Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Contenders' lineups, from best to worst
By Jerry Crasnick
Power pitching wins in October, and with the playoffs fast approaching, everyone is obsessed with starting rotations. Will the Yankees find an effective complement of starters to slot in behind CC Sabathia? How tough are the Phillies going to be with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt in a five- or seven-game series? Can Cliff Lee put his back problems behind him and return to form in time to take the Texas Rangers deep into October?
In this week's installment of Starting 9, we pause from our regularly scheduled programming to turn the focus to hitters.
ESPN.com talked to a dozen executives, scouts and players and asked them to assess the lineups of teams in serious playoff contention. Since 11 clubs still have a shot (if you leave out the St. Louis Cardinals), we had to get a little creative to squeeze them all into the discussion.
What factors come into play? We considered a team's performance this season, its track record, lineup balance, power, speed, health and ability to manufacture runs, along with postseason experience.
"Balance is important, but you have to have guys with the ability to hit quality pitching," said a National League GM. "The lineups that have more of those guys have the better chance."
Which teams are best positioned to slug their way through October? Here's our list, from best to worst:
Robinson Cano is at or near the top of everybody's MVP list. Alex Rodriguez, who is supposedly having an "off" year, has 100 RBIs in 115 games. Mark Teixeira was dreadful in April and is hitting .125 in late-inning pressure situations, but he still has 30 homers and a .505 slugging percentage. And while Derek Jeter is putting up the worst numbers of his career, he has 637 postseason plate appearances to fall back on in October.
The Yankees have power, patience, switch-hitters and enough pockets of speed to score without benefit of the home run. Lance Berkman gives them another disciplined bat in October, and Marcus Thames has provided some big, timely hits from the right side.
Brett Gardner's 40 stolen bases are impressive, but he also leads the majors -- by a wide margin -- with 4.62 pitches per plate appearance. Manager Joe Girardi has the option of hitting him first, second, eighth or ninth.
The quintessential Yankees game came on Aug. 11, when New York rallied from a 6-1 deficit to beat Cliff Lee and the Rangers, 7-6. The Yankees struck out 17 times. But they also worked Lee and six Texas relievers for a staggering 90 pitches in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Joe West may not care for the approach, but the Yankees are absolutely relentless at fouling off pitches, eyeballing pitches on the black and making opposing staffs work.
"They grind you down, and they get the calls because of their reputation," said an AL scout. "Every borderline 2-1 pitch that Jeter or Teixeira or [Nick] Swisher take, they're getting it. Even when they don't score, it can take 15 minutes to get through a half-inning."
Toronto's Ricky Romero, who threw a 118-pitch complete game against the Yankees in August, thinks pitchers who are intimidated by the Yankees' big reputations are destined for failure.
"If you make your pitches against good teams and pitch down in the zone and make them swing the bat, you get outs," Romero said. "You go right after them. If you nibble here and there and fall behind in the count, they'll make you pay. It doesn't matter if it's the Yankees or any team. They'll make you pay in this league."
It's not a good sign when your best player and resident MVP candidate says his ribs hurt so badly he feels as if he's been in a "car wreck." Texas has a big enough cushion in the AL West that manager Ron Washington has the luxury of resting Josh Hamilton down the stretch. But given the nature of Hamilton's injury, will two weeks on the shelf really make a difference?
"Look at [Jacoby] Ellsbury," said a scout. "You just don't know with that injury. I wouldn't say it's a gimme."
Michael Young, Hamilton, Vladimir Guerrero, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler are a challenge for opposing pitchers in the 2-6 spots in the Texas order. No offense to David Murphy, but the Rangers are a much stronger aggregate when he's batting sixth or seventh instead of third in the lineup.
Texas is mediocre against left-handed pitching, and Jorge Cantu has failed to provide the desired boost since his arrival from Florida. He has 61 at-bats with no RBIs as a Ranger. Now Jeff Francoeur gets a chance to contribute as a righty bat off the bench.
One thing the Rangers don't do very well is work counts and draw walks. Elvis Andrus leads the team with 58 bases on balls -- 43rd most in the majors. If you already knew that, feel free to collect your Nolan Ryan bobblehead at the door.
The Twins lead the majors with a .279 batting average and rank among the top five in doubles, triples and runs scored. Just imagine where they might be if: (a) they didn't play in the toughest home run park in the majors this season; and (b) they hadn't lost first baseman Justin Morneau to a concussion in early July.
The Twins have survived Morneau's absence because Joe Mauer went on a tear after the All-Star Game, Delmon Young emerged as the hitter everyone hoped he would be, Jim Thome caught a second wind at age 40 and rookie Danny Valencia settled in nicely at third base. But Morneau, a lefty hitter, was batting .343 with a .620 slugging percentage against left-handed starters this season. His absence will be felt in October when the Twins encounter the CC Sabathias, David Prices and Cliff Lees of the world.
"That's a big dagger," said Toronto catcher John Buck. "He's one of those special, superstar, freak hitters, so anybody is going to feel that."
Manager Ron Gardenhire isn't as sacrifice-bunt happy this year as in recent seasons. But the Twins place a premium on productive outs, running the bases aggressively and doing the other little things that generate high-fives in the dugout.
"They're going to go first-to-third on that ball to right," said an AL scout. "They're going to get the runner over. And if a ball is in the dirt, they're moving up on everything. In a close game, they can find a way to manufacture runs and figure out a way to win."
It's an understatement to say things haven't gone according to plan for the Phillies' offense this season. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Placido Polanco have missed about 150 games because of injuries. Rollins and Shane Victorino, Philadelphia's switch-hitters, are batting a combined .228 from the left side. And Jayson Werth, Philadelphia's big right-handed power bat, has two home runs in 141 at-bats against left-handed pitchers.
The Phillies fired hitting coach Milt Thompson in late July and replaced him with Greg Gross, but they're still exasperating to watch at times. Since Utley and Howard returned from injuries three weeks ago, the Phillies' losses have come by scores of 8-1, 3-2, 4-2, 3-2, 5-1, 3-0, 6-2 and 7-1. Too many nights they look like a team that thinks it can turn on the switch at a moment's notice.
"Guys have been out for extended periods of time, and they sort of have to go through the whole spring training thing again," Gross said. "Now they're all starting to be healthy, and they're not going to be as physically tired as they've been in the past. If they get their timing back, that helps. If they don't start swinging the bats, it won't help. It always comes down to who gets hot at the right time in the final month."
Of course, if the real Phillies show up, they could climb this list in a hurry. Utley, Howard & Co. have shown the ability to compete against elite pitching when the at-bats matter most.
Two years ago, when the Phillies won the World Series, they ranked fourth in the majors with 136 stolen bases. This year they're 15th with only 82 steals. Barring a sudden spurt of adventurousness on the basepaths, they won't be doing as much damage with their legs in October.
The Reds, 11th in the National League in runs scored and 13th in OPS a year ago, have been the most consistently productive lineup in the NL this season. They lead the league in runs, hits, total bases, batting average and slugging. They are also tied for the major league lead with a .283 batting average with runners in scoring position. And they've scored 339 runs on the road -- second most in the majors -- so they're not just a Great American Ball Park creation.
Everything revolves around MVP candidate Joey Votto, but there aren't a lot of dead spots in the lineup. Manager Dusty Baker has done a nice job of resting Scott Rolen to keep him productive and fresh. Jonny Gomes is a weapon against lefties, and Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs and Chris Heisey bring power and youthful energy to the outfield mix.
Brandon Phillips has 16 homers, but his swing and approach can get too big for the leadoff spot, and he's probably better suited for a run production spot further down the order. Phillips has a .308 on-base percentage since the All-Star break.
"Other than maybe Votto, they don't have top-of-the-line guys like the Yankees or Rangers do," said an AL scout. "But nobody is an easy out in that lineup. They seem to know what they are and they approach their jobs accordingly. They're a pretty consistent group."
Remember when the White Sox were a station-to-station team that thrived on banging the ball around at U.S. Cellular Field? This club has a slightly different look. Juan Pierre and Alex Rios have combined for 86 stolen bases, and the White Sox rank second in the majors with 134 steals. On the other hand, they're not the most discerning group: The Sox rank 26th among the 30 big league clubs with a 66 percent success rate.
Chicago also uses the hit-by-pitch as a weapon better than any team in the American League. Pierre and Carlos Quentin have been plunked a league-leading 18 times each, and no one else in the AL comes close.
Paul Konerko should finish among the top five in MVP voting, and the White Sox have the fourth-highest OPS in the majors since the All-Star break. They also have the 29th-highest strikeout total in the game, so they're adept at putting the ball in play.
Now for the big question: How much of an impact will Manny Ramirez have down the stretch? The White Sox are 7-1 since GM Kenny Williams acquired Ramirez from the Dodgers, and they're playing inspired ball. Even if Ramirez's power has waned, he still knows how to work a count and put together a high-quality at-bat.
That said, most scouts expect him to be more of a complementary piece than an offensive focal point the rest of the way. Manny is 38 now, and teams aren't afraid to pound him with high fastballs and take their chances.
"He has enough veteran players and good hitters around him that he might pick it up a little bit, but his bat speed isn't what it once was," said an AL executive. "He's a smart enough hitter to make adjustments, but I just don't think he'll be much of a factor. I think he's more problems than he's worth at this point."
The Rays rank third in the American League in runs, but the offense has been spotty since the team's 17-6 April. Lots of nights, Tampa Bay wins behind reliable starting pitching, terrific defense, timely hitting and lockdown relief from Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano.
Fun fact: Since the All-Star break, the White Sox lead the majors with 527 hits. Tampa Bay ranks 28th with 395 hits -- one fewer hit than the Seattle Mariners. But the Rays have scored 98 more runs than Seattle in that stretch. They might be the most resourceful offensive team in baseball.
Evan Longoria has 21 homers and 43 doubles, but he hit .234 during a 50-game span from June into August. Carlos Pena still looks like a guy who's pressing in his free-agent year, and Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett and B.J. Upton are muddling along slightly above or below the .700 OPS mark. Tampa Bay has only 12 home runs from the DH spot, and manager Joe Maddon is hoping that Brad Hawpe and Rocco Baldelli can provide a late pick-me-up there.
Carl Crawford and Upton have combined for 81 stolen bases, and Zobrist, Longoria, Sean Rodriguez and Bartlett are also in double figures in steals. The Rays can prey on teams that are vulnerable to the running game.
"They can score runs more than one way," said a National League scout. "They don't need power. Their speed allows them to move runners along and do the little things. Plus, Joe has a vivid imagination of how to create and score runs. He doesn't live by one rule."
Jason Heyward might be the rookie of the year front-runner, Martin Prado and Omar Infante could both finish among the top five in the NL in hitting, and Brian McCann is the second-best offensive catcher of his generation. But the Atlanta lineup lacks a Votto, a Hamilton or a Howard -- a bona fide "aircraft carrier."
Chipper Jones was starting to show signs of life when he went down for the year with a knee injury. If the Braves make the postseason, his absence could have an impact on McCann, whose .873 OPS is best among MLB catchers. (Yes, even Joe Mauer.)
"I would view that team differently now if I were advancing them," said an American League scout. "McCann has always been good, but Chipper made him a little bit better. I think you can pitch around him a little more easily now."
All that late-inning, Bobby Cox-inspired magic helps mask a lot of deficiencies. The Braves don't steal bases, they're 19th in the majors in home runs, and their lineup is predominantly left-handed. That accentuates the need for some right-handed power production by Derrek Lee and/or Troy Glaus down the stretch. Lee is 13-for-57 with no home runs since the Braves acquired him from the Cubs at the trade deadline.
"I think the big challenge for both of those guys has to be hard stuff," the AL scout said. "They've lost a little tick of bat speed, and it's noticeable. They still can hit out of smarts, and if they get ahead in the count, they can cheat a little bit. But they're both challenged against really good power stuff."
The NL West triplets
Since we have only nine spots and 11 teams to consider, we're throwing the three NL West teams in together. From best to worst:
• Colorado Rockies: Carlos Gonzalez has been a monster, but he has a 1.241 OPS at Coors Field compared with .760 in away games. Several of his fellow Rockies have a similar problem, which helps explain why Colorado is 45-22 at home and 29-42 on the road. The Rockies play the Dodgers and Giants at home before closing out the season in St. Louis, so it could be a fun finish in Denver if they manage to stay close.
• San Francisco Giants: Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres and Juan Uribe have been godsends, and rookie Buster Posey is doing an admirable job of producing at the plate while handling a pitching staff in a pennant race. But Pablo Sandoval has never gotten on a roll, and hoarding outfielders is a novel strategy for a team trying to upgrade its offense. The Giants are 20th in the majors in walks and last with 48 stolen bases. Can you say "station-to-station"?
• San Diego Padres: Adrian Gonzalez ranks third in the majors behind Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera with 24 intentional walks. The big surprise is that he doesn't have more. GM Jed Hoyer did his best to upgrade the lineup with deadline deals for Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick, but the Padres hit .216 and scored a total of 23 runs during their recent 10-game losing streak.
"They've done a good job of situational hitting and producing with men on base, but I just don't know if they can get away with it in October," said a National League GM.
The way things have gone lately, the Padres would be happy to survive September. They'll take their chances with October.
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.