Thoughts on AL Contenders



by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

Wednesday afternoon's schedule featured all four playoff teams from the 2009 American League brackets (NYY, LAA, Boston, and Minnesota), plus the Detroit Tigers team that just missed the postseason after losing the tie-breaker game to Minnesota. The league champion from 2008 was ALSO in action (Tampa Bay), so it seemed like a great time to sit back, watch some baseball, and evaluate some keys to the coming season.

Some food for your handicapping thoughts...

Our first thought here is that Javier Vazquez was a HORRIBLE acquisition. Yes, he had a great year for Atlanta last year. As we mentioned several times in 2009, he was a very good nominee to have a great year!

*He was switching from the much superior American League to the inferior National League.

*He was switching from a volatile situation with Ozzie Guillen in Chicago to the relatively tranquil pitching nirvana of Bobby Cox and the Braves.

*He was switching from playing home games in a hitter's park to playing home games in a pitcher's park.

YES, OF COURSE Vazquez was likely to thrive in Atlanta. He did. He was a Cy Young candidate in the inferior league. Several NL teams have gotten smart (FINALLY!) and are bringing over 'decent' AL pitchers and watching them dominate. Instead of seeing what was really happening, the Yankees decided Vazquez had 'fixed' his problems and was ready to be great again.


*Now he's switching back to the superior American League.

*Now he's switching back from pitching nirvana to the very high pressure New York Yankees.

*Now he's pitching in a home run paradise that's likely to cause him enormous trouble.

So far, it's been a relative disaster.

5.2 innings, 8 ER, 2 HR's on the road at Tampa Bay
5.1 innings, 4 ER, at home against the LA Angels

That's a 9.82 ERA in two games, and he didn't even allow a HR in his Yankee Stadium debut. He couldn't finish six complete innings either time.

Maybe the Rays and Halo's are a tough draw to start the season. Just remember that the Angels have been ice cold so far...and that Vazquez will be seeing the Rays and dangerous Boston often this year. His ERA will come back toward something less ugly. But, he's not likely to be a positive based on what we saw two years ago in Chicago.

We still see the Yankees as favorites in the division and league. They might be more vulnerable than you were thinking given these early implosions from Vazquez.

In this series we were most interested in the new ballpark. Much of our handicapping involves ballpark effects. Whenever there's a new stadium, we have a window of opportunity to get in synch with reality before Vegas oddsmakers have a read on the right totals numbers for the site.

ESPN was talking like this was going to be another bandbox park that saw home runs fly out at record pace. It's easy to forget that some of the prior 'bandboxes' were abused by steroid users! Once the game got cleaned up, home runs when way down even in the places where dimensions were supposedly too short. We wanted to see with our own eyes what was going to happen at Target Field.

Through two games, it doesn't look like it's going to be an extreme hitter's paradise. Temperatures have been surprisingly warm. Even with a breeze, home runs aren't flying out left and right. Some of that can be attributed to quality starting pitching. Two games just isn't enough of a sample size to draw firm conclusions about the park. We can say that Vegas is at least in the neighborhood early on, so the edge we're chasing may be small. Over the course of a full season...small edges add up!

Let's also point out that the markets may not have fully absorbed the impact of Boston's switch this year to a 'pitching and defense' approach to winning games. It's tough to imagine the Red Sox playing that style. Boston's bats did well vs. rusty C.C. Sabathia in the season opener, then against soft Kansas City pitching over the weekend. That may have tricked bettors into thinking it was the same old Red Sox!

What got into the Royals?! This should have been a three-game road sweep. Their shaky bullpen gagged a big lead Tuesday in a 6-5 loss. Otherwise, it was blowout wins for KC. Don't forget that this team started fast in 2009 before falling off a cliff. It's been a tough schedule to start out, with only Detroit and Boston on the slate in the first week and a half. Going 4-5 vs. Detroit and Boston suggests very competitive results when the Royals step down in class.

Detroit's a team we have some questions about this year. Today's pitcher Rick Porcello is kind of a freak of nature in baseball terms. He's 6'5' but doesn't get any strikeouts. He's only 21 years old, so he has plenty of time to work on that. Still, the list of pitchers who have longterm success while NOT getting strikeouts is a short one. Now that the league has a read on him, 2010 may be tougher for him. He allowed 10 hits in this one, without only 2K's.

Oh, Dontrelle Willis had a poor outing Tuesday. The odds seem very much against him ever finding success in the AL (remember, his glory days were in the inferior NL). Can Detroit win the AL Central if Willis and Porcello are 40% of the rotation?

Is Tampa Bay really good, or is Baltimore really bad? Be careful jumping to conclusions about either. They've played six games against each other so far, with Tampa Bay going 5-1. That certainly means Tampa Bay is better than Baltimore!

*If Tampa Bay has found their 2009 form, they could be a 100-win team...and Baltimore could actually be a value side once they step down in class.

*If Baltimore is just a doormat...a 62-100 type team, then Tampa Bay may just be a re-run of last year's 84-win team...good enough to beat bad teams but not good enough to win the division. Don't forget that Tampa Bay lost two of three at home to the Yankees last weekend.

We're very interested to see how Tampa Bay performs this weekend in Boston...and how Baltimore handles their upcoming West Coast swing. Their manager may not survive the trip if they don't start winning soon!

Oh, let's note the horrendous start to the season for Brad Bergeson of Baltimore. He's allowed 13 earned runs in just 7.2 innings. And, that first start was against Toronto rather than Tampa Bay. Very surprising given his effectiveness last season.

That wraps up our notes from a day with the bases in the AL. We'll be focusing very intently on the NBA playoffs from this point forward. We'll preview the Western Playoffs in our Friday NOTEBOOK entry, followed by the Eastern Playoffs on Saturday (when the games begin!). Look for continuing previews throughout the journey, with an emphasis on game stats to help you break down the personnel edges in each matchup.

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