<
>

April grades: A+ for Red Sox, Big Papi

4/29/2013

As a reminder:

Odds to win AL East, March 25 (Bovada.lv)

Blue Jays +160

Rays +250

Yankees +350

Red Sox +550

Orioles +750

AL East projected standings, March 26 (Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system)

Blue Jays -- 94-68

Rays -- 88-74

Red Sox -- 84-78

Yankees -- 83-79

Orioles -- 82-80

Picks to win AL East, March 30 (ESPN baseball contributors)

Blue Jays -- 20

Rays -- 20

Orioles -- 2

Yankees -- 1

Red Sox -- 0

Before the season began, everyone talked about how the AL East would be the crazy island of division races, but the consensus was the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays were the two best teams and the other three would be left fighting for wild-card scraps.

Only four of ESPN's 43 baseball contributors picked the Red Sox to even make the playoffs. I was one. As we close in on the end of April, the Red Sox own baseball's best record and are doing it in impressive fashion: 18-7, including 11-5 at home and 7-2 on the road; third in the AL in runs; third in fewest runs allowed; owners of the best run differential in the majors at +40.

Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have rightfully received a lot of the credit for going a combined 9-0 in 10 starts and allowing just 13 runs. Free agent Mike Napoli is second in the majors with 27 RBIs. Daniel Nava has hit himself into more playing time with a .310 average, four homers and 16 RBIs. Jacoby Ellsbury is healthy and providing energy at the top of order. John Lackey even won on Sunday, so you know things are going well.

But if one player best sums up Boston's April, it's David Ortiz, the heart and soul of the franchise. I imagine Big Papi will get old one of these years. Maybe the bat speed will suddenly slow and he'll turn into that most discouraging of sights: the aging slugger who can no longer hit. That's not going to happen in 2013. In eight games since returning from the DL, Papi has come back with a vengeance by hitting .516 with seven extra-base hits and 11 RBIs. Eight of his 16 hits have gone to left field as he has beat the shift teams usually put on against him. Most importantly, the Sox are 7-1 in those games. With Ortiz in the cleanup spot, the Red Sox lineup looks complete: Speed with Ellsbury, on-base skills with Nava and Pedroia, Ortiz and Napoli in the middle. This lineup just beat the Astros four straight times at home.

It's the kind of lineup that can win a division, especially if Will Middlebrooks and Stephen Drew start inflicting some damage from the bottom of the order. As I hand out some April grades, the Red Sox and Big Papi both earn an A+ for their inspiring start.

Here are some more April grades for the American League (we'll do the National League on Monday night), starting with some other newsworthy mentions from the AL East.

New York Yankees: A. Explain this: No Curtis Granderson, no Mark Teixeira, no Alex Rodriguez, no Derek Jeter ... and the Yankees are 15-9 and lead the AL in home runs. Robinson Cano has seven but Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells, acquired off the scrap heap pile known as "former stars," have each hit six. Meanwhile, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda and Mariano Rivera continue to drink from that special supply of Hudson River water fed into the Yankee Stadium home clubhouse fountain of youth. The Yankees are, dare we say, a good story.

Baltimore Orioles: A. The O's suffered a tough loss on Sunday, but they're 15-10, and there's no crazy record in one-run games going on this year; the Orioles are 4-5 in such contests. The Orioles also have played well through what looked like a tough early slate: six against the Rays plus series against the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers and Twins. The offense is second to Oakland in runs scored with Davis (and his 28 RBIs) and Adam Jones leading the way.

Chris Davis, Orioles: A+. Has a good case as the AL MVP for April, which is nice but merely means: Prove it over the next five months.

Toronto Blue Jays: F. Yes, Jose Reyes went down early, but that alone isn't an excuse for a team that has been outscored by 35 runs. They've been awful in every phase of the game, and last week there was a game where John Gibbons hit Rajai Davis and Munenori Kawasaki 1-2. Embarrassing. The Blue Jays are 9-17, a good reminder that April games matter just as much as games in September. The worst April record of last year's playoff teams was the A's at 11-13, so it's possible to recover from a slow start. But ask the Angels how hard it is to recover from a terrible start.

Melky Cabrera, Blue Jays: F. The Jays were hoping there were getting 2011-12 Melky. Instead, they're getting the Melky (no homers, OPS under .600 so far) that Braves fans booed out of town in 2010. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances here with Cabrera's positive PED test last August. Did the PEDs help that much? Is he pressing? Just a slow start? Stay tuned.

Arte Moreno's pocketbook: D. On the heels of last year's mixed-review signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson comes Josh Hamilton, who is hitting .219 with two home runs. The Angels just lost three of four to the dreadful Mariners and you can't just blame the rotation: They scored three runs in the three losses.

Mike Trout, Angels: C+. Trout is hitting .263/.330/.424 with two home runs, and people are already screaming sophomore slump. Come on. Look deeper and you'll see the strikeout and walk rates are basically the same as last year; he has eight doubles and his line-drive rate is higher. He'll be fine.

Yu Darvish, Rangers: A-. He had the near-perfect game and opponents are hitting just .165 off him with no home runs. So why only an A-? Well, he has faced the Mariners and Astros in three of his five starts (and the struggling Angels in his other two), so before declaring him the best pitcher in the AL, let's see him face some of the league's better offenses. I mean, he might be the best pitcher in AL, but I want to see him shut down the A's or the Red Sox or the Tigers before making that declaration.

Kansas City Royals: B+. The pitching has been outstanding with James Shields as advertised (although poor run support means he's just 1-2 despite his 3.09 ERA) and Ervin Santana (3-1, 2.00 ERA), with a nifty 31/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Yes, Royals fans have forgotten about Jonathan Sanchez and Will Smith. The bad news is Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas haven't hit (no home runs).

Rick Ankiel, Astros: C-. On one hand, he has five home runs and 11 RBIs. On the other, he had 29 strikeouts and one walk in 50 plate appearances, meaning he's fanned in nearly 60 percent of his PAs. Baseball in 2013, everyone!

Jeff Keppinger, White Sox: F. Owner of my favorite batting lines so far: He's hitting .202 but his on-base percentage is .198.

Vernon Wells, Yankees: A. Leads AL outfielders in WAR! Better WAR than Trout, Hamilton and Peter Bourjos combined! You can't predict baseball.

Matt Moore, Rays: A-. With Cy Young winner David Price struggling and just capturing his first win, Moore has held the Tampa staff together with his 5-0, 1.13 ERA mark. Opponents are hitting just .113, a figure obviously unsustainable, so I'd still like to see Moore cut his walk rate. But boy, is he fun to watch.

Weather: F. The Minnesota Twins might have to schedule some tripleheaders in July.