Archive for August, 2010

Five Worst Managing Decisions of 2010

Being the manager of a major league baseball club is an interesting job, because while the general manager selects the players, there are only a few moments when a major league manager can show his stuff. When he fills out the lineup card, a manager makes his most indelible stamp on the game. In a similar vein, his bullpen usage also provides a record that we can follow. In these moments, we are provided a window into the manager’s way of thinking. We know which players he thinks are currently his best options. With these facts in mind, and inspired by Jerry Crasnick’s look at managers on the hot seat, let’s look at the five worst managerial decisions this year.

5) Mike Scioscia shuns Mike Napoli
Some managers make poor decisions but slide by, perhaps by the grace of their resume. Angels manager Mike Scioscia has consistently run out Jeff Mathis at catcher over Mike Napoli to the frustration of fantasy baseball players alone it seems. This was a curious decision given Napoli’s eminently useful batting line (.249/.317/.478) versus the one Mathis has been showing (.196/.218/.294), but catcher defense is notoriously hard to put a number on, so the decision could be justified to a degree. The situation got a little more ridiculous, though, when Kendry Morales went down for the season and Scioscia cited Napoli’s performance with runners on base — which came in an extremely small sample size — as the reason he wasn’t getting regular at-bats at first base. Now even Juan Rivera, who has never played first base in his life and has a .249/.301/.403 line that doesn’t stand up to Napoli’s, is getting time at the position.

4) Tony La Russa buries Colby Rasmus
In St. Louis, manager emeritus Tony La Russa has made some interesting decisions over the years, and many have been lauded by the statistical community. Hitting pitchers eighth can actually benefit a team in a very small way. But playing inferior players over young stud Colby Rasmus — that decision seems borderline petty. By his comments to the media, La Russa seems to be trying to get Rasmus to hit the ball the other way, when Rasmus is showing great pull power as it is. Just look at Cito Gaston — who hasn’t complained that every single one of Jose Bautista’s 43 home runs has been pulled — for comparison. La Russa has consistently shown an aversion to playing Rasmus, who has started only 93 of the club’s 138 games, but the outfielder has turned in an impressive .268/.352/.501 line with great defense, despite the lack of confidence from his manager.

3) Don Wakamatsu goes gaga for Griffey
More often, when the manager gets it wrong, he’s sure to hear about it. Mariners fans were in disbelief when Ken Griffey, Jr. was penciled in as the starting DH most of the year when Michael Saunders could easily have pushed Milton Bradley to DH and provided excellent defense and more offense than the aging star. Here we are, three months later, and Griffey is no longer on the team, Bradley has undergone knee surgery after one of his worst years, and the Mariners’ DH position has put up the worst batting line in the American League (.187/.261/.328). In fact, that’s not far off of the combined line for pitchers in the National League (.105/.134/.120). Hyperbole aside, this was the kind of move that could get a manager fired, and Don Wakamatsu was indeed axed.

2) and 1) Jerry Manuel embraces Frenchy and Fernando
Finally, we come to one manager that may have achieved the double-whammy. Jerry Manuel is beginning to feel the heat in New York, and for good reason. For a good portion of the season, Manuel used Fernando Nieve as his setup man. He really liked Nieve, using him so often he was once on pace for close to 80 innings. It wasn’t until Nieve had made 40 appearances and his ERA reached 6.00 that he was banished to the minors. Young fireballer Bobby Parnell would have been a better option — but perhaps we can blame Omar Minaya for leaving Parnell in the minor leagues for so long.

On the other hand, Manuel squarely gets the blame for one of his lineup decisions. Jeff Francoeur has his uses — against left-handers he’s a decent option, which is apparently why the Rangers traded for him last night, and of course he owns that golden arm. But Manuel ran him out there for over 440 plate appearances, in which Frenchy racked up exactly zero WAR by hacking away at any pitch that didn’t hit the dirt. In about 300 fewer plate appearances, Francoeur’s backup, Chris Carter, has managed to rack up 0.2 WAR by walking more, striking out less and showing just about as much power. If Manuel leaves New York, it won’t all be Omar Minaya’s fault.

Sometimes a manager gets it right and usually receives little fanfare. For instance, Joe Girardi has run Brett Gardner out there in left field despite an up-and-down major league resume before this season. All Gardner has done is shown himself to be the second-most valuable Yankee by wins above replacement (WAR). He’s done this by providing a spark plug on top of the lineup — stealing 37 bases efficiently and walking over 13 percent of the time — and also by playing great defense in center and left.

Life After Berkman and Oswalt

Clearly, the Houston Astros believe it’s time to start over. This summer, they dealt arguably their two most important players, Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, and they’re currently 15 games out of first place in the National League Central. They have a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs this season.

There’s a small problem with the rebuilding plan, though: their farm system isn’t exactly loaded. Keith Law had them ranked in the bottom three organizations in baseball in that regard last winter.

There’s a good chance that, in the next two seasons, Wandy Rodriguez, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn will join Oswalt and Berkman on their way out to make room for new blood — and Houston will have pick other players to build the franchise around. Can the core the Astros have already assembled lead them to the playoffs, or possibly a championship? It appears unlikely.

Jason Castro, C

Castro has advanced quickly through the Astros’ system, spending less than two years in the minor leagues; he’s known for his defensive abilities behind the plate, but his offensive potential is underwhelming. He batted .265 with four homers this year at Triple-A, and since being called up he’s posted a .568 OPS with an isolated power of .090. That’s weak. He’s only 23, but his glaring lack of pop makes it unlikely he’ll be more than a solid-average big leaguer.

Getty ImagesThe Astros need J.A. Happ to replicate his 2009 in Philly.

J.A. Happ, SP

The prized pig in the Roy Oswalt trade, Happ is hoping to right the ship that is his early career. After being an extreme control pitcher in prior years, Happ has struggled with getting the ball over the plate recently. (His BB/9 innings this year is 5.94, and that’s alarming.) Without any pitches that really fool batters, Happ won’t have a chance in the world if he can’t find his location again.

With his performance in 2009, Happ helped the Phillies get to the World Series, even if his season looked much better than it really was — his 2.93 ERA last year was fueled largely by an absurd .181 BABIP with runners in scoring position. The Astros are counting on Happ to replicate those 2009 numbers, and he probably never will.

Chris Johnson, 3B

Picked by Houston in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, Johnson has Astros fans drooling after his late-June call-up. Johnson has hit well over .300 since his promotion, but most of his success is built on a shaky foundation of a .411 BABIP. While in the majors, Johnson has been striking out more than the league average hitter (23.3 percent), while walking at a clip that is well below league average (4.2 percent). Without big-time power (career .429 slugging percentage in the minors), it is hard to make that skill set work.

Tommy Manzella, SS

Ever since he was selected in the third round by Houston in the 2005 draft, Manzella has had the reputation of being a slick fielder without much of a bat. He’s always flirted with hitting .300 in the minors, but overall wasn’t much with the bat due to a lack of power and a below-average walk rate. To his credit, Manzella kept a respectable strikeout rate throughout the minors, and even hit line drives at a decent rate.

During his brief big league stint this year, Manzella proved the scouts right when it came to the bat, putting up a wOBA of only .229. Manzella’s already 27, and he’s a utility infielder, at best.

Bud Norris, SP

Houston’s sixth-round pick in 2006, Norris has been impressive in the big leagues. Working with a mid-90s fastball and hard-breaking slider, Norris has struck out more than a batter an inning in just under 170 big league frames.

His control needs to improve a bit over the next few years, because 3.83 BB/9 is a tad high, but his ability to miss bats makes him a possible front-of-the-rotation starter.

Brett Wallace, 1B

Acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays at the deadline, Wallace has been a highly touted hitting prospect since his days at Arizona State. Wallace started out as a power-hitting third baseman, but had to be moved to the other corner due to defensive concerns.

No one ever expected Wallace to be a defensive whiz, but he was supposed to hit. Wallace, who’s 24, posted an .868 OPS at Triple-A Las Vegas this year, and while that looks good on the surface, Vegas is one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the minors, and that number isn’t that impressive for a prospect whose only skill is hitting. Since being promoted to Houston, Wallace has a .471 OPS and is striking out in a third of his plate appearances. If he doesn’t figure things out next year, he doesn’t have much value to a big league team.

The bottom line

You build championship teams through a combination of stars and role players — look at any recent World Series winner for documentation of this — and the Astros currently have the role players, but not the stars. GM Ed Wade is going to have to draft carefully for the next few years, or this rebuild will take a long time. He needs to develop a few star-caliber, quickly-rising-through-the-minors guys out of the draft to complement the players above.

The Stephen Strasburg Financial Fallout

The reality of the injury to Stephen Strasburg is obviously terrible news for the Washington Nationals — and will be felt at multiple levels of the organization.

It’s not often that a single player can be attributed to a surge in revenues for a club, but Strasburg was different; he was a player who had the collective focus of baseball fans before he ever set foot in the big leagues. What’s important here is that he wasn’t playing for the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox — he was playing for the Nationals, a team that was the Montreal Expos a little more than a half-decade ago.

His first two starts at Nationals Park were sellouts and attendance for his third home start — on June 23 against the Kansas City Royals (31,913) — was 39 percent higher than what the Nats had been drawing on average prior to his arrival. He immediately started paying dividends for a club in dire need of excitement; his debut alone apparently netted the Nationals $1.5 million in additional revenue.

His debut was also a ratings boon for MASN, the regional sports network of the Nationals; they set a viewership record for his debut by earning a 7.1 household rating — more than 165,000 households in the Washington region tuned in.

His economic value this season was also felt beyond the confines of Nationals Park. On the Thursday after Strasburg’s debut, TBS altered its programming for “Sunday MLB on TBS” to air Strasburg’s second start, at Progressive Field during interleague against the Cleveland Indians. As of Saturday June 12, the day before Strasburg’s scheduled second start, the Indians sold an additional 8,000 tickets to what the Indians were calling “Strasburg Sunday.” There was a merchandise stand, in Cleveland, dedicated entirely to a player on the Nats.

The loss of revenues this season will pale in comparison to 2011 — and perhaps even beyond. We can’t project exactly how much Strasburg was worth to baseball in D.C. — but when taking everything (merchandise, concessions, tickets, etc.) into account, it’s likely in the low tens of millions. And in addition to the loss of potential ticket and TV revenue, the Nats will be paying Strasburg $5 million next year (his salary plus a portion of his signing bonus) to rehab.

The feel-good announcement just 10 days ago that the Nats signed Bryce Harper to a $9.9 million, five-year contract will be tempered with the knowledge that the four-year, $15.1 million deal for Strasburg has the capacity to go from boon to bust. After all, who knows whether he will be the Strasburg that showed electric stuff or a watered down version of his former self when he comes back.

The financial implications of Strasburg’s injury are likely to be felt well beyond the reaches of the Nationals. Shortly after the World Series is completed, collective bargaining sessions will begin, as the current CBA is set to expire in mid-December of 2011. A hard slotting system for amateur draft bonuses has been mentioned as something the league would like to see, and the Strasburg contract, and now injury, play into management’s hands. It’s a tough pill to swallow when you give an unproven prospect $15 million and he misses an entire season, which is surely an argument that owners will make. And remember, the 2011 season will count as service time for Strasburg, so even if he returns to form in 2012, the Nationals are losing one of his cost-controlled seasons.

Overall, 1,971 days after the first batter in Nationals history (Brad Wilkerson), it’s a dark day for baseball in Washington — and many more may be coming.

The Don Cooper Program

When you watch the White Sox play, you are apt to see things like Juan Pierre leading off, Mark Kotsay at DH and Omar Vizquel at third base, and yet Chicago has continued to play winning baseball despite some curious lineup changes and some offensive black holes and sits 4½ games behind the Twins in the AL Central. The Sox’s secret weapon? Don Cooper, perhaps the most underrated pitching coach in the game.

Everyone has heard about Dave Duncan’s prowess for fixing pitchers in St. Louis, and Leo Mazzone got a lot of credit for the Braves’ epic run during the 1990s, but Cooper has flown under the radar as a pitching guru. However, he’s been instrumental in helping the White Sox get top-notch performances out of guys who were deemed not good enough for another major league organization. In fact, the cast-off label could be applied to nearly every member of the White Sox’s bullpen.

Bobby Jenks was claimed off waivers after the 2004 season, in which he had posted a 10.24 ERA in the minor leagues. In 2005, with some mechanical adjustments from Cooper, Jenks was throwing strikes and blowing away major league hitters. He took over as the White Sox closer in 2006 and has been one of the game’s best ninth-inning stoppers since, posting 8.5 wins above replacement in his career.

He isn’t even Cooper’s biggest success story, however. That would be Matt Thornton, the game’s premier left-handed reliever. The White Sox picked him up in the spring of 2006, sending busted prospect Joe Borchard to Seattle to acquire him. Thornton threw hard, but that was the only thing he could do. His command was dreadful, he didn’t have any good off-speed stuff and hitters would just wait for Thornton to fall behind in the count before sitting on his fastball.

Another mechanical tweak from Cooper and Thornton immediately cut his walk rate nearly in half in 2006, going from 6.6 BB/9 to 3.5 BB/9. He’s continued to improve his command while in Chicago and has actually seen his strikeout rate increase every year since joining the White Sox. Over the last three years, Thornton has an xFIP of 2.75, just behind some guy named Mariano Rivera for the best mark of any AL reliever.

Cooper has continued to work his magic this season, helping get J.J. Putz back on track after a disastrous stint with the Mets, as well as getting high-quality performances out of rookie Sergio Santos, a converted infielder who began the season with just 29 innings pitched in his professional career. Even though it is a collection of guys that no one wanted, the White Sox once again have the best bullpen in the AL.

Cooper doesn’t just specialize in relievers. The White Sox’s rotation also shows just how much the organization has benefited from their pitching coach.

When the White Sox acquired Gavin Floyd from the Phillies before the 2007 season, he had a 6.96 ERA in the big leagues and had shown little of the stuff that had made him a good minor league prospect. His K/BB ratio was a terrible 75/64 in 108 major league innings and he’d given up an alarming 20 home runs. He was basically a two-pitch guy, relying mainly on his fastball/curveball combination, and hitters had no problem teeing off on both.

Once arriving in Chicago, Cooper persuaded Floyd to start throwing a slider, which has become his more frequently used breaking ball and has allowed him to significantly cut back on fastballs. His ability to mix pitches and keep hitters off balance paid off immediately, as he also cut his walk rate dramatically upon joining the White Sox, and he has continued to improve each year he’s been a member of the staff. This year, he’s even added more groundballs to the mix while maintaining his excellent K/BB ratio.

Cooper’s influence can also be seen in Freddy Garcia, whom the team picked up off the scrap heap after years of injuries and has given the team effective innings at the back of the rotation. And, while it’s only a handful of starts, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Edwin Jackson is throwing his best baseball of the season since being traded to Chicago. Cooper has spent years fixing pitchers like Jackson.

Since Cooper took over as Chicago’s pitching coach midway through the 2002 season, the team has consistently had one of the best pitching staffs in the league in spite of playing in a park that is one of the best places for hitters in all of baseball. By rehabilitating arms that were discarded by other organizations, the White Sox have been able to build quality pitching staffs without expending a lot of resources. The work Cooper has done in Chicago should not go unnoticed.

It’s Not All about Justin Morneau

After Justin Morneau went down on July 7, the Minnesota Twins immediately dropped four of five games. They were 1½ games back in the AL Central on that date and were struggling against the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers.

More than a month later, things have changed. The Twins have surged of late — even taking it to the White Sox in a head-to-head series — and now have an 83 percent chance of making the playoffs.

How will the “dog days” play out for the Twins? Let’s take a look.

Scoring runs consistently without Morneau had seemed nearly impossible just two months ago. The Canadian first baseman has put up 5.2 WAR in just 81 games in 2010 thanks to a fantastic .447 wOBA, the best of any hitter in baseball. Without Morneau in the lineup, a big issue was protection: Wouldn’t the other hitters falter if pitchers knew the first baseman wasn’t there?

Actually, the biggest contributor to the Twins’ lineup in Morneau’s absence has been the guy who most thought would suffer greatest: Joe Mauer. The catcher, who got off to a slow start relative to his 2009 MVP season, hit .344/.392/.570 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in July, good for a .411 wOBA. He didn’t let up in August and has even outperformed his July pace; he’s hitting .422/.530/.594 for the month, numbers that make even his 2009 campaign look mundane in comparison. Although he doesn’t have the same protection, he’s hitting for more power than when Morneau was intimidating the pitcher from the on-deck circle. Mauer’s success in the Morneau’s absence should further dent the idea of lineup protection. Many studies have shown the phenomenon does not exist, and the anecdotal evidence here suggests the same.

We can’t overlook the production of Jim Thome, either. The slugger ravaged the AL Central while with the Indians early in his career and the White Sox as recently as last season, and he has been flat-out incredible for the Twins as of late. The designated hitter is batting a Ruthian .333/.426/.769 (.490 wOBA) in August with a homer/fly-ball rate of 40 percent.

Also picking up the slack is shortstop J.J. Hardy. Coming into 2010, Hardy really could have used a bounce-back season. After putting up WARs of 4.4 and 4.9, respectively, in 2007 and 2008, Hardy struggled with a measly 1.4 WAR in 2009 and was promptly traded from the Brewers to the Twins. After starting this season looking no different than last year, Hardy has finally turned it up during the past two months. The shortstop hit .351/.377/.486 in 21 July games and for August has a respectable .321 wOBA.

Orlando Hudson has been another major part of the team’s offensive success during the past month. Although he hit a rather pedestrian .276/.353/.368 in July, the smooth-handed switch-hitter has hit .298/.382/.532 in August.

Although some may look to give outfielder Delmon Young the lion’s share of the credit for the Twins’ offensive success, even mentioning him as a possible MVP candidate, the reality is that he hasn’t been all that great since Morneau went down and the Twins’ offense took off. His .319/.345/.500 line isn’t bad, but he hasn’t been the one driving this offense forward. For example, rookie third baseman Danny Valencia has been just about as productive. Don’t buy into the Young-for-MVP hype; it’s been a total team effort, with several other players taking a more prominent role in the second-half surge.

Minnesota’s offensive performance also serves as a reminder not to overstate the importance of any one player; no one had played better in the first half than the Twins’ first baseman, yet removing him from the lineup has not affected them in the slightest. You’ll hear frequent clichés about one player carrying a team down the stretch, but nobody can do much on his own, and no team will have its season decided by the influence of just one man.

Returning Stars Heat up Playoff Races

With the trade deadline long passed and the waiver process being complicated, and occasionally inaccessible, due to overzealous rivals, teams must look for alternative avenues of upgrading their roster for the stretch run. Sometimes those improvements come in the way of a farm system producing talent and other times an upgrade is as simple as getting an injured player back. This week in particular is full of the latter for four teams battling for playoff positioning. And in some cases, it’s remarkable that these clubs were able to survive without their stars.

Carlos Pena returned to the Tampa Bay Rays’ lineup Monday night and played a pivotal role in their comeback against Cliff Lee. Pena had missed 15 games thanks to a plantar fascia sprain in his foot. In his stead, the Rays used a combination of players at first base, but mostly relied on Dan Johnson. The former Oakland Athletics first baseman hit 30 home runs in 98 Triple-A games this season before earning a long-awaited promotion. Johnson didn’t record too many hits during Pena’s absence — as a .111 batting average reflects — but he got on base 39 percent of the time and showed some defensive skills, as well; the power he showed in Triple-A did not translate over, though, and that might be the biggest upgrade Pena offers.

The Rays don’t hit many home runs, but when they do, Pena is usually one of the few hitting them. ZiPS has him pegged for nine more over the stretch of the season, which would give him his fourth consecutive season with 30 or more homers and set him up well heading into free agency. Assuming that Pena and Johnson are about equal with the glove and on the basepaths, the man they call “Los” should be worth at least a half-win more to the Rays than Johnson would be over the remainder of the season. That does not mean Johnson will ride the bench with Pena’s return; he’s slated to become the Rays’ designated hitter against right-handed pitching.

Dustin Pedroia and Chase Utley returned Tuesday night. These two could pass as the best second basemen in the league in any given year, so you can only imagine how much their teams missed them.

Given Pedroia’s small stature, it’s pretty tough for human beings of normal height to stand in his shoes comfortably. Unfortunately for Boston, nobody the Red Sox ran out at second base could fill his metaphorical batting shoes, either. Boston’s fill-ins combined to hit .255/.328/.466, which isn’t half bad, but comes up short when compared to Pedroia’s career .305/.370/.461 mark, or even his 2010 season line of .292/.370/.502. Factor in Pedroia’s usually outstanding defense, and he’s likely worth a little more than a win upgrade over the final part of the season. That might keep Boston’s playoff hopes alive a week longer into the season, but make no mistake, they are heavy underdogs without the services of Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury.

As for Utley, who tore a thumb ligament in late June, his return came weeks earlier than previously expected. The word around the Phillies had been September all along, but few complained when Utley took the field ahead of schedule. The back-to-back National League champions made due with Wilson Valdez playing second. Valdez’s hitting left something to be desired, as his on-base percentage failed to top .300 and his slugging sat below .350. While not quite the infamous Mario Mendoza, Wilson was pretty close to replacement level, meaning Utley on a torrid streak could produce a two-win upgrade. That could easily swing the balance in the NL East and wild-card races.

Utley and Pedroia weren’t the only fantastic second basemen to make their return this week either, as Martin Prado reappeared for the Braves. Prado’s pinkie injury kept him out for more than two weeks and came days after Chipper Jones suffered a season-ending injury of his own. With All-Star Omar Infante playing second base, Prado could shift to third base for the remainder of the season, where he played during part of his rehab assignment. Brooks Conrad has probably the most memorable hit of the season for Atlanta, but Prado should be worth at least a win over him.

However, that is not the only equation that needs consideration. Jones hit .265/.381/.426 this season while Prado hit .315/.357/.484 before heading to the disabled list. That isn’t the real question, though, as it’s Infante, not Prado, who now becomes a regular. Infante is hitting .339/.368/.416 and his ZiPS projection calls for a .310/.353/.393 line. Even if he continues hitting at a career-best rate like he has to date, Infante is a downgrade from Jones offensively. That’s without attempting to analyze whether Prado will be a defensive downgrade. The Braves are losing about a half a win with the bats and maybe a little more with the gloves. Atlanta is obviously conscious of this, and the Braves traded for Derrek Lee yesterday to try and compensate. He’ll be an upgrade over the slumping Troy Glaus.

Saving the biggest for last, Utley’s teammate Ryan Howard will return this weekend. To say Philly has missed the big man is an understatement. Mike Sweeney might be the nicest man in baseball, but he hit .261/.320/.261 while his platoon partner Ross Gload carried the pair with an OPS over 1.000 and two home runs. The pair split playing time nearly 50-50, meaning the result was an average hitting first baseman. Much like Pena, Howard should represent about a one-win upgrade over what those two were producing heading forward. Maybe more if he goes on one of his patented second-half hot streaks.

The Braves entered Tuesday night with a 2½ game lead over the Phillies. These comings and goings shake out to the Phillies roughly making up two to three games on the Braves if all else holds equal, meaning they should be extremely close down to the wire. So close that the deciding factor very well could present itself as the victor of the remaining six head-to-head games, which includes a three-game series to end the season in Atlanta.

Atlanta Braves Remain NL East Faves

At the end of April, the situation for the Atlanta Braves looked bleak. After defeating the Philadelphia Phillies on April 20, the Braves were tied atop the NL East, but they promptly lost nine games in a row to fall five back in a division occupied by the two-time defending NL champs.

By the end of May, though, the Braves came back to lead the division, and they still do. They have a roughly 88 percent chance of making the playoffs. Even if the Phillies overtake them, they would lead the wild-card race, and at this point, with injured third baseman Chipper Jones out for the season, they’d take a bid any way they can get it.

The Braves’ remaining schedule certainly helps their outlook. Only 12 of their remaining 44 games are against teams with a .500-or-better record; six of those come against the Phillies, including the final series of the season. The St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies are their only other opponents with winning records; the rest of their schedule includes nine each against the Florida Marlins and Washington Nationals and six against the New York Mets.

Since July 31, the Braves have been without Martin Prado, their breakout star; he ranks fifth among MLB second basemen in wOBA. The Braves have gone 9-6 in his absence, but four of those losses have been by one run, and Prado could have made a difference. He could be back soon, which will help the Braves cover for the loss of Jones. Although Jones was having a poor season by his standards, he still has the fourth-highest wOBA among Braves regulars. They will have to rely more on Omar Infante, who, All-Star or not, likely won’t sustain his current .344 wOBA when pressed into regular action.

Beyond injures, the Braves have plenty of offensive voids. In May and June it looked as though they had won their gamble on Troy Glaus, as he was back to producing at elite levels. But since then, his numbers have fallen hard (a .260 wOBA in July and just .306 so far in August). The outfield has had plenty of issues, too. Nate McLouth is currently in the minors trying to figure things out, leaving Melky Cabrera, who has a .310 wOBA, and Rick Ankiel, who has a .242 wOBA since being traded July 31 and a .309 wOBA this season. Even Jason Heyward has had his low points, including a .278 wOBA in August.

Although the pitching staff has stayed mostly healthy, the Braves lost a piece of their rotation when Kris Medlen left during the fifth inning of his Aug. 4 start with an elbow injury. He will undergo Tommy John surgery. The Braves will use Mike Minor, the team’s No. 4 preseason prospect, and Kenshin Kawakami could return to the majors if Minor doesn’t adjust well to big league life. Thankfully for the Braves, their top four starters are good enough to carry the team.

With the Phillies surging of late (and with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard about to come off the disabled list), the Braves’ outlook is a bit dim. Still, that shouldn’t discourage them very much. They have thrived on their pitching all season, and that unit remains largely intact.

The Braves have offensive options, too. They could look to the trade market for a first baseman; Lyle Overbay is one name that stands out. His season stats don’t look pretty, but he has been hitting better lately (.280 batting average/.363 on-base percentage/.517 slugging percentage since July 4). Or they could turn to Freddie Freeman, their No. 2 preseason prospect, who is hitting .311/.371/.516 in Triple-A at age 20. If the Braves wanted to make a serious gambit, they could put in a claim on Manny Ramirez once the Dodgers place him on waivers. That could give their offense a little extra punch.

Despite the injuries and offensive black holes, the Braves not only are in this thing but even have to be considered the favorites in the NL East because of their 2½-game lead. Even if they can’t hold off Philly, the wild card is still very much in play. If a roster move that can help the team presents itself, the front office should jump on it. The Braves aren’t locks to make the postseason, especially with a few Phillies returning from injuries, but it’s tough to write off a team that has been in first place for almost three months.

The (anti) Brian Giles Experiment

In 2009, the San Diego Padres finished with a 75-87 record, “good” for fourth in the National League West — or exactly 20 games behind the division-winning Los Angeles Dodgers. The Hot Stove League was lukewarm, at best, for the Padres; their biggest offseason splash was a one-year deal for a little more than $5 million for an innings-eating righty (Jon Garland) whose upside was/is as a third starter.

Then, their No. 1 prospect, Kyle Blanks — one of the more interesting parts on a team of otherwise low-ceiling players — strained his elbow in mid-May, has been out of commission since then and is now due for Tommy John surgery.

That’s a recipe for success, eh?

Apparently it is — the Padres are leading the NL West (although the San Francisco Giants are hanging right around the front now), and they have an 80 percent chance to make October ball.

So, can they keep this up?

The best way to look at what the Padres have remaining is to view it through the context of how they turned the ship around this year.

1. Excellent fielding
After finishing 2009 at 8.7 runs below average (per Ultimate Zone Rating) in the field, the Padres stand at a league-leading 44.5 runs above average — a swing of about 50 runs, or five wins. A number of caveats apply here, as fielding metrics are still in their infant stages and require a rather large sample to become reliable, but a couple of commonsense examples stand out.

Most notable among these is the departure of Brian Giles from right field. Although something like a league-average right fielder in his younger days, the late-30s version of Giles was a poor fit for Petco’s cavernous right field. His UZR of minus-8.3 there last year — in limited playing time, no less — supports the visual evidence. This year, however, right field has been occupied by three younger, more athletic players: Will Venable (570 innings, plus-3.5 UZR), Aaron Cunningham (124, plus-2.1), and Chris Denorfia (115, plus-1.7). Nor does the recent addition of Ryan Ludwick represent any kind of setback: The right fielder’s plus-7.9 career UZR/150 (that is, fielding runs above average per 150 games) suggests he’ll continue to pick up the slack left behind by Giles.

2. An even better bullpen
If former GM Kevin Towers was known for one thing, it was his ability to construct a bullpen from almost nothing. That skill was certainly on display last season, as Heath Bell ($1.26 million), Mike Adams ($415K) and Luke Gregerson ($400K) combined to form as fearsome a bullpen threesome as existed in the league.

This year, the Padres’ bullpen is even better. Bell, Adams and Gregerson are performing roughly the same as last year and — with the exception of Bell’s $2.75 milion raise — for roughly the same money. Additionally, innings that were given to the likes of Luis Perdomo [60 IP, 5.35 FIP (fielding-independent pitching)] and Greg Burke (45.2, 4.37) have been picked up by Ryan Webb (44.1, 3.02), Tim Stauffer (35.2, 2.77), and — more recently — Ernesto Frieri, who has a 19-to-3 K/BB ratio in 10.1 innings.

3. A league-average offense
It’s not exactly sexy, but relative to where their offense was last year (at approximately 30 runs below average), the Padres will take league-average run production.

Because of their home park, the Padres’ offensive stats will always look worse than they are. Even accounting for that, however, there’s little good one could say about Giles’ 2009 triple-slash (AVG/OBP/SLG) line of .191/.277/.271 in 254 PA or catcher Eliezer Alfonso’s .175/.197/.254 in 117 PA.

Padres right fielders batted .225/.288/.366 last year, but that same group has batted .254/.323/.439. And where Padres catchers — mostly Nick Hundley, Henry Blanco and the aforementioned Alfonzo — posted a line of .225/.291/.367 in 2009, that number, under the watch of Yorvit Torrealba and Hundley, has improved to .277/.347/.392.

Improvements in these three areas alone (fielding, bullpen and offensive improvement) represent about an 11-win improvement already over last year’s team — and that’s with 50 games remaining.

OK, so — can this be kept up through the first weekend of October?

There are three things to consider:

1. Base Runs standings
Yes, it sounds nerdy, but don’t be too scared: Base Runs is just a way of estimating how many runs a team should have scored (or allowed) given the events (hits, walks, home runs, etc.) that have occurred in their games. Using these estimated runs scored (and allowed) totals, we can project the amount of wins and losses a team is likely to have in the future.

If we do this for the Padres and Giants, we get projected winning percentages of .544 and .528, respectively. In other words, it’s not luck that the Pads are in first place; they’re justifiably there. (Note: The Rockies have a Base Runs winning percentage of .576, suggesting that they’ve actually been the best in the West. Unfortunately for them, with only 50 games remaining, their chances of closing the gap are low.)

Therefore, if we go merely on Base Runs, we’d say that the Padres look like division winners over the Giants by about three wins (93-69 versus 90-72).

2. Rest of season schedule
Per Base Runs standings, San Diego actually has a slightly easier schedule than the Giants for the rest of the season. Padres opponents have a weighted Base Runs winning percentage of .511, Giants opponents, .512. This also bodes well for San Diego’s chances — or, at least doesn’t hurt them.

3. The “true talent” question
One possible cause for concern in the Padres is that much of their improvement to date — about five wins of it — has been based off of runs saved in the field. As noted above, it’s hard to get any sort of solid grasp on a team’s level of true fielding talent over the course of just one season. In this case, the Padres are no exception. Yes, we can guess that — barring a snap decision to re-sign Giles and install him in center field — they’ll continue to be better than last year. What we don’t know is whether they’ll continue to be this good, league-leading good.

Really, this will be the important question for the Padres: Can they continue to flash the leather as they have to date? If the answer is yes, playoff baseball awaits them. If the answer is no, the Giants might have the talent (and/or luck) to close San Diego’s slim divisional lead.

Cliff Lee May Have Put AL West on Ice

Going into the season, the Texas Rangers were in turmoil. The team’s owner was bankrupt, the slow roll towards an auction was set in motion and adding salary did not seem to be an option. Most preseason indicators had the Los Angeles Angels winning the AL West — six division titles in a row will earn you some respect.

Perhaps everyone should have noticed what a nice, young core the Rangers had put together — Elvis Andrus, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz, among others.

Now, those same turmoil-laden Rangers have better than a 90 percent chance to make the playoffs.

Seems the only question left is: Can this be sustained?

Though the Rangers’ rotation had given up the fourth-fewest runs in 2009, there was a sense they couldn’t repeat that success. The 2009 starters were third-worst in the American League in both FIP (4.71) and strikeouts per nine (5.67). There were areas of concern among the individual pitchers: Scott Feldman hasn’t struck out five batters per nine innings for his career (the major league average has been close to seven recently), Rich Harden hasn’t stayed healthy his entire career, C.J. Wilson was coming out of the bullpen, Colby Lewis was coming from Japan — and the fifth spot was a crapshoot.

In 2010, the strikeouts are up (6.84 per nine), and the recent addition of Cliff Lee seems to have added an ace to a generally competent group of starters.

Wilson and Lewis in particular have stepped up to provide stability and a strong core. With five legitimate pitches, perhaps Wilson was always suited to starting. His velocity and strikeout rate have dipped in the move from the pen to the rotation, but his groundball rate is superb. Lewis discovered his control and his slider in Japan, and on the backs of those two developments has evolved into a strong No. 2 for the Rangers.

It’s still offense that drives this Rangers team. Their batters feature the league’s fifth-best wOBA and have scored the fourth-most runs in the American League. Beyond the streaking young position players mentioned previously, Vladimir Guerrero found the fountain of youth, Josh Hamilton recovered from his injuries and Michael Young is showing the second-best isolated power of his career.

Of their regulars, only Andrus, Julio Borbon and Jorge Cantu are below average offensively. Two of those guys play premium defensive positions well, which has kept their overall value in the positive all year. It’s a balanced team.

Their schedule is pretty favorable too: They’re 10-3 against the Seattle Mariners this year and have six left against them, while their final 43 games are against teams with an average winning percentage of .484.

In comparison, the Angels have a tough road to climb. If the Rangers slumped and played a game under .500 baseball from here on out (25-26), the Angels would have to go 33-18, or a .647 winning percentage. Not only is that a 105-win pace, but the Angels’ opponents from here on out will also feature an average record of .498.

Rest-of-schedule particularities aside, the Rangers have scored 33 more runs than the Angels and given up 83 fewer. They have a significant lead in wOBA (.334 to .317, where .324 is average) and are neck-and-neck in FIP (4.24 to 4.23, where 4.14 is average). They own an eight-game lead, just acquired a veteran ace and all the depth they need, and have 25 games left at home, where they play at a .631 pace.

Yeah, these guys look like a lock.

Kevin Youkilis Is Gone, But Hope Isn’t

The Boston Red Sox won their first game of the season 9-7 against the New York Yankees. As a result, their 1-0 record had them in first place in the American League East. They haven’t been in first place since.

They’ve been close — they were a half-game off the pace as recently as July 3 — but right now they are six games behind the Yankees and also looking up at the Tampa Bay Rays.

The latest playoff odds have them with a 23 percent chance of playing meaningful games in October.

So — can they get back into this race, even with all the injuries they’ve suffered?

There is still a remote chance that a team in the AL Central or West could capture the wild-card berth into the playoffs. Realistically though, it will come down to Boston, New York and Tampa to decide the AL East crown and wild-card winner.

The problem is, Boston is in the most perilous position of the division’s three top teams. It’s a position made all the tougher with the recent news that Kevin Youkilis will miss the remainder of the season after having surgery on his injured thumb.

The Red Sox entered the season with a different approach from previous years. Highlighted by the departure of Jason Bay, the front office made several moves designed to maximize the defensive assets of the club, which drew some criticism; the belief was that if you have money, why spend it on defense?

Playoffs or not, hopefully the success of the Red Sox and the San Diego Padres outweigh the failure of the Seattle Mariners and help put to rest the stereotype that teams must build through offense. Ironically, though, Boston’s offense has been really good this year, highlighted by turnaround campaigns from David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre (Beltre smacked a grand slam just last night). Youkilis’ second straight .300/.410/.550 campaign certainly helped, as well. In fact, according to park-adjusted wOBA, the Red Sox have had baseball’s best offense, although that will likely change with Youkilis out.

The defense, as advertised, has been solid.

The problem in Beantown has been that the pitching, which should be elite, has been merely above average. Josh Beckett has faced injury problems and general ineffectiveness while John Lackey has been far less than the Red Sox paid for. Daisuke Matsuzaka continues to post his frustratingly high walk totals and pitch at his agonizingly slow pace. If it weren’t for Jon Lester’s great season and Clay Buchholz slashing his home run rate enough to soak up innings, the Boston rotation would be a problem.

As it stands, the starters have been adequate while the bullpen has let them down with one of baseball’s worst FIPs. Make no mistake about Daniel Bard, who is proving that his 2009 was no fluke. While Bard appears ready to assume the closer’s role, the rest of the unit has slid backward. Jonathan Papelbon looks even more on his way out with a decidedly average season. His strikeout rate has dropped five points and his home runs (six allowed) already exceed his 2009 total (five).

Manny Delcarmen, who seemed so promising just two years ago, has lost all ability to record strikeouts and has just 25 this season compared to 22 walks. Hideki Okajima has gone from striking out a quarter of all the hitters he faced in 2007 and 2008 to striking out just 16 percent this year. When you’re the Red Sox and your second-best relief pitcher has been Scott Atchison (no offense to Scott), something has gone wrong.

Not all is lost, though. One thing the Sox have going for them is simple: They play their divisional superiors a lot more this season — including six games against the Rays and 10 against the Yankees, starting tonight. They have the ability to take games from the teams above them.

That might be a tall order, though: Boston is sub-.500 against both teams this season (4-8 versus the Rays, 3-5 versus the Yankees).

What has to worry Boston is how 2011 looks. Obviously the Yankees are not going anywhere, and while the Rays seem destined to lose Carl Crawford there remains a figurative battalion of young prospects behind him ready to contribute. The Red Sox are not going to be able to count on another fluke season from Beltre, either. He’s nearly certain to decline his player option given the performance he’s put up. Ortiz is a free agent as well and Papelbon heads to his final arbitration year. Boston allocated a team-record $168 million in payroll in 2010 and has more than $100 million already guaranteed for next season while several significant holes remain.