Second-half keys for contenders
The Texas Rangers acquisition of left-hander Cliff Lee had a league-wide impact.
This wasn’t simply about the Rangers addressing their No. 1 need in a bid to claim an AL West title after a decade of decay. By moving quickly to add Lee so that they can benefit from him making five starts this month, the Rangers sent a shock wave throughout the American League.
In the AL East, the New York Yankees were jilted at the trade altar, left stunned by the fact that someone would actually tell them no. And in the AL Central, the Minnesota Twins were left to scurry to find a pitcher who can even walk in the shadow of Lee to help address their shaky rotation.
The All-Star Break was this week. It’s time for contenders to reassess their rosters, identify their needs, look for help from within and if they can’t find it, scurry to bring in help from outside before the July 31 deadline for making a trade without needing waivers.
Here's a look at the major area of concern for each contender, with possible in-house solutions:
TEXAS already had the offense and bullpen. What it needed was a legit No. 1 starter who not only could lead a young and promising rotation down the stretch, but also accept the pressure of being the Game 1 guy in the postseason. They found that with Cliff Lee, who arrived from struggling Seattle, where he was 8-3 with a 2.34 ERA and five complete games, one more than the Rangers entire rotation.
LOS ANGELES fooled its fans — briefly — that it would not miss the impact bat of Kendry Morales, who broke his leg in a home plate celebration of his walk-off 10th inning grand slam against Seattle on May 29. The Angels won eight of their first nine games after the loss of Morales, but lost 15 of the final 31 games before the All-Star Break. Torii Hunter (.298, 15 HR, 62 RBI) needs support. The Angels are going to have to figure out a way to land the likes of Paul Konerko, whose availability is limited now the White Sox are charging, or Adam Dunn. Consider that in trying to fill the Morales void from within, the Angels moved Mike Napoli from catcher to first, which may be his long-term position, but then had to go with Jeff Mathis (2 HR, 8 RBI in 27 games) as the starting catcher.
DETROIT was never mentioned in the Cliff Lee hunt and, truth be told, the Tigers wouldn’t seem to have had the impact offensive player that it was going to take to land Lee. The Tigers, however, need at least one, and preferably two, starting pitchers to hold on in the AL Central. They did quit fooling themselves about Dontrelle Willis and released him. They now face the reality that they stunted the development of Rick Porcello by pushing him too quickly to the big leagues a year ago. Jeremy Bonderman is still building up strength after being limited 13 starts the last two years by a blood clot that had to be removed from his shoulder area, and has already made 16 starts this season but still doesn’t have necessary consistency.
CHICAGO is in the midst of a run that has gotten the White Sox back into the divisional race — they went into the break having won 25 of 30 games. But earlier in the week they were dealt a major blow when right-hander Jake Peavy tore a lat completely away from the bone. He will undergo a surgery on Wednesday that is not known to have been performed on a baseball player before, and the best hope is he will be in spring training next year. So much for the deal last July when Peavy was recovering from ankle surgery with the idea he’d be the staff leader in 2010. Daniel Hudson gets the first shot to step into Peavy’s spot. A fifth-round draft choice in 2008, who pitched at all four full-season minor league levels in 2009, Hudson arrives with an 11-4, 3.47 ledge at Triple-A this year, and a 30-13 minor-league composite.
MINNESOTA had every reason to expect its pitching step to take a step forward this year, but reality hasn’t met expectations, and that had the Twins pushing to make a deal for Lee. Now they have to identify another arm that can help a rotation that ranks 22nd in baseball with a 4.60 ERA. Carl Pavano has been the bell cow. He is 10-6 with a 3.58 ERA in 18 starts, but is he durable enough to continue to carry the load in the second-half? Last year is the only time in the last six seasons that he made more than 22 starts.
NEW YORK had its hopes dashed when the Mariners decided to send Lee to Texas, passing on a Yankee offer that was built around catcher Jesus Montero, who in reality is a DH/first baseman. Truth is, the Yankees already have a solid rotation with a Big Three of Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, who are a combined 34-7. And the concerns in the lineup have been answered by home-grown help in outfielder Brett Gardner, who has offset the disappointment of Curtis Granderson, and catcher Francisco Cervelli, who provides the alternative behind the plate so that Jorge Posada can DH.
TAMPA BAY finally has the late-inning answer in the bullpen with off-season addition Rafael Soriano, an All-Star. The offense, however, is sputtering. Last year’s surprise, shortstop Jason Bartlett, has hit reality (.231), and Carlos Pena may have 18 home runs and 54 RBI, but a .203 average and 93 strikeouts underscore the fact he is way to hit-or-miss to be that needed middle-of-the-lineup bat. The Rays and Angels are the two teams most desperately in need of a proven bat.
BOSTON has to make sure it keeps its insurance premiums current. There’s not a lot the Sox can do to make a move because they don’t have much surplus with 11 players on the disabled list. The fact they have been able to hang around in the AL East is a reflection on the job of manager Terry Francona. Consider that with illness to shortstop Jeff Lowrie (mononucleosis), and injuries to second baseman Dustin Pedroia (fracture left foot), and catchers Victor Martinez (fractured left thumb) and Jason Varitek (fractured right foot), the Sox are relying on a catching duo of journeymen Kevin Cash and Gustavo Molina, and a double-play combo of Bill Hall and Marco Scutaro. How bad are things? The Sox have six All-Stars, but three had to scratch because of injuries — Martinez, Pedroia and Clay Buchholz (hamstring strain).
SAN DIEGO will resume the season having spent 83 days in first place — that’s after only seven days atop the NL West a year ago and just five days in 2008 — which has persuaded management to hang onto 1B Adrian Gonzalez, the one consistent run-producer in the lineup. He’s going to need help to alleviate an undue burden on the youthful rotation. In April, it seemed Chase Headley was ready to take that next step and fill the role. He was hitting .340 on May 1, but he has hit .243 since, and more concerning, his anemic .197 average right-handed doesn’t force managers to waste a pitcher with him either in front of or behind Gonzalez in the order.
COLORADO is making its move, the offense finally living up to expectations, even with shortstop Troy Tulowitzki on the disabled list with a broken left wrist. The rotation can’t rest on the shoulder of Ubaldo Jimenez, who goes to the All-Star Game 15-1. Jason Hammel has provided a recent complement, the Rockies having won seven of his last eight starts. The big lift, however, should come from lefty Jorge De La Rosa, whose return to the active roster on Friday after a 67-day absence, gave the Rockies their projected rotation for the first time this year. After opening last season 0-6, De La Rosa is 19-4 (including 3-1 this year) and Rockies have won 24 of his 28 starts.
LOS ANGELES added Texas malcontent Vicente Padilla for the stretch run a year ago, and was so impressed with the job he did that the Dodgers re-signed him. A strained right-forearm sidelined him from April 23 through June 18, but he’s back and healthy now and if he can continue to fit into the Dodger clubhouse culture, he has the arm to provide the rotation a needed boost. He’s 3-0 in his last three starts, allowing three earned runs in 21 2/3 innings.
SAN FRANCISCO is so offensively challenged that it has faded in recent days despite the quality pitching. The biggest disappointment is Pablo Sandoval, whose alleged offseason slim down program didn’t work. Even though he’s only in his second big-league season, his quickness has markedly decreased and so has his offensive production. After hitting .340, averaging a home run every 25.6 at-bats and an RBI every 6.3 at-bats in his first 717 big-league at-bats, he is now hitting .267 this year, averaging a home run every 54.8 at-bats and an RBI every 9.7.
CINCINNATI rookie Mike Leake hasn’t blinked in his jump from the Arizona State campus to the big leagues, and Johnny Cueto has taken the step from the potential he showed at times the last two years to a quality starter in 2010. The two of them, along with Brandon Arroyo, are 23-7. A champion, however, needs to fill out its rotation, and that’s where Aaron Harang enters the picture. Placed on the disabled list last week with a lower back sprain, expectations are he can return after the All-Star Break. He has the arm to build off making quality starts in four of five appearances before he was injured after having only five in his first 12 starts.
ST. LOUIS, like most teams, is running short on pitching and even the dominance of Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia and Chris Carpenter, who are a combined 30-12, can’t hide the voids created by Kyle Lohse’s season-ending arm surgery and Brad Penny’s continuing problems with shoulder soreness. Cardinals are looking for available starters. Consider that their starters in the final two games before the break with Jeff Suppan and Blake Hawksworth, a combined 2-5 with a 4.93 ERA in 10 starts.
ATLANTA feels its rotation is finally ready to go with the return from disabled list of Jair Jurrjens, who has allowed two earned runs in 11 innings during two starts, and emergence of Kris Medlen, who is 5-0 with a 3.41 ERA in 11 starts, to fill in behind the strong-armed trio of Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe.
NEW YORK has put the 'Fire Jerry Manuel' watch in the tabloids on hold with a strong stretch run into the All-Star Break. Left-hander Johan Santana rebounded from a four-start stumble (1-3, 5.96) to allow just one run in 17 innings his last two starts. John Maine remains on the disabled list, but Oliver Perez, who the Mets chose to re-sign a year ago rather than commit for a fourth year to Derek Lowe, is ready to come off the disabled list, and the Mets have to hope they can get a better return on their investment than the combined 3-7 record and 6.62 ERA that Oliver has fashioned since Opening Day a year ago.
PHILADELPHIA was looking to slip into the bidding to reacquire Lee, but Texas knocked them out easily, giving the Mariners a strong package of players to attain Lee last week than Seattle had to send to Philadelphia last offseason. That, however, doesn’t alleviate the fact the Phillies need rotation help. Joe Blanton hasn’t provided it, allowing at least five runs in six of 13 starts. And the Phillies obviously don’t feel they can get the help right now from J.A. Happ, who compiled a 6.93 ERA in a minor-league rehab after he recovered from a forearm strain, and was optioned to the minor leagues to get his game in order.