Posted by: mdegeorge | June 4, 2010

MLB surprises of the first two months

The first checkpoint in the Major League season is upon us. As you sit back and enjoy this first week of June, I’ll be taking you through some of the biggest surprises—good and bad—through the season’s first two months.

Teams:

Pleasant

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San Diego- The story of the season in San Diego was supposed to be the countdown to their exit from the playoff race in late June and the start of the Adrian Gonzalez sweepstakes. Instead, the Padres have become the story of the season after averaging a measly 69 wins the last two seasons and doing little in the offseason to prevent the trend from continuing. Their pitching has made them the National League’s best team to this juncture, as they’re first in baseball with a 2.95 team ERA and a WHIP of 1.06. The Pad’s relievers have worked the seventh most innings so far, but with the second best ERA (2.96). They’ve had 17 games in which they’ve worked three or more scoreless innings. The resurgent Jon Garland (more on him later) has led the way in the post-Jake Peavy era even with the early season loss of Chris Young to another long term injury. The young arms in the pen have been excellent thus far, but seven blown leads and fatigue may be concerns down the stretch.Minnesota- The loss of all-world closer Joe Nathan to a season-ending injury in Spring Training consigned the Twins to the second tier of the AL in the eyes of many. But they’ve responded by accumulating the third best record in the league and have a 3.5-game cushion in the AL Central. They’re a balanced team that is solid in all facets. Their offense, led by the M & M boys, is fourth in the Majors with a .275 average and eighth with 246 runs scored. Justin Morneau leads baseball with his .368 average and Joe Mauer isn’t far behind at .329. The Twinkies’ starters have 26 wins, second most in baseball, and the bullpen has lost only five leads while posting a 3.07 ERA. They’re also MLB’s best defensive team, leading the league with a .994 fielding percentage and just 12 errors, eight less than the nearest team.

Washington- It doesn’t look so impressive on paper, but this is a big deal for the Nationals. Yes, they’re only 26-26 and in fifth place in the NL East per usual, but they’re only 3.5 games back of leaders du jour Atlanta in a division where no one has shown the desire or ability to take control. It’s the latest they’ve been at the .500 mark since they finished the 2005 season 81-81, and they didn’t pick up their 26th win last year until July 11 (game 86). They’re offense and pitching are in the bottom half of baseball (21st and 19th, respectively) and they’re the worst defensive team with 42 errors. But there’s reason to hope for a strong final four months. Cristian Guzman and his .327 average lead the NL, while Ivan Rodriguez has had a bounce-back year, batting .325. Ryan Zimmerman has stayed healthy (for the most part) and Josh Willingham has looked like a piece to build around. The pitching staff is still struggling to define itself, but Matt Capps leads the Majors in saves (17), and the prodigal son, Stephen Strasburg, will make his big league debut next week. At the very least, Capps and Adam Dunn are attractive chips to deal if they do fall out of contention to perpetuate the rebuilding process. The days of being a doormat look to be coming to a close soon.

Honorable mention: Cincinnati (Second best record in NL and first place in Central)

Unpleasant

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Seattle- Where to start? I thought the combination of Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez made the Mariners a dark horse for an AL West title. Instead, Lee started the season on the disabled list and is only starting to get back into the swing of things, King Felix has struggled, and just about everyone else has underachieved for the 19-30 Ms, who have had four losing streaks of four games or more. Ichiro is hitting .342 as the diamond in an increasingly brutal rough. Brandon League leads the team with five wins…and he’s a reliever. Ken Griffey, Jr. (.186 avg, 0 home runs, seven RBI in 97 at bats) has announced his retirement. Milton Bradley (.220/3/18 in 109 at bats) has been all they expected and less. Eric Byrnes was so bad for a month that he retired. And their other marquee offseason acquisitions, Chone Figgins and Casey Kotchman, are both scuffling near the Mendoza line. It’s a bad situation in the Pacific Northwest.

Milwaukee- For a team that many thought would win the NL Central (as I laughed heartily), their 21-30 record and fourth-place standing 8.5 games off the pace in the division is certainly underwhelming. The offense has been its usual explosive self, ranking in the top 10 in the Majors in runs scored, homers, and average. Corey Hart’s 13 homers and Corey McGehee’s 41 RBI have covered for Prince Fielder (.267/7/19), who missed the memo that Scott Boras clients are supposed to play like they don’t care the year AFTER they get a new contract. But their pitching staff has been unreliable. Eight different Brewers have started a game this season, and the contingent has just 14 wins against 18 losses and an ERA a shade under five. The bullpen has been atrocious, converting just nine of 17 save opportunities. They have the second-worst ERA in the Majors at 5.94. John Axford has replaced the suddenly hapless Trevor Hoffman with decent results, but with just six wins in their last 20 games, there haven’t been too many opportunities.

Houston- Ok, so the Astros’ struggles probably aren’t a surprise to many, but the magnitude of the Houston horror show is alarming. They have a 17-34 record, the worst in the National League, and are already 12.5 games adrift in the NL Central. The offense has been terrible, ranking as the worst in the bigs in runs scored (155) by a large margin, and no regular is hitting over .293. They’re also dead last in the Bigs with just 27 homers, despite playing in a hitter-friendly park. The pitching has suffered as a result, with three pitchers with seven losses each. It’s clear from the 77-win-per-year average of the last 3 seasons that some drastic changes must be made. That change will likely be a comprehensive house cleaning in which any veteran with value—Roy Oswalt, Carlos Lee, Kaz Matsui, Geoff Blum, Jason Michaels, Brett Myers—should be dealt for prospects and a chance at a new start.

Honorable mention: Arizona Diamondbacks (last place in NL West with 20-32 record, MLB worst 5.59 team ERA, 7.70 bullpen ERA, and 11 blown saves)

Batters

Pleasant

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Jose Bautista- To call Bautista a journeyman before 2010 would be to give him more credit than he deserved. He played five seasons with four different teams and prior to 2010, his best season stats read 142 games, .254 average, 15 home runs, 63 RBI. This year, he has 16 homers and 41 RBI in just 53 contests. His emergence is a main factor in why the Blue Jays lead the Majors with 89 homers, 20 more than the nearest team. And why the Jays are nine games over .500 (31-22) and just 3.5 games off the torrid pace the Rays have set in the AL East.

Andre Ethier- He doesn’t show up on any of the leaderboards because the 15 games he missed with a pinkie injury brings him under the at bats minimum, but Ethier has been the NL’s best hitter by far this season. He was hitting .392 went he went on the DL on May 15, and even though he’s spotting the field 15 games, he’s still sixth in the league in dingers (11) and RBI (38) and his OPS of 1.165 is over 150 points above the nearest challenger.

Martin Prado- The only realistic competitor with Ethier for NL surprise of the season is Prado, who’s been the straw that stirs the drink for the red-hot Braves, winners of 11 or their last 13. He began the season on fire, carrying a .356 average and .422 OBP into May. His averaged slipped as low as .306, but manger Bobby Cox’s decision to move him into the leadoff spot has rejuvenated Prado over the last week. He’s hitting .366 with 14 RBI in 71 ABs as the leadoff man, as opposed to .309 with 12 RBI in 136 ABs in the two-hole.

Vladimir Guerrero- I thought last year was the beginning of the end for Vlad. He was limited to just 100 games, 15 homers and 50 RBI as almost exclusively a DH. I figured it was the start of a long slow decline for a 35-year-old with too many years of diving for fly balls and swinging for the fences in his weary legs. But Vlad the Impaler has rebounded beautifully this year. His .335 average puts him seventh in baseball, his 14 round-trippers is second in the bigs, and he’s been worth every cent of the $5.5 million flyer the Rangers took on him. Perhaps most importantly, he’s played in all 50 of the team’s games so far. He’s on pace for 39 homers (his most since 2004) and 142 RBI (easily a career high). Guerrero will slow down eventually, but the Rangers offense as a whole hasn’t been its usual self yet and could give a tiring Vlad a boost.

Austin Jackson- The Curtis Granderson-for-Austin Jackson trade is looking pretty good right about now for Dave Dombrowksi and company. Phil Coke has been solid with three wins and six holds. Granderson has struggled in his inaugural season in the Bronx around a DL stint. Jackson, on the other hand, is showing the star quality that made him one of the most sought after prospects in baseball. He’s hitting .324 out of the leadoff spot for the Tigers, second-best among leadoff men behind only Ichiro. He’s also fifth in OBP (.374), fourth in OPS (.816), and second in runs scored (33).

Honorable mention: Scott Rolen (30 HR combined last three years, 13 homers and 36 RBI this season); Vernon Wells (averaging .265, 17 HR, 74 RBI over last three season; already .307/13/36); Brett Gardner (.299 BA, .378 OBP, 36 runs (11th in MLB), 18 SB in 22 opportunities); David Freese (.320 BA (third for MLB third basemen and fourth in NL total), four HR, 31 RBI); Robinson Cano (.373/12/43, .414 OBP)

Unpleasant

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Mariners’ infield- I alluded to the disaster that was the Mariners, but let’s put some numbers to it. Mariners’ first basemen rank 27th in the league with a .201 average, second basemen 25th (.217) and third basemen 25th (.236). The entire infield has accounted for nine home runs, 75 runs scored, and 76 RBI. That’s just a shade above the total production of Mauer and Morneau (14 HR, 61 runs, 63 RBI, and they missed several games this season). It’s not like they’ve sacrificed offense for stellar defense, as the team ranks 13th in the league with 36 errors. Jack Wilson was the pacesetter, hitting .253 before going on the DL. His replacement, Josh Wilson, has hit .298 in 24 games. Jose Lopez (.239/3/20) has been inconsistent—though he shows signs of coming around; Chone Figgins (.217/0/14) should refund some of that $8.5 million salary, and Casey Kotchman (.196/3/20) has been the worst regular first baseman in the Majors.

Aramis Ramirez- Ramirez is having the type of season I expected from Guerrero or Wells. The Cubs’ third-baseman ranks dead last among MLB’s 24 regulars in average (.169) and hits (27), and next-to-last in homers (4), RBI (20) and runs scored (15). His OBP (.227) and slugging percentage (.269) are equally woeful. He has 43 strikeouts and 45 total bases in 167 at bats. At this point in his career, his hands aren’t what they used to be thanks to a wrist injury that cost him 80 games this season and a sore thumb this season, and his power has been decimated.

Nate McLouth- Two years ago, Nate the Great was an All-Star who led the NL with 46 doubles and was regarded as one of the cogs around which the Pirates could build to escape two decades of futility. A year later, the Buckos traded him to the Braves for three minor leaguers (one of whom we’ll see in a moment) in what many thought was an unwise move. But the much beleaguered Pirates’ management knew something, since McLouth has hit just .232 with 14 dingers and 49 RBI in 134 games with Atlanta. He has been dreadful this season, batting a measly .178 in 152 ABs with three homers, 13 RBI and 18 runs scored. He has 45 strikeouts and 44 total bases, and has been cold lately with just two hits in his last 11 games.

Carlos Lee- If there is one symbol of the Astros’ shortcomings, it has to be the three-time All-Star. His numbers entering today are just ghastly: .208/6/23, .244 OBP. The power has gone out, with only 14 extra base hits and a slugging percentage (.345) 150 points below his career average, while his OPS (.589) is over 250 points below his career average. He’s on pace for the most strikeouts in a season (80) since 2005, also the last season he hit under .300. And his 32.8 at bats/home run is the worst of his entire career. His defense is also still mired in a steady decline. A team in the pennant race must be pretty desperate to take Lee at the deadline—probably as a DH in the AL—given his $19 million price tag for the next two season.

Cardinals’ middle infield- The Redbirds’ offense has been average this year, but the NL Central co-leaders have done without much from their middle infielders. Felipe Lopez has been solid when healthy. But Brendan Ryan and Skip Schumaker have not performed well to set the table for Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. Ryan just got his average over .200 in the last few days, and was hovering in the .160s for the first eight weeks. Only since Lopez’s return from the DL has manager Tony La Russa gotten the chance to ignite Ryan by sitting him more often. He’s hitting .211 with one homer, 11 RBI, and 12 runs scored, but most of that is due his recent 8-for-19 streak. The slick-fielding shortstop has eight errors and a .957 fielding percentage, the second worst among regular shortstops in the Majors. Schumaker has also improved after hitting in the .210s early in May. He had an eight-game hitting streak three weeks ago, and has come around lately to the tune of .246/1/13 with 29 runs scored. His .319 OBP has been decent, but defense has also been a bugaboo, as he has the most errors (9) and lowest fielding percentage (.963) among second basemen.

Honorable mention: Aaron Hill (.188/8/18 after .286/42/98 last year) Pedro Feliz (.222/2/17/9); Gary Matthews, Jr. (190/0/1/9; 24 Ks, 14 TB in 58 ABs)

Pitchers

Pleasant

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Ubaldo Jimenez- The fact that he’s emerged as one of, if not the, premier power pitcher in the game isn’t surprising giving his ethereal stuff. But the historic pace at which he is demonizing opposing hitters is cause for shock from anyone other than Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax. He’s 10-1 in his first 11 starts with an 0.78 ERA, just one of three men in the last 110 years to win 10 of their first 11 starts with an ERA under 1. He has pitched 26 straight scoreless innings, and that doesn’t even include his April 17 no-hitter. He’s always had electric stuff with three plus pitches, and has put it together with a fearless approach that has no qualms about challenging any hitter…or history.

Mike Pelfrey- Speaking of pitchers with great stuff and a notorious habit for underachieving. Pelfrey was groomed for stardom by the Mets since he was drafted 9th overall in 2005, and the decision to rush him to the majors after just 176 innings in the minors looked like a case of mismanaging a young arm. This looked  like a pivotal year in which the former phenom, now 26, could take the step towards being a top-of-the-rotation pitcher or settle into being the average pitcher his career 28-32 record was indicative of. He has responded beautifully, going 8-1 with a 2.39 ERA. On a staff that has struggled with injury and inconsistency, Pelfrey has been one of only two pitchers to make all 11 starts, eight of which have been quality starts.

Carlos Silva- Silva entered the season on the precipice of oblivion. His woeful stint in Seattle over the last 2 years on a four-year, $48 million deal made him one of the biggest free agent busts in recent memory. But he has turned things around on the north side of Chicago, going 7-0 with a 3.12 ERA this season. His WHIP is 1.10, well under his career 1.36. He’s also throwing strikes more effectively: his average of 6.23 strikeouts per nine innings in nearly double his career average. His performance is making the Cubs’ “burden-for-burden” deal that sent Milton Bradley in the other direction look like a stroke of genius.

Jon Garland- It’s easy to forget the numbers Garland put up in Chicago as the number two to Mark Buehrle. But he was once an All-Star, amassing a 91-81 record over eight seasons. He’s now on his fifth team in four years, after signing an ill-fated free agent deal with Arizona in 2009 that saw him shipped to Los Angeles at the deadline. He’s been a blessing for the thrifty Padres at an affordable $4.7 million, going 6-2 with a 2.15 ERA for the surprising first place Padres. He has benefitted from spacious Petco Park, surrendering just five homers in 11 starts.

Tyler Clippard- I put him as a pleasant surprise just because I feel obligated to write about what he’s done this season. He had seven wins in the team’s first 34 games, all out of the bullpen. He was once on pace for 33 wins. He also had five blown saves to that point and has dropped his last two decisions, but his numbers are still strong. He’s carrying a 1.82 ERA with a 1.07 WHIP and 11 holds in 16 opportunities. He has 40 strikeouts in 34.2 innings pitched and has allowed just two home runs this season. He’s proven to be a reliable reliever in what may be a turnaround season for a hot prospect who struggled to fit in as a starter.

Honorable mention: Jaime Garcia (5-2, 1.32 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, nine quality starts in 10 appearances as a rookie); Matt Capps (league-leading 17 saves in 20 opportunities); Shaun Marcum (5-2, 2.77 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, nine quality starts in 12 appearances after missing 17 months with Tommy John surgery)

Unpleasant

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Carlos Zambrano- Zambrano’s season has made me miss Victor Zambrano. He gave up eight earned in his first outing over 1.1 innings for a robust 54.00 ERA. He was pulled from the rotation after four starts with a 1-2 record and a 7.45 ERA. He has responded well in the bullpen where, with the exception of one disastrous outing against Pittsburgh in which he picked up his third loss, his ERA has come down steadily to the 6.12 he now carries. Zambrano also collected four holds as the temporary eighth-inning man and did enough to force his way back into the rotation.

Trevor Hoffman- It’s sad to say that the bell probably has tolled on the Hall-of-Fame closer’s career. The all-time saves’ leader is 1-4 with an 11.65 ERA and only five saves in 10 chances for the Brewers this season. His ludicrous 2.06 WHIP and .342 opposing batting average got him booted from the closer role several weeks ago, and is basically dead weight in the bullpen. The Brewers only hope is to get him right to boost his trade value to get something out of him.

Charlie Morton- One of the pieces headed from the Braves to the Pirates in the Nate McLouth deal, there wasn’t a whole lot expected from Morton entering this season. He was 7-2 at AAA before he came up with the Buckos last year and finished the season 5-9 with a 4.55 ERA. Any promise has been soundly extinguished this season, as he sports a 1-9 record in 10 starts with 9.35 ER. Opposing hitters are hitting .342 against him and he has given up 66 hits and 52 runs in 43.1 innings. Morton’s now on the DL with shoulder fatigue, which hopefully is a chance for him to get his body and mind right again.

Wandy Rodriguez- It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why the Astros have been so terrible, and I’m not positing that reason to be Rodriguez. But for a team that has so many weaknesses, the 31-year-old lefty who has won at least nine games every season since 2005 was going to have to be one of the stabilizing factors. That hasn’t been the case at all for Rodriguez, who is 3-7 with a 5.07 ERA. His strikeout numbers are way down from the career-high 193 he tallied last year and he’s on pace for a career-high 70 walks. Given his age, he might be one of those leading the exodus from Houston later this summer.

Edwin Jackson- Jackson was a prime candidate for a big, big season in a new location. He was 27-20 over the last two seasons with Detroit and Tampa Bay, and with his excellent stuff finally maturing, a move to the National League and its notoriously light-hitting Western division could have been the catalyst for him to take the step up to elite pitcher. Instead, he has floundered in the desert with a 3-6 record and an ERA of five and a third. He’s hurt himself with 28 walks, three hit batsmen, and eight wild pitches (already a career high).

Honorable mention: Javier Vazquez (4-5, 6.06 ERA, 10 homers in 10 starts); Kenshin Kawakami (0-7, 4.66 ERA); Justin Masterson (0-5, 5.87 ERA, 1.81 WHIP, .314 opposing BA)

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The first checkpoint in the Major League season is upon us. As you sit back and enjoy a full slate of Memorial Day match-ups with your barbeques, pools, and fireworks, I’ll be taking you through some of the biggest surprises—good and bad—through the season’s first two months.

Teams:

Pleasant

San Diego- The story of the season in San Diego was supposed to be the countdown to their official exit from the playoff race sometime in late June, marking the start of the Adrian Gonzalez sweepstakes. Instead, the Padres have become the story of the season after averaging a measly 69 wins the last two seasons and doing little in the offseason to prevent that trend from continuing. Pitching has made them the National League’s best team to this juncture, as they’re tied for first in baseball with a 2.95 team ERA, first with a team WHIP of 1.06. The Pad’s relievers have worked the seventh most innings so far, but done so with the second best ERA (2.96). They’ve had 16 games in which the bullpen has worked three or more scoreless innings. The resurgent Jon Garland (more on him later) has led the way and helped deal first full season of the post-Jake Peavy era and whether the early season loss of Chris Young to yet another long term injury. The young arms in the pen have been excellent thus far, but seven blown leads ranks near the top of the league and fatigue may be a concern down the stretch.

Minnesota- The loss of all-world closer Joe Nathan to a season-ending injury in the preseason consigned the Twins to the second tier of the AL in the eyes of many. But they’ve responded by accumulating the third best record in the league to this point and have a 3.5 game lead in the AL Central. They’re a balanced team that is solid in all facets of the game. Their offense, led by the M & M boys, is fourth in the Majors in hitting with a .275 average and eighth in runs scored with 246. Justin Morneau leads baseball with his .368 average and Joe Mauer isn’t far behind at .329. The Twinkies’ starters have 26 wins, second most in baseball, and the bullpen has lost only five leads while posting a 3.07 ERA, four-best in the Majors. They’re also MLB’s best defensive team, leading the league with only a .994 fielding percentage and just 12 errors, eight less than the nearest team.

Washington- It doesn’t look so impressive on paper, but this is a big deal for the Nationals. Yes, they’re only 26-26 and in fifth place in the NL East per usual, but they’re only 3.5 games back of leaders du jour Atlanta in a division where no one has shown the desire or ability to take control. It’s the latest they’ve been at the .500 mark since they finished the 2005 season 81-81, and they didn’t pick up their 26th win last year until July 11 (game 86). They’re offense and pitching are in the bottom half of baseball (21st and 19th, respectively) and they’re the worst defensive team in baseball with 42 errors. But there’s reason to hope for a strong final four months. Cristian Guzman and his .327 average lead the NL, while Ivan Rodriguez has been had a bounce-back year, batting .325. Ryan Zimmerman has stayed healthy (for the most part) and Josh Willingham has looked like a piece to build around for the future. The pitching staff is still struggling to define itself, but Matt Capps leads the Majors in saves (17), and the prodigal son, Stephen Strasburg, will make his big league debut in the next week or so. At the very least, Capps and Adam Dunn are attractive chips to deal if they do fall out of contention to perpetuate the rebuilding process. The days of being a doormat look to be coming to a close soon.

Honorable mention: Cincinnati (Second best record in NL and first place in central division)

Upsetting

Seattle- Where to start? I thought the combination of Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez made the Mariners a dark horse for an AL West title overnight. Instead, Lee started the season on the disabled list and is only starting to get back into the string of things, King Felix has struggled, and just about everyone else has underachieved for the 19-30 Ms, who have had four losing streaks of four games or more already. Ichiro is hitting .342 as the diamond in an increasingly brutal rough. Brandon League leads the team with four wins…and he’s a reliever. Ken Griffey, Jr. (.186 avg, 0 home runs, seven RBI in 97 at bats) looks ready to be put out to pasture. Milton Bradley (.220/3/18 in 109 at bats) has been all they expected and less. Eric Byrnes was so bad for a month that he retired. And their other marquee offseason acquisitions, Chone Figgins and Casey Kotchman, are both scuffling near the Mendoza line. It’s a bad situation in the Pacific Northwest.

Milwaukee- For a team that many thought would win the NL Central (as I laughed heartily), their 21-30 record and fourth-place standing 8.5 games off the pace in the division is certainly underwhelming. The offense has been its usual explosive self, ranking in the top 10 in the Majors in runs scored, home runs, and average. Corey Hart’s 13 homers and Corey McGehee’s 41 RBI have covered for Prince Fielder (.267/7/19), who missed the memo that Scott Boras clients are supposed to play like they don’t care the year AFTER they get a new contract. But their pitching staff has been unreliable. Eight different Brewers have started a game already this season, and the contingent has just 14 wins against 18 losses and an ERA a shade under five. The bullpen has been atrocious, converting just nine of 17 save opportunities. They have the second-worst ERA in the Majors at 5.94. John Axford has replaced the suddenly hapless Trevor Hoffman with decent results, but with jus six wins in their last 20 games, there haven’t been too many save opportunities.

Houston- Ok, so the Astros’ struggles probably aren’t a surprise to many, but the magnitude of the Houston horror show is alarming. They have a 17-34 record, the worst in the National League, and are already 12.5 games adrift in the NL Central. The offense has been terrible, ranking as the worst in the bigs in terms of runs scored (155) by a large margin, and no regular is hitting over .293. They’re also dead last in the Bigs with just 17 homers, despite playing in a very hitter friendly park. The pitching has suffered as a result, with three pitchers already having seven losses each. It’s clear from the 77-win-per-year average of the last 3 seasons that some drastic changes have to be made. That change will likely be a comprehensive house cleaning in which any veteran with any value—Roy Oswalt, Carlos Lee, Kaz Matsui, Geoff Blum, Jason Michaels, Brett Myers—should be dealt for picks, prospects, and a chance at a new start.

Honorable mention: Arizona Diamondbacks (last place in NL West with 20-32 record, MLB worst 5.59 team ERA, 7.70 bullpen ERA, and 11 blown saves)

Batters

Pleasant

Jose Bautista- To call Bautista a journeyman before this season would be to give him more credit than he deserved. He played five seasons with four different teams and prior to 2010, his best season stats read 142 games, .254 average, 15 home runs, 63 RBI. This year already, he has 16 homers and 41 RBI in just 53 contests. His emergence is one of the main reasons why the Blue Jays lead the Majors with 89 homers, 20 more than the nearest team. And why the Jays are nine games over .500 (31-22) and just 3.5 games off the torrid pace the Rays have been setting in the AL East.

Andre Ethier- He doesn’t show up on any of the leaderboards because the 15 games he missed with a pinkie injury brings him under the at bats minimum, but Ethier has been the NL’s best hitter by far this season. He was hitting .392 went he went on the DL on May 15, and even though he’s spotting the field 15 games, he’s still sixth in the league in both dingers (11) and RBI (38) and his OPS is 1.165 is over 150 points above the nearest challenger. The Dodgers went 10-5 when he was on the shelf, but his return will still be a major boon.

Martin Prado- The only realistic competitor with Ethier for NL surprise of the season is Prado, who has been the catalyst for the red-hot and first-placed Braves, winners of 11 or their last 13. He began the season on fire, carrying a .356 average and .422 OBP out of April. His averaged slipped as low as .306, but manger Bobby Cox’s decision to move him into the leadoff spot has rejuvenated Prado over the last week. He’s hitting .366 with 14 RBI in 71 ABs as the leadoff man, as opposed to .309 with 12 RBI in 136 ABs in the two-hole.

Vladimir Guerrero- A lot of people, myself included, thought last year was the beginning of the end for Vlad. He was limited by injuries to just 100 games, hitting 15 homers and 50 RBI while being unable to play the field anymore. I figured it was the start of a long slow decline for a 35-year-old who had too many years of diving for baseballs and swinging for the fences in his weary legs (sounds like the tagline for a Ken Griffey, Jr. biography). But Vlad the Impaler has rebounded beautifully this year. His .335 average puts him seventh in baseball, his 44 round-trippers are good for second in the bigs, and he has been worth every cent of the $5.5 million flyer the Rangers wisely took on him. Perhaps most importantly, he’s played in all 50 of the team’s games so far. He’s on pace for 39 homers (his most since 2004) and 142 RBI (easily a career high). Guerrero will slow down as the season progresses, but the Rangers offense as a whole hasn’t performed up to its expectations yet (just 15th in the Majors in runs scored) and could give a tired Vlad a boost in the dog days of summer.

Austin Jackson- The Curtis Granderson-for-Austin Jackson trade is looking pretty good right about now for Dave Dombrowksi and company. Phil Coke has been solid with his three wins and six holds. Granderson has struggled in his inaugural season in the Bronx around a DL stint. Jackson, on the other hand, is showing the star quality that made him one of the most sought after prospects in baseball. He’s hitting .324 out of the leadoff spot, the second best average for a leadoff man in the game behind only Ichiro. He’s also fifth in OBP (.374) and fourth in OPS (.816). He’s also second among leadoff men with 33 runs scored.

Honorable mention: Scott Rolen (30 HR combined last three years, 13 homers and 36 RBI this season); Vernon Wells (Averaging .265, 17 HR, 74 RBI over last three season; already .307/13/36); Brett Gardner (.299 BA, .378 OBP, 36 runs (11th in MLB), 18 SB in 22 opportunities); David Freese (.320 BA (third for MLB third basemen and fourth in NL total), four HR, 31 RBI); Robinson Cano (.373/12/43, .414 OBP)

Unpleasant

Mariners’ infield- I alluded to the disaster that was the Mariners, but let’s put some numbers to it. Mariners’ first basemen rank 27th in the league with a .201 average, second basemen 25th (.217) and third basemen 25th (.236). The entire infield (not just the starters) have accounted for just nine home runs, 75 runs scored, and 76 RBI. That’s just a shade above the total production of Mauer and Morneau (14 HR, 61 runs, 63 RBI, and they missed several games this season). It’s not like they’ve sacrificed offense for stellar defense, as the team ranks 13th in the league with 36 errors. Jack Wilson was the pacesetter, hitting .253 before a hamstring injury sidelined him three weeks ago. His replacement, Josh Wilson, has performed well with a .298 average in 24 games. Jose Lopez (.239/3/20) has been inconsistent—though he shows signs of coming around with hits in each of his last eight games, Chone Figgins (.217/0/14) should refund some of that $8.5 million salary, and Casey Kotchman (.196/3/20) has been the worst regular first baseman in the league.

Aramis Ramirez- Ramirez is having the type of season I expected from Guerrero or Wells. He ranks dead last among MLB’s 24 regular third basemen in average (.169) and hits (27), and next-to-last in homers (4), RBI (20) and runs scored (15). His OPB is a woeful .227, and you can’t even say he’s an all-or-nothing guy with a slugging percentage of only .269. He has He has 43 strikeouts and 45 total bases in 167 at bats. At this point in his career, his hands just aren’t what they used to be. A guy who once feasted on inside pitching with his lightning quick hands has had that power stroke decimated by the wrist injury that cost him 80 games this season. A sore thumb this season hasn’t helped matters.

Nate McLouth- Just two years ago, Nate the Great was an All-Star who led the NL with 46 doubles and was regarded as one of the cogs around which the Pirates might build to escape their two decades in the second division. The Buckos then traded him to the Braves for three minor leaguers (one of whom we’ll see in a moment) in what many, myself included, thought was an unwise move. But the much beleaguered Pirates’ management knew something, since McLouth has hit just .232 with 14 dingers and 49 RBI in 134 games with Atlanta. He has been beyond dreadful this season, batting a measly .178 in 152 at bats with three homers, 13 RBI and 18 runs scored. He has 45 strikeouts and 44 total bases. He got hot briefly two weeks ago to push his average over the Mendoza line, but he has only two hits in his last 11 games to find himself back on the Interstates.

Carlos Lee- If there is one symbol of the Astros offensive shortcomings, it has to be the three-time All-Star. His numbers entering today are just ghastly: .208/6/23, .244 OBP. The power has gone out, with only 14 extra base hits and a slugging percentage (.345) that’s over 150 points below his career average, while his OPS (.589) is over 250 points below his career average. He’s on pace for the most strikeouts in a season (80) since 2005, also the last season he hit under .300. And his 32.8 at bats/home run is the worst of his entire career, and over double what it was two years ago. His defense is also still mired in a steady decline to the point where he is only a six or seven-inning player. Some team in the pennant race will have to be pretty desperate to take Lee at the deadline—probably as a DH in the AL—given his $19 million price tag for the next two season.

Cardinals’ middle infield- The Redbirds’ offense has been average this year, but the NL Central co-leaders have done mostly without much from their middle infielders. Felipe Lopez has been solid when healthy and decent on the mound. But Brendan Ryan and Skip Schumaker have not performed well at all to set the table for Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. Ryan just got his average over .200 in the last few days, and was hovering in the .160s for the season’s first eight weeks. Only since Lopez’s return from the DL has manager Tony LaRussa gotten the chance to ignite Ryan by sitting him more often. He’s hitting .211 with one homer, 11 RBI, and 12 runs scored, but most of that is due his recent 8-for-19 run. And the allegedly slick-fielding shortstop has eight errors and a .957 fielding percentage, the second worst among regular shortstops in the Majors. Schumaker has also been better after hitting in the .210s into the second week of May. He had an eight-game hitting streak three weeks ago, and has come around lately to the tune of .246/1/13 with 29 runs scored. His .319 OBP has been decent, but defense has also been his bugaboo, as he has the most errors (9) and lowest fielding percentage (.963) among second basemen.

Honorable mention: Aaron Hill (.188/8/18 after .286/42/98 last year) Pedro Feliz (.222/2/17/9); Gary Matthews, Jr. (190/0/1/9; 24 Ks, 14 TB in 58 ABs)

Pitchers

Pleasant

Ubaldo Jimenez- The fact that he’s emerged as a legitimate number one pitcher and one of, if not the, premier power pitcher in the game isn’t surprising giving his ethereal stuff. But the historic pace at which he is demonizing opposing hitters would be cause for shock from anyone other than Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax. He’s 10-1 in his first 11 starts with an 0.78 ERA, just one of three men in the last 110 years to win 10 of their first 11 starts with an ERA under 1. He has pitched 26 straight scoreless innings, and that doesn’t even include his April 17 no-hitter. He has always had electric stuff with three plus pitches: a four-seam fastball that tops out around 99 mph, a 95-mph two-seamer that dances to both corners of the plate, and a filthy 88-mph changeup that falls off a table. He’s put that all together with a fearless approach and has no qualms about challenging any hitter…or history.

Mike Pelfrey- Speaking of pitchers with great stuff and a notorious habit for underachieving. Pelfrey was groomed for stardom by the Mets since he was drafted 9th overall out of Wichita State, and the decision to rush him to the majors after just 176 innings in the minors looked like a classic case of the Mets mismanaging a young arm. In many ways, this was shaping up to be a pivotal year in which the former phenom, now 26, could take the step towards finally being a top-of-the-rotation pitcher or settle into being a middle of the road guy his career 28-32 record was indicative of. He’s responded beautifully, going 8-1 with a 2.39 ERA. On a staff that has struggled with injury (John Maine), inconsistency (Oliver Perez), and finding five guys to trot out there day after day (eight different starting pitchers) Pelfrey has been one of only two pitchers to make all 11 starts this season, 8 of which have been quality starts.

Carlos Silva- Silva entered the season on the precipice of oblivion. His woeful stint in Seattle over the last 2 years as part of a four-year, $48 million deal made him one of the biggest free agent busts in recent memory. But he has turned things around on the north side of Chicago, going 7-0 with a 3.12 ERA this season. His WHIP is down to 1.10, well under his career 1.36. He’s also throwing strikes more effectively: his average of 6.23 strikeouts per nine innings in nearly double his career average. His performance is making the Cubs’ “burden-for-burden” deal that sent Milton Bradley in the other direction look like a stroke of genius.

Jon Garland- It’s easy to forget the kind of numbers Garland put up just a few years ago in Chicago as the number two to Mark Buehrle. But he was once an All-Star, amassing a 91-81 record over eight seasons. He’s now on his fifth team in four years, after signing an ill-fated free agent deal with Arizona in 2009 that eventually saw him shipped to Los Angeles at the deadline and allowed to walk at season’s end. He’s been a blessing for the thrifty Padres at an affordable $4.7 million, going 6-2 with a 2.15 ERA for the surprising first place Padres. He has benefitted from spacious Petco Park, surrendering just five homers in 11 starts.

Tyler Clippard- I put him as a pleasant surprise just because I feel obligated to write about just what he’s done this season. He had seven wins in the team’s first 34 games, all out of the bullpen. He was once on pace for 33 wins. He also had five blown saves to that point and his dropped his last two decisions, but his numbers still look excellent. He’s carrying a 1.82 ERA with a 1.07 WHIP and 11 holds in 16 opportunities. He has 40 strikeouts in 34.2 innings pitched and has allowed just two home runs this season. He’s proven to be a reliable reliever in what may be a turnaround season for a hot prospect who struggled to fit in as a starter.

Honorable mention: Jaime Garcia (5-2, 1.32 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, nine quality starts in 10 appearances as a rookie); Matt Capps (league-leading 17 saves in 20 opportunities); Shaun Marcum (5-2, 2.77 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, nine quality starts in 12 appearances after missing 17 months with Tommy John surgery)

Unpleasant

Carlos Zambrano- Zambrano’s season didn’t get off to the best of starts; as a matter of fact, it made you miss Victor Zambrano. He gave up eight earned in his first outing which lasted only 1.1 innings for a robust 54.00 ERA. He was pulled from the starting rotation after four starts with a 1-2 record and a 7.45 ERA. He has responded well in the bullpen where, with the exception of one disastrous outing against the Pittsburgh that earned him his third loss, his ERA has come down steadily to the 6.12 he now carries. Zambrano also collected four holds as the temporary eight-inning man and did enough to force his way back into the starting rotation.

Trevor Hoffman- It’s sad to say that the bell probably has tolled on the Hall-of-Fame closer’s career. The all-time saves’ leader is 1-4 with an 11.65 ERA and only five saves in 10 chances for the Brewers this season. His ludicrous 2.06 WHIP and .342 opposing batting average got him booted from the closer role several weeks ago, and is basically dead weight in the bullpen. The Brewers only hope is to get him right in order to boost his trade value to get something out of him.

Charlie Morton- One of the pieces headed from the Braves to the Pirates in the Nate McLouth deal, there wasn’t a whole lot expected from Morton entering this season. He was 7-2 at AAA before he came up with the Buckos last year and finished the season 5-9 with a 4.55 ERA. Any promise has been soundly extinguished this season, as he sports a 1-9 record in 10 starts with 9.35 ER. Opposing hitters are hitting .342 against him and he has given up 66 hits and 52 runs in 43.1 innings. Morton’s now on the DL with shoulder fatigue, which hopefully is a chance for him to get his body and mind right again.

Wandy Rodriguez- It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why the Astros have been so terrible, and I’m not positing that reason to be Rodriguez. But for a team that has so many weaknesses, the 31-year-old lefty who has won at least nine games every season since 2005 was going to have to be one of the stabilizing factors. That hasn’t been the case at all for Rodriguez, who is 3-7 with a 5.07 ERA. His strikeout numbers are way down from the career-high 193 he tallied last year and he’s on pace for a career-high 70 walks. Given his age, he might be one of those leading the exodus from Houston later this summer.

Edwin Jackson- Jackson was a prime candidate for a big, big season in a new location. He was 27-20 over the last two seasons with Detroit and Tampa Bay, and with his excellent stuff finally maturing, a move to the National League and its notoriously light-hitting Western division could have been the catalyst for him to take the step up to elite pitcher. Instead, he has floundered in the desert with a 3-6 record and an ERA of five and a third. He’s hurt himself with 28 walks, three hit batsmen, and eight wild pitches (already a career high).

Honorable mention: Javier Vazquez (4-5, 6.06 ERA, 10 homers in 10 starts); Kenshin Kawakami (0-7, 4.66 ERA); Justin Masterson (0-5, 5.87 ERA, 1.81 WHIP, .314 opposing BA)

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