things out (7 HR in June, 3 so far in July).
The lack of a real shortstop is a story line, but it certainly isn't anything surprising when you have injury-prone Jed Lowrie slotted in as the starter and Julio Lugo as a backup. However, with that said, the greatest surprise has been Nick Green, a journeyman middle infielder that has never really had any success -- until this year. Green's average has dropped to .262 recently, but the Sox are 39-18 when he starts and, despite his horrid defense, he's been a great addition.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): Which of those surprises are most likely to continue throughout the rest of the season? I.e. which are flukes and which are for real?
Travis Goldman (Pinstripe Alley): Of the two aforementioned Yankee story-lines, the one I most believe in is Gardner. There's no reason for his speed and D to drop off, and his batting line, while surprising, is far from exceptional. I can definitely see him continuing it. As for Wang, I just don't see him coming off another injury having a good second half.
Daniel Hugo (Bluebird Banter): I do think there will be a dropoff from Marco Scutaro and, at least in power output, from Aaron Hill (more doubles, less home runs), though I do think Hill is for real (Scutaro is such an unusual case I honestly don't know what to think). One player I think could keep it up is Ricky Romero - before this season, J.P. Ricciardi was a laughingstock in Toronto for drafting Romero, but Ricky put together a great half season and I think there's every reason to think he can continue to be at least a very solid mid-rotation arm going forward - if he can avoid the rash of serious injuries that have plagued Toronto's young pitchers. Though Romero has gotten a bit lucky with runners left on and could see a little regression in his ERA (it's 2.96 at the moment), he is both limiting walks (3.08 BB/9 innings) and missing bats (7.52 K/9) quite well. He has three high-quality pitches and is getting a good amount of ground balls.
Randy Booth (Over The Monster): David Ortiz, if we consider him a "surprise" still, will continue to hit. He's been looking great recently and, to put it simply, you can never get Ortiz out of the limelight. As for Green, it's hard to tell what his future is. Lowrie is set to come off the disabled list soon, so the Red Sox have a decision to make: who's the backup infielder, Lugo or Green? Many think Lugo could be cut soon (because who would trade for him?), leaving the backup job all Green's.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): Which big local stories aren't getting as much attention from the national media? Should they be?
Stacey Long (Camden Chat): The rookie parade in Baltimore has been exciting, but the national media has only focused on Matt Wieters. He's THE big story, of course, but the fact is in addition to Wieters, the starting LF and 3/5 of the rotation are rookies. Two of those rookies, Nolan Reimold and and Brad Bergesen, have been my happiest surprise this year. Reimold leads rookies in a number of offensive categories and Bergesen has emerged as the team's best starting pitcher.
Should the national media be paying attention? It's hard to say. A favorite past time of O's fans is lamenting the fact that no one notices when the Orioles do well, but the fact is they are currently irrelevant. Hopefully one day soon the Orioles will be splashed all over national news publications and networks, but until they start to actually succeed it's difficult to justify. An article about Reimold, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis did make the front page of ESPN.com recently, so perhaps our time is finally arriving.
R.J. Anderson (DRaysBay): Attendance, thank heavens ESPN and company aren't harking on that, but the local papers can still turn to it for a quick response.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): The Orioles are one of two teams to whole-heartedly take the "three center fielders" approach this year. How's that working out, both at the plate and in the field?
Stacey Long (Camden Chat): Before the season started all signs pointed to the Orioles outfield being one of the best defensive trios in the majors. Well I don't know what happened but the defense hasn't been great at all. Nick Markakis, who has always been a defensive asset, has taken a real tumble. His UZR/150 in '08 was 11.1; this year it's -15.9. I have no idea what the difference is with him. His arm seems as strong and accurate as it was last year, but he seems to make bad decisions on plays off the scoreboard or close to the wall. Hopefully it's just an aberration. Nick had a lot of big changes in the off season, getting married in the fall and having his first child during spring training. His offense has been down as well and I'm hoping he's adjusting to a new way of life and will get both sides of his game back on track soon. Adam Jones has had a similar defensive drop this year. He plays too shallow for my tastes and I think it hurts him. Often when he is racing back on a ball over his head he seems to get a bit twisted around. It's different than the effortless gliding you expect from Adam. Luckily his offense has picked up so considerably from last year that it hasn't hurt his overall production as much as it could. It's still disappointing though. The Felix Pie experiment ended quickly and his replacement Nolan Reimold doesn't much fit in with a "three center fielders" philosophy. I'd say the O's outfield defense has been one of the biggest let downs of the season for me.
Randy Booth (Over The Monster): It's hard to say the national media doesn't cover anything at all when the Boston Globe alone has at least four reporters at each and every game. That doesn't even factor in the Herald, Providence Journal, yadda, yadda, yadda. With that said, they do a great job, but it is hard to pick something they haven't already stabbed at at least 10 times already.
One thing worth noting is how great of a job George Kottaras is doing as the backup catcher -- a.k.a. Tim Wakefield's personal catcher. The thing is, no one is hearing his name mentioned. You know why? Because he's doing a good job and when Wake's catcher is doing a good job, you don't hear a peep. But when you start seeing passed balls left and right, that's when you hear about the catcher. Kottaras, though, as a rookie is doing a great job. I don't even care about his .218 batting average. That's good enough to be Wake's backup catcher. The future Red Sox catcher, too? We'll see.
Daniel Hugo (Bluebird Banter): Well, Ricky Romero is starting to draw some accolades for his exceptional performance thus far, and Aaron Hill improbably made the all-star team. Adam Lind didn't, but, being a DH, he wasn't on the initial ballot, and so it was quite impressive just to see him on the final player ballot. To me, the most interesting stories not being told belong to Marco Scutaro and Scott Rolen. GM J.P. Ricciardi traded nothing for Marco Scutaro and then promptly signed him to a dirt-cheap 2-year deal. He, seemingly alone of the GMs of the league, saw Scutaro as a potential everyday shortstop (though not so much so that he didn't also sign David Eckstein prior to last season). And Scutaro has risen to the challenge, walking in 14% of his at-bats and putting up a .355 wOBA out of the leadoff spot. Marco has been incredibly patient (swinging at only 11% of pitches outside the strike zone) and also has 25 doubles already. Who knows if he can keep it up, but it's certainly not a BABIP illusion of the type you often see in 1/2 season outlier results. To top it off, he is playing absolutely exceptional defense at shortstop. For a player to change this significantly at his age isn't unheard of, but it's pretty close.
As for Rolen, he struggled so mightily with injuries last year that it has been great to see him put together such a strong first half. His new swing mechanics, built to compensate for his shoulder injury, have produced a ridiculous number of line drive singles and doubles (he's batting .330 with 26 doubles and a 27.5% line drive rate so far). that have compensated for him hitting just 6 home runs. And he makes highlight reel plays on a daily basis at third base, leading more and more people to suggest that we are seeing a historically good defensive third baseman (though I should point out that UZR has him at only above-average so far this season). Throw in clever baserunning and all that good intangible stuff, to the extent that you care to, and it's clear why he's become such a favourite of Toronto fans and media, and, as yet, a (mostly untold) great comeback story for this season.
Travis Goldman (Pinstripe Alley): I've been thinking about this question for a couple days, but still don't have a good answer. It seems that every Yankee story is a national story, but I suppose the fine play of Francisco Cervelli and Ramiro Pena haven't hit the big-time yet; both filled in for injured players and exceeded expectations. They held their own at the plate and played great defense, something we're not accustomed to seeing from backups. They had to be sent down to when the normal backups returned (and also to get more playing time), but I expect to see them a lot next year as the primary backups.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): What story lines will we see in the second half of the season that most people aren't expecting?
Randy Booth (Over The Monster): There's a few exciting ones that could crop up. Everyone will be on their heels to see how many bags Jacoby Ellsbury will end up stealing. He has 40 now and is on pace for 76. That may not seem like anything great to some teams, but this is the Red Sox -- they're like dinosaurs on the basepaths. One story line I don't want to see, but we could, is Jed Lowrie going on the DL again. It seems like he can never stay healthy.
Stacey Long (Camden Chat): Instead of getting worse, the Orioles might actually get better. If Chris Tillman is added to the rotation along with Bergesen, Hernandez, Guthrie, and Hill/Berken, it could get exciting. Not to mention the O's offense has not been as good as they can be, and if they can turn it up in the 2nd half, playing Baltimore might not be the cake walk the AL East contenders hope it will be.
Daniel Hugo (Bluebird Banter): I think the Jays will go on a surprising little run, not unlike they did late last season. The rotation has been in a constant state of flux but could benefit from Shaun Marcum's return, which the team has slated for August - a Halladay/Marcum/Romero/Cecil/Scott Richmond et. al. rotation is actually quite good and could string together some wins. The truth is that the Jays have played quite a bit better than their record would indicate and could get even better if the pitching finally stabilizes and Travis Snider makes his way back to the big club -even if he doesn't break out, he'll certainly be better than David Dellucci has been. I was at a Jays-Orioles game this weekend and an O's fan asked me "doesn't having David Dellucci negate the point of even having the DH?"
Travis Goldman (Pinstripe Alley): Johnny Damon. He's having yet another very solid year (in the last year of his contract). He'll try to play every day to show he's durable, but will the Yankees re-sign him, offer him arbitration, or let him walk? It will depend on his second half. Hideki Matsui is also in the last year of his deal, so we're probably about to witness the last 70-odd games of his MLB career (as I expect he'll either retire or return to NPB).
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): How about ending with one bold prediction we won't hold you accountable for if you're wrong, but we'll worship at your feet for if it comes true?
Daniel Hugo (Bluebird Banter): Travis Snider will end the season with 20 major-league home runs.
Randy Booth (Over The Monster): Jason Bay will have a new contract before the end of the season. That doesn't sound very bold, but Red Sox policy is that they do not negotiate contracts during a season.
Stacey Long (Camden Chat): Your 2009 AL RoY will be from the Orioles, but it won't be Matt Wieters. It'll be Brad Bergesen.
Travis Goldman (Pinstripe Alley): Chien Ming-Wang comes back in early August and has a stellar close to the season. A man can dream, can't he?