MLB Wild Card:The Final Week, update

The Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds both won last night, the Reds in 10 innings over the Mets, to clinch a playoff berth. They have identical records and the three game series between the two teams this weekend will settle the home field advantage, if they remain tied going into that series. They are only two game behind St. Louis, but the Cardinals show no sign of losing the division lead.

In the American League, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Texas all won last night, so Texas remains one game in back of Cleveland. As pointed out before, Cleveland has the easier schedule and should win. That “easier schedule” does include Minnesota this weekend and the Twins are showing some late season energy in that they beat the Tigers in 11 innings last night on a single by Josmil Pinto. This catcher played in AA baseball this summer until he was called up to the Majors this month. He is batting. 359 so far. is he for real or just a September wonder? What all of that means is that Cleveland will have to play well until their Wild Card berth is settled, one way or another and the Twins will not give in. This is typical of baseball teams, by the way. 

Next week we will be dealing with a new set of facts, equally engaging, and set to determine participation in the World Series. “Fall Baseball is War,” here  and these are continuing battles.

The Los Angeles Angels and Free Agent Signing Errors

The Los Angeles Angels just traded their best relief pitcher, Scott Downs, for a minor league reliever. This is the sign of a team that has given up on 2013 and is looking forward to better days. The Angels plans are made more difficult by a signing error in 2011 when they signed Albert Pujols to a 10 year $240,000,000 contract that ends with escalating payments. They then signed Josh Hamilton to a 5 year $125,000,000 contract this year.

In March, I predicted that the Angels with Trout, Trumbo, Pujols and Hamilton would win the AL West. Today, they are 14 games behind Oakland and eight games under. 500. It is a disaster. My prediction failed as I over estimated the adequacy to the Angels’ pitchng and did not recognize the rapid decline in Pujols’ performance and Hamilton’s collapse. Hamilton is a psychological case.

Pujols decline is classic baseball decline and was predictable due to physical factors.  First, he hit his peak when he was 28 in 2008. It is shibboleth among baseball purests that a player peaks at 27. His decline in batting average has been 2008, .357,  .327, .312, .299, .285, and .258 this year. He has been troubled by plantar fasciatis this year as well. His OPS (slugigng plus on-base percentage), a statistic some think is indicative of true value,  has similary declined as follows,  2007, .997, 1.114, 1.101, 1.011, .906, .859, and .767 this year.  The numbers at age 27-28 are dramatic and rank with baseball’s great players, but that was then.

The undeniable fact that players performance declines after age 27-28 begs the question of why a team would sign a player to a multi-year, escalating payment contract for what must be declining performance. The Alex Rodriguez contract with the Yankees should have been instructive here, but it seems Angels’ owner, Artie Moreno, wanted to be like the Yankees by signing Pujols and then Hamilton. If he was looking there for guidance on how to run a team, he looked in the wrong direction, but then again his team had recently lost to the Yankees in the layoffs.

The proper place to look was a few hundred miles north to Oakland or to Tampa on Florida’s west coast.  Those two teams are in first place in their divisions with modest payrolls, but balanced, performing teams.  Moreno has become like the Yankees, who are in fourth place, as are the Angels, even though playing +.500 ball. The Angels winning percentage is 11th in the American League.  The real test in these signings is the reaction of the player’s former team to the player’s departure. The Cardinals seemed to be interested in re-signing Pujols, but dropped out of the bidding. The Cardinals, one of baseball’s best organizations, is 19 games over  .500 in first place in the NL Central and Hamilton’s former Rangers team is eight games over  .500, but trail the A’s for first.

This gets to the basic error in the Pujols signing. No one player makes a baseball team. A single player can only come to bat 11% of the time. Teams are a combination of pitching, fielding, and batting. Too much batting was expected from an aging star.

The rule that a team “shouldn’t get hit by a falling star” has slammed the Angels. I was overly impressed by the Angels offense last March, and have learned  a lesson. I imagine Artie Moreno has learned the same lesson.

American League Predictions for 2013- Sunday Ramblings for March 24, 2013;

I have been thinking about the coming baseball season because this is a year that may find a significant shift in the rankings of teams. Here are predictions for the American League in 2013 with the National League predictions coming later in the week.

In the American League, the Blue Jays will win the East because Jose Bautista and the addition of pitchers R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle, and players Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonafacio, Melky Cabrera, Macier Izturis and Mark DeLarosa. This increases the payroll to around $120,000,000.The willingness to spend in Toronto is triggered by an awareness that the old guard of Yankees and Red Sox may be finished, at least for a while. The Tampa Bay Rays will be in second and, if Toronto stumbles for any of a variety of reasons, like Bautista’s wrist, and this very solid, very well managed team will win again. Baltimore is improving but is just too young and thin to challenge and the Yankees are really old and injured. The Red Sox are still recovering from whatever it was that wrecked them last year. You still won’t get a ticket in Fenway Park. In the AL East, there will be the top two, Toronto and Tampa Bay, and the bottom three. How’s that for a major shift?

In the American League West, it is Angels all the way. This is easy. Trout, Hamilton, Pujols, Trumbo and an adequate pitching staff. The Athletics and Rangers will follow and may overtake the Angels if there are the unforeseen events of injuries to the key players. I have learned to appreciate the Beane Athletics and am now a fan of Nolan Ryan’s Ranger operation. Still, any team that has the incomparable Mike Trout followed by other hitters is going to be vary hard to beat. If the pitching falters, however, KPKP applies, (more on this later).

In the AL Central, the division I watch the most, it is the Tigers that should dominate, especially if they have a closer. Like Toronto, the Tigers have a dominate hitter, MVP Miguel Cabrera, and the superb Prince Fielder, who is one on the best situational hitters I have ever seen. He is at his best when the going is tough. The pitching, Verlander, Fister, Porcello, Scherzer and others will be sufficient to stay ahead of the much improved Indians. The White Sox and Royals will battle for third and the Twins, my beloved Twins, that lack pitching to such and extent the KPKP rules apply. That team will get better but the Mauer and Morneau pair is over 30 now and heading downhill. (KPKP comes from a from a scout I worked with who used KP to mean “Can’t Play” in reference to a player and we expanded that to KPKP for a team that Can’t Pitch Can’t Play.)

The American League Wild Card will come from Tampa Bay, Oakland or Texas or, if these teams win, the second place team in that Division. I think Tampa will do it, but there is a play-in game with the two top finishing second place teams, so anything can happen there.

Predictions for the National League will come soon, but let me say the Washington Nationals may be the best team in the business.