The Long Odds of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Playoff Path

Entering play on Sept. 4, the Arizona Diamondbacks were 12.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the lead in the NL West, and 8 games back in the race for a Wild Card spot.

Entering July, the Diamondbacks led their division by 1.5 games over the Colorado Rockies, and as of July 21 still had a .5 game lead on the Dodgers. As LA stormed through every team in their path, that lead vanished.

But is there still hope for the Snakes in baseball’s final month?

First, the Diamondbacks have seven games remaining against the Dodgers, four of which are at home. In 2013 Arizona has gone 7-5 against their rival, although their last win was on June 12, before the Dodgers awoke as a powerhouse.

The Dodgers swept a three-game series in Arizona in July. Most likely the Diamondbacks would need to sweep the remaining games, which, while unlikely, is possible, especially if they can avoid Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

Arizona also has an MVP contender in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. After a 2012 that saw him hit .286/.359/.490 with 20 home runs, the 25-year old took his game up a level to .295/.399/.540 with 31 homers through the first five months of the season.

When the team traded Justin Upton over the winter many people wondered who would become the focal point of the offense. Goldschmidt has left little doubt that he is the best player on a team that, without the explosive second half of LA, would be firmly in the playoff chase despite trading sometimes superstar in Upton.

The player Arizona got in return from the Braves for Upton, Martin Prado, had a rough transition to the West Coast. On June 11 the third baseman was hitting just .244/.292/.333 with a .626 OPS. Prado signed a 4-year, $40 million contract extension after he was acquired and was playing as bad as at any point in his career. It looked like Upton, who had exploded out of the gate in April, was going to make the trade look foolish for his old club.

Since that day in June, in a loss to the Dodgers, Prado has turned things around. Hitting .333/.386/.519, Prado is playing more like the player Kevin Towers thought he traded for. After just multi-hit games through the 65-game stretch ending June 11, Prado has collected 28 multi-hit games in his 67 games since. He has 9 home runs, 20 doubles, 25 walks since his low point as opposed to 4 homers , 11 doubles, and 17 walks.

The Diamondbacks place in the standings doesn’t look good, but Prado has been a different player since the middle of June and a strong September can’t hurt the chances of a comeback.

Aaron Hill has been a player of two seasons for Arizona as well, but for a different reason: health. Hill played in just 10 games in April before injuring his hand and missing all of May and the first 24 days of June. His absence left a gaping hole at second base and kept the Diamondbacks from having their projected lineup on the field for nearly the entire first half of the season.

Since his return on June 25, Hill has done nothing but hit: .309/.377/.502. Considering that Robinson Cano’s season line stands at .305/.383/.508 and the Yankee second baseman is expected to sign a massive contract this winter, what Hill has done since his return to the lineup is nothing short of remarkable.

Playoff baseball may not be returning to Phoenix this fall, but Goldschmidt, Prado, and Hill are doing everything they can to make it happen.

If the Diamondbacks can put together an epic run, like the 2007 Rockies 21-win September, sweeping the Dodgers in the process, maybe they can find a way to change their fate. It won’t be easy, but September baseball isn’t always as straightforward as it seems.

Cross posted at The Sports Post

AL East Meets NL West

This is not how it was supposed to be. The Los Angeles Dodgers are making history with a payroll just north of $239 million dollars — they may still end the season higher — and finding out that despite all the money they spent, the team is flawed. 

Manager Don Mattingly is very much on the hot seat. The organization that was full of excitement last season as a new ownership group replaced Frank McCourt, orchestrated a blockbuster trade with the Red Sox, and said building a championship team was priority number one, is in last place.

Who’s in first place? The Arizona Diamondbacks have top honors, the San Francisco Giants sit two games back, the somewhat surprising Colorado Rockies another half game past the Giants, the San Diego Padres six games back, and the Dodgers another game-and-a-half behind the Padres. In other words, the NL West has proven to be a decent approximation of the opposite of what offseason predictions called for.

Across the country and in the other league, the Boston Red Sox lead the AL East by a game, followed by the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, and Toronto Blue Jays. After making their own blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins and acquiring reigning NL Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey, the Blue Jays were picked to win the AL East by fans, press, and baseball insiders.

Unlike the Diamondbacks, who traded away arguably their best player in Justin Upton, the Jays started slow and have continued to sputter. There is a certain amount of symmetry in the unlikely standings of these two divisions.

As a Red Sox fan, I sympathize for Dodgers fans out there. Heading into the 2011 season, the Red Sox were dubbed a “super team” after acquiring Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford during the offseason and boasting a star-studded rotation led by Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, along with Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, and the mercurial Daisuke Matsuzaka. The team responded to amazing levels of hype by losing six games out of the gate and going just 11-15 in April.

After teasing the world from the beginning of May through the end of August, leading the AL East by half-a-game, the Sox won just seven games in September on their way to one the most embarrassing collapses in baseball history. Manager Terry Francona was fired, general manager Theo Epstein escaped to Chicago, and Bobby Valentine arrived to oversee entirely new forms of pain in the 2012 season.

The Dodgers created their hype storm far differently, but the result is the same: the team is lost and becoming a laughing stock. The 2011 Red Sox won 19 games in May. The Dodgers won a total of 22 games entering today. Los Angeles faced the problem of “too much pitching” before the rotation went from a strength to just another fire to put out.

What happened? Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, since his return, have lived up to their reputations. The rest of the rotation has been a patchwork, although Hyun-Jin Ryu has been a solid contributor in his debut season in America. Ultimately, the blame falls on the position players. Despite the hype and the payroll, the Dodgers entered the season with a number of question marks around the diamond.

While the struggles of Matt Kemp (.251/.305/.335 with 2 HR) have been well documented, his down season is likely the product of shoulder surgery over the winter. It may simply be a longer recovery process than anyone anticipated. Andre Ethier is in the midst of his worst season as well (.253/.346/.392 with 4 HR). Carl Crawford, finally healthy, has been up to his old tricks batting .294/.354/.446 with 5 home runs and 9 steals.

That all three outfielders are in the middle of long-term contracts of dollar values previously thought immoveable, until the Dodgers-Red Sox trade of last summer, is something to consider when looking at the underperforming offense.

Another star signed long-term is Adrian Gonzalez. Like Kemp, Gonzalez is a player recovering from shoulder surgery. While Gonzo is several years removed from his operation, the power he displayed during his years in San Diego, pre-surgery, has not returned. Expected to be a 40-homer threat in Fenway Park, the first baseman instead hit just 27 home runs for the Red Sox in 2011 and 18 while splitting his time between Boston and LA.

Gonzalez has hit 7 home runs through the the first 48 games of the 2013 season. Gonzalez started off slowly this year but has raised his numbers to .333/.389/.520 while breaking out in a big way. Is it a hot streak? A healthy shoulder? Difficult to tell, but a promising sign for a formerly elite first baseman trying to get back on track. However, if his recovery process is any sort of guide for Matt Kemp, the Dodgers may need to look for other sources of power in the lineup. 

Next up: Hanley Ramirez. Or, he would be if he could recover from one injury long enough to contribute in games before struck with the next one. This may sound familiar, but Ramirez is a Dodger several years removed from his best seasons, despite being just 29 years old. From 2006-2010, the shortstop hit .313/.385/.521 for the then Florida Marlins, averaging 25 home runs and 39 stolen bases per year as a potent power-speed threat. Since the 2010 season, Ramirez has been in a tailspin of ineffectiveness and now, injury.

Hitting at just a .254/.328/.422 clip over parts of three seasons, Ramirez has hit a total of 35 homers, about one every seven games instead of every six. After stealing at least 32 bases in four of his first five season in the majors, Ramirez has swiped 20 and 21 bases the last two years. After recovering from a thumb injury that sidelined him for the first month of the season, Ramirez did both homer and steal in his four games of 2013 before injuring his hamstring, but there is no telling which of his skills will be ready when he next takes the field.

Amazingly, that’s it in terms of big names in the starting lineup. With Hanley expected to play shortstop for the Dodgers this season, third base and second base were filled cheaply. 

The Dodgers best — and closest — help in the minors is Yasiel Puig, but he’s an outfielder with less than one season in American baseball and unlikely to displace Kemp, Crawford, or Ethier. Dee Gordon was manning shortstop, but once again found himself unable to hit for average or power. In concert with an inability to take a walk, Gordon’s skills are an embodiment of the phrase “you can’t steal first base.”  So, he’s back in the minors.

The lack of depth for a team with playoff aspirations — really, expectations — is shaping up to the be biggest obstacle in Chavez Ravine. Despite the record-setting payroll, the Dodgers roster is surprisingly thin. But that’s not always such a limitation.

Across the country and in the opposite league sit the New York Yankees. The Yankees now have the second highest payroll in the game thanks to their former Brooklyn rivals. In a twist, the Yankees began the season as underdogs. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter were expected to be absent for at least a chunk of the first half in Spring Training.

As the season was about to open, Curtis Granderson succumbed to an injury as well, and Mark Teixeira joined in the hurt parade for good measure. Combined with the departure of Russell Martin in free agency to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Yankees looked down on their luck. The Bronx Bombers signed Travis Hafner from the scrap heap, Lyle Overbay after being cut from the Red Sox while competing for the backup first base job, and traded for one of the worst players in baseball over the past few seasons: Vernon Wells.

As play begins on May 30th, the Yankees are one game back in the AL East. Hafner has been healthy, playing in 42 games, and is hitting .256/.373/.496 with 8 home runs. Last season, Pronk played in 66 total games and hit 13 home runs for the Cleveland Indians. His health has been a question mark for for six years now, but as long as he’s on the field, he performs.

Overbay hasn’t done as well, posting just a .294 OBP, but he’s also knocked in 8 home runs. Vernon Wells? His .263/.313/.457 with 10 homers and 4 stolen bases is a far cry from the .230/.279/.403 11 home run line he posted in 2012. He’s played in the outfield and even third base for a notable appearance.

The Yankees catching duo has also performed better than most expected. Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart have both kept their OPS above .650. Kevin Youkilis, brought in to replace the injured A-Rod, chipped in with a .266/.347/.422 line before hitting the DL himself.

The Dodgers entered the season expected to dominate. The Yankees were expected to struggle while their stars recovered from injury. On the West Coast, players who were expected to contribute haven’t done so. On the East Coast, a handful of long shots are making their names known in pinstripes. And, we are given yet another reminder that team success is about as impossible to predict in professional baseball as the location of a knuckleball.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Kevin Youkilis: On the Block?

The 2012 Boston Red Sox look a lot like the 2011 version of the team. Two players entered this year as potential free agents: David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis. Ortiz, enjoying a tremendous resurgence, may have already guaranteed himself another arbitration deal with the Red Sox, but Kevin Youkilis, over whom the Sox have a $13 million option for next season, may not even finish 2012 in a Boston uniform. The question is: if he’s not playing in Fenway, where is he?

2012 did not start the way Youkilis would have wanted. Right off the bat his new manager was calling him out to the media questioning not his health or his playing ability but his intangibles: Bobby Valentine criticized his passion for the game. The new Sox skipper said Youk just wasn’t “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past.” While both sides tried to dismiss the comments and focus on the team – struggling mightily at the time – Ken Rosenthal is reporting that, according to a baseball executive,“Valentine wanted Youkilis out as far back as spring training, viewing him as a liability.”

If that wasn’t enough, the third baseman soon hit the disabled list and prospect Will Middlebrooks go off to a roaring start and, with a few slumps, is hitting .259/.295/.552 with 4 home runs. Middlebrooks has proven himself in the minors and has held his own in the majors, is generally expected to become the starter in 2013. If the Red Sox think he is ready to stay, maybe when Youkilis returns from the DL, he’ll be featured for a trade.

Who’s Looking?

There are a few teams who could use help at the infield corners who might be interested in the veteran “Greek God of Walks.”

The Dodgers, lead by superstars Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, are off to a surprising start in a weak NL West. Their current starter at third base? Juan Uribe. Uribe is hitting just .250/.302/.338 with a home run and a healthy Youk would be an improvement on his .640 OPS. The story doesn’t get much better across the diamond: James Loney, who never developed into the player the Dodgers always thought he would, is hitting .233/.310/.336. If a move back to first base could keep Youkilis healthy, an option the Red Sox don’t have, the Dodgers’ current roster construction wouldn’t make that very difficult.

North of LA, the San Francisco Giants, also looking at the weakness of their division, and currently without Pablo Sandoval, aka Kung Fu Panda, could be interested as well. Sandoval is currently sidelined with a hand injury, and while he should return in another month or so, Youkilis might be ready before then. Like the Dodgers, the Giants also have a question mark at first base. Prospect Brandon Belt hasn’t forced the team to pencil him into the lineup every day, giving an opening for Youkilis to take over. Belt also has experience playing the outfield, which could allow the Giants to upgrade offensively at two positions if Belt can really get into gear – he has the ability, just not the track record in the Majors.

What Red Sox trade talk would be complete without including his former boss, Theo Epstein? The breakout of Bryan LaHair at first base has been well publicized: the formerly-labeled quad-A player has slugged 10 home runs already this season while hitting (an unsustainable) .330/.422/.670. While the power is real his other stats will likely regress a bit as the season goes on. Behind LaHair is former Sox and Padres first base prospect Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo will eventually inherit the first base job when LaHair is traded or shifted to the outfield. But the hot corner is occupied by Darwin Barney.

Barney is a fine stopgap while the Cubs rebuild, but the Cubs may decide to play up their Red Sox knowledge again. Adding Youkilis to man third base this year, and possibly next year, would give the club a veteran leader with a solid batting eye. Youkilis is injury prone at this point in his career and can’t be expected for 162 games, but Epstein and Hoyer know this. The money isn’t a huge obstacle for the large-market Cubs and even the option is just a one year commitment. Like evert rebuilding team, the Cubs need to balance putting a decent product on the field with their efforts to become competitive again. Alfonso Soriano is a high-priced player well past his prime, but Youkilis probably still has something left in the tank, and it might be enough to warrant an upgrade from Barney to keep the team looking respectable, if not competitive. Even an understanding fan base likes to go to the ballpark with a chance to see their team have a good game.

Full Circle

In a way, the situation facing Kevin Youkilis today is not all that different than the one he was in during 2004. Bill Mueller, the 2003 batting champion and Red Sox third baseman at the time, went on the disabled list. The Sox called up the already Moneyball-famous Youk to take over at third base. Youk impressed, but not enough to win the job away from Mueller that season. In 2005, Youk got in work at third and first as Kevin Millar, John Olerud, and the immortal Roberto Petagine spent time in a first base platoon. In 2006, the starting job at first was his because of the arrival of Mike Lowell (with Josh Beckett) to handle the hot corner.

Maybe Middlebrooks will stay cool until Youkilis returns. Maybe he’ll heat up and force the Red Sox hand on a trade before Youk gets going himself. Maybe Carl Crawford has another setback but Middlebrooks ends up returning to the big leagues as a left fielder this season. As they say, these things have a way of working themselves out.