Commentary

Making sense of the standings

Reality or illusion? A look at eight teams off to hot and cold starts

Originally Published: April 22, 2010
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Here at Worldwide Rumblings and Grumblings Headquarters, we're turning into the Jeff Probst of baseball columns. After all, who's more into "reality" these days than us, huh? Ryan Seacrest, maybe?

Last week, we looked at a bunch of players off to hot starts and assessed which of them were for real and which weren't. This week, we're heading over to the standings page to do the same thing.

Except we're not confining this edition of "Reality or Illusion" to the teams off to surprisingly good starts. The biggest surprises are down at the bottom of the standings. So we'll look at four teams that have been careening in the wrong direction, too. Ready? Here we go …

Boston Red Sox

Red Sox (6-9, fourth place in AL East)

Rating: Illusion

We picked this team to go to the World Series. So obviously, we thought the Red Sox were going to be way better than the way they've played so far. And we still do.

We have no idea where David Ortiz is heading. But does anybody really think Kevin Youkilis and Victor Martinez are going to hit .250 all year? That Jon Lester is going to have an 8.44 ERA all year? That this team is going to score two runs or fewer in 40 percent of its games all year? Not us. And we're not alone.

"This is an illusion, absolutely," one scout said. "Their biggest issues have been caused by the parts of their team that should be their strengths -- pitching and defense."

But here's their problem: Getting off to this kind of start can be hazardous to any team's long-term health in the AL East. In the 41-season division-play era, there hasn't been a single AL East team that started 4-9 or worse and recovered to make the playoffs. So even if this team gets its act together fast, digging those early six-game holes in this division might turn out to be a worse idea than the XFL.

Tampa

Rays (11-4, tied for second-best record in MLB)

Rating: Reality

We've been saying for months that the Rays are the best team in baseball that nobody ever seems to talk about. But those sounds of silence could disappear fast if they keep this stuff up.

They've already won more games than they won all last April. They're 8-1 on the road. They lead the big leagues in stolen bases. They lead the majors in hitting with men in scoring position (.328). They lead the league in starting pitching ERA. Most defensive metrics rank them as the No. 1 leatherworking team in baseball. So no wonder everyone we talk to about these Rays says stuff like this:

"They're really good, and they're deep," one AL executive said. "The one thing I wonder about is, they're working their starters pretty hard early in an attempt to avoid using the middle of their bullpen, which is the weakest area of their team. I don't know to what extent that will catch up with them later in the year. But it's something to keep your eye on."

Oakland

Athletics (9-7, tied for first place in AL West)

Rating: Illusion

We don't feel good about slapping an "illusion" sticker on this team, because it's clearly better than most of the universe figured it was. The A's lead the league in ERA and quality starts. And so far, at least, they've found a way to score more runs than the Tigers, Rangers and Red Sox.

But this team is also scoring more runs than its raw numbers indicate it should be scoring. And its defensive metrics aren't pretty. So is this really a first-place kind of team? Not unless this pitching staff can maintain that 3.13 ERA -- which would be the lowest by any AL team, over a full season, in 36 years.

"They're a team built to not give up any runs, and they're not," the same exec said. "I just think they're going to run into stretches where they're not going to be able to score enough. But right now, the formula is working."

Chicago

Cubs (6-9, half game ahead of Astros in NL Central)

Rating: Reality

On one hand, there's way too much talent on this roster to think this is the kind of team the Cubs ought to be. On the other hand, there might not be a team in either league that has played this far below its talent level so far.

The only NL teams that have scored fewer runs are the Astros and Mets. The bullpen has a 6.14 ERA (and a 7.18 ERA if you subtract the closer, Carlos Marmol). Opponents are hitting .317 with runners in scoring position, second worst in the big leagues. The highest-paid hitter, Alfonso Soriano, has more errors (three) than homers (two). And the highest-paid pitcher, Carlos Zambrano, has a 7.45 ERA and just got rerouted to the bullpen. So these pieces sure don't seem to be fitting together the way they looked on the computer screen.

"That's not a good team," one NL scout said bluntly. "They're not a contender, not as constituted. They've got some good offensive players, but they've got no team speed. And they've got pretty good starting pitching, but that bullpen is terrible. So all teams have to do with the Cubs is just grind the starters down and get into that bullpen. And that's exactly what's been happening."

Chicago

White Sox (5-10, last place in AL Central)

Rating: Illusion

We don't see the White Sox winning this division. But they're not this bad.

They might have the best bullpen in baseball (1.89 opponent average, 65 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings), for one thing. And any rotation with Jake Peavy, Mark Buehrle, John Danks and Gavin Floyd in it isn't going to have a 5.13 ERA all season. But this is an aging lineup, and one that currently has five regulars hitting under .229. And that's not as big an illusion as it appears.

"The record is an illusion, at least because of the division they play in," one scout said. "With the bullpen and rotation they run out there, they've got enough to stay in this race. But they may not be able to score enough runs to win it if they don't make a move someplace. They're going to need a bopper. A left-handed power bat is what they need. I'm not sure where they find that guy. But [GM] Kenny [Williams] always seems to come up with some kind of move."

Washington

Nationals (8-7, 1½ games out in NL East)

Rating: Reality

A game over .500 isn't anything the Yankees would pop a champagne cork over. But for a team that's lost 205 games the last two years, it's as close to nirvana as the Nationals have ever gotten.

Remember, nine of their 15 games have been against the Phillies and Rockies. They're 8-4 in games started by anybody other than Jason Marquis (0-3, and heading for the disabled list). They're in the top 9 in the major leagues in runs scored. And at some point, they should theoretically be able to dramatically upgrade their pitching with the call-up of Stephen Strasburg and closer-of-the-future Drew Storen, plus the arrival of Chien-Ming Wang.

"By the end of the year, I bet they're a pretty darned good club," one scout said, "once they bring up those pitchers and get Wang in there. I like what they're doing and where they're going. They've gotten rid of the guys with a losing mentality. At least now they're all big leaguers out there."

New

Mets (6-9, last place in NL East)

Rating: Reality

Twice in the last week, we've heard two scouts make a remark like this: "I think Washington is a much better club than the Mets."

From where we Rumblers and Grumblers sit, we wouldn't go that far. At some point, you can take these predictions to Vegas: Jason Bay will hit a home run. And Carlos Beltran will get a hit. And Francisco Rodriguez will save a game. And a starter other than Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey will win a game. But is this a good enough, or deep enough, team to hang with the Braves, Phillies and Marlins? We're not hearing anybody say that except the Mets themselves.

"You know, baseball needs the Mets to be good," one scout said. "Baseball is more fun when the Mets are good and that rivalry between them and the Phillies is cooking. But this just isn't a real good team. If you look past Santana, and Pelfrey the way he's pitched so far, you see where the Mets' problems lie. They've got legitimate concerns in that rotation. I watched that bullpen six days, and they've got four guys on pace to pitch over 80 games. That says their starters just are not getting deep enough. And I don't see that changing."

San

Padres (9-6, first place in NL West)

Rating: Illusion

Their whole roster barely takes home more money ($37.8 million) than Alex Rodriguez ($33 million). Their team batting average didn't get out of the .230s until Wednesday. And the only category they figure to lead the league in is most Hairston brothers. But this has been a better, peskier team than anybody figured on.

So that rating actually depends on how you frame the question. Are the Padres capable of being a .500-ish team? Well, that might turn out to be real. But are they a make-the-playoffs kind of team? We're not seeing that. Yet.

"In spring training, all they heard about was how bad they were going to be," said one scout, "that they were going to move [Adrian] Gonzalez and that [Heath] Bell wasn't going to be around. But they're not playing like they believed that. It's all going to come down to pitching. And their bullpen sets up as well as anyone's right now. If you told me they were going to hang there around .500, I wouldn't be surprised. But I can't see much more than that."

On the other hand, if the Padres even do that hang-around-.500 act all summer, they could have a huge impact on the entire sport. How? Read on. Rumblings is just getting started.

Ready to rumble

• Down San Diego Way: You wouldn't believe how many teams in both leagues are quietly rooting for the Padres to careen out of contention. And why is that? Because of all the potential July sellers, they're the team with the best masher (Adrian Gonzalez) and reliever (Heath Bell) who would figure to hit the market. So if they're in any kind of race, that's a development that could crush both the bat and bullpen markets.

"If they're competitive, and they're anywhere within striking distance in July, they'll hold," said an official of one club that felt them out over the winter. "I get the sense that ownership looks at Gonzalez in particular as a very difficult player to trade. He's from there. He's got the link to that Mexican-American community. They're trying to create some identity in that community. So he's not an easy guy to move."

• Bat this around: So suppose Gonzalez isn't on the market come July. Where would that leave the midseason bat shoppers? In trouble, that's where. Here's a look at some of the names who might be in play, depending on where their teams are hanging in the standings:

Josh Hamilton: It might be impossible for any team to fall out of the AL West race. But just in case the Rangers are still wallowing in the muck, clubs already have their eyes on Hamilton, who would still be two-plus years away from free agency in July. A very intriguing talent, obviously, but also a guy who has never been able to grind out a full productive season -- not to mention a fellow who didn't hit a home run this year until Wednesday, in his 58th trip to the plate.

Adam Dunn: Like an incumbent congressman, Dunn keeps telling people he wants to stay in Washington. But his free-agent clock is ticking. And he might turn out to be too defensively challenged to fit what the Nationals are building.

Adam LaRoche: Well, he got traded twice in a week and a half last July. So why should this year be any different if the Diamondbacks can't hang in the NL West race? One major attraction: LaRoche is a perennial big finisher whose second-half career OPS (.904) is more than 100 points higher than his first-half OPS (.725). One complication: His mutual 2011 option jumps from $7.5 million to $9.5 million (with a $1.5 million buyout) if he's traded.

Rick Ankiel: He's making only $2.75 million, plus a $500,000 buyout of his $6 million club option for next year. So Ankiel is another bat teams are already checking out. "He's obviously got power, and he's very athletic," one exec said. "So if he has a good year, he'd be a very interesting name."

Paul Konerko: He's finally in the last year of that five-year, $60 million contract. He'd still have nearly $5 million coming by late July. And the White Sox should have enough pitching to scramble back into contention. But if not, it's hard to imagine Konerko would use his no-trade rights to block a deal to a team with a shot to win.

Manny Ramirez: We laughed the first time we heard this name. But think about it. Nobody saw the Red Sox trading Manny this time two years ago, either. And the closer he gets to an expiring contract, the more likely it is that crazy thoughts could pop into his head. Right? So even though it's hard to envision the Dodgers as sellers, don't rule out the possibility that some special Manny circumstances could erupt at any time. "Oh yeah, that's possible," one AL executive said. "That's quite possible."

Jose Guillen
Guillen

• No way, Jose: You'll notice that when we listed all those hitters not named Adrian Gonzalez who could fill up Rumor Central in a couple of months, one name we didn't include was Royals cleanup hitter Jose Guillen.

OK, so Guillen hasn't exactly been Joe Mauer on or off the field these last few years. But we're talking about a man who ranks in the top 3 in the American League in batting, slugging, homers, multi-hit games, total bases, hits and runs scored.

And it's the last year of his contract, so he'll be eminently available (with about $4 million left as he approaches the trading deadline). But we've mentioned his name to a bunch of baseball executives. We haven't heard anybody even sound mildly interested -- even though the Royals no doubt would swallow most of that money.

"I don't know," one of those execs said. "He's fallen off defensively. He can be pitched to. He's a little bit of an unstable force on a club. … So he'd have to continue to hit [laughs] -- and hit a lot."

• Your move: The stadium-stalemate game drags on for the A's and Rays, with no end in sight. But when we asked two different baseball officials this week where those teams might at least threaten to move -- let alone actually move -- they both had the same reply:

There's nowhere to go.

We ran through the cities that have popped up on the rumor mill for years. Here's the reaction we got:

Las Vegas: "I don't think Vegas can support a team. Everyone in Vegas is from somewhere else, so they'd be a fan of someone else. And the people who are traveling to Vegas aren't traveling there to go to baseball games.

Portland, Ore.: "Tiny. Not big enough."

Charlotte, N.C.: "I used to think Charlotte was a possibility. But even the Bobcats are struggling to make it there."

San Antonio: Problems with the Rangers and Astros -- plus, "I don't see a [baseball] market."

Oklahoma City: "Not big enough [for a major-league baseball market]."

Mexico: "It's been talked about. But too many problems."

So if there's not going to be a new ballpark in Oakland, and if the Rays aren't going to live happily ever after in the Trop, where are those two teams going?

We'd bet a grouper sandwich the Rays will ditch St. Petersburg and wind up in Tampa one of these decades. And in the Bay Area, there doesn't seem to be any other solution except for some sort of "Peter Angelos-Nationals type deal" between the Giants and A's that would compensate the Giants somehow for giving up the rights to San Jose.

And if the Giants and A's can't find a way to make that deal happen? Then Bud Selig has to make it happen. It's that simple. Because there's nowhere for the A's to move. And if people don't want to believe that, well, see above.

Cal Ripken Jr.
Ripken

Peter Angelos
Angelos

• Win one for the Ripper: Somewhere in there -- in between Peter Angelos' quotes to Buster Olney, and Cal Ripken Jr.'s official statement, and Ken Rosenthal's original Fox story about Angelos vetoing Ripken's potential hiring by the Orioles -- you can piece together where Ripken and Angelos really stand.

"There's a lot of mutual respect there," one friend of Ripken's told Rumblings. "People think they hate each other. They don't hate each other. They're not exactly palling around together. But their relationship is OK."

Well, if that's true, and Angelos is really open to giving Ripken a meaningful job in his organization, why hasn't it happened? Or, to look at it another way, why wouldn't we see it happen now -- within, say, the next 45 minutes?

People who know Ripken well have painted this picture of the Iron Man's current thinking on getting back into big league baseball on some level:

1) Now that Ripken's youngest child, Ryan, is a sophomore in high school, he's actively looking for the "right" position with a big league team.

2) That team doesn't have to be the Orioles.

3) He doesn't have a specific job in mind. But he doesn't want to manage. So that's one face Dave Trembley doesn't have to look over his shoulder for.

4) Finally, whatever that job may be, Ripken would be interested only in something "significant," something that would allow him to "help and make a difference," and something that's a "real" job -- as opposed to a ceremonial, handshaking, goodwill (i.e. phony) kind of job.

We don't know exactly where this is leading. But we do know this: Now that this story is out there and Ripken himself is on record as having interest, it puts immense pressure on Angelos to find a way to make this happen -- before, say, the Nationals hire the guy.

"If you're Peter Angelos, you can do a lot of things," said an official of one AL team. "But one thing you can't do is run Cal Ripken out of Baltimore."

• Cub snub: The Cubs have plenty of problems. But Derrek Lee isn't one of them. Nevertheless, with Lee on the last year of his contract, we're hearing that when Lee's agent, Casey Close, checked in on whether the Cubs were interested in talking extension, the response was: "Let's see how this year plays out."

The Cubs don't have any policies against handing out extensions. Carlos Zambrano's deal stands as living proof. But Lee will turn 35 in September. He makes $13 million a year. And the Cubs essentially have been telling all their players they're not extending anybody until the new owners get a chance to assess what kind of team they have.

So the way this year is going, they may feel a serious urge to blow up half the roster. But if Lee comes anywhere close to last year's numbers (.306, 35 homers, a .972 OPS), he'd seem like the last guy on this payroll the Cubs could afford to wave sayonara to.

Brett Anderson
Anderson

• Real deal: It's tough to second-guess any player for locking up a $12.5 million guarantee that just about sets himself up for life. But even other teams were surprised the A's were able to buy out their fast-rising future ace, Brett Anderson, for "only" $12.5 million over the next four years.

Anderson would earn "only" $3 million and $5.5 million in his first two years of arbitration eligibility. Then, if Oakland picks up his two options, he'd take in "only" $8 million in his final arb-eligible year and $12 million in his first potential free-agent year.

Granted, Anderson is in just his second big league season. But if he turns into the legit top-of-the-rotation force he's set up to be, compare those dollars to the $12.75 million and $20 million Justin Verlander would earn in those same two years (last arbitration year, first free-agent year) in his new extension, or the $10 million and $18.5 million Felix Hernandez would collect in those two seasons under his new deal.

"That's a great deal -- for Oakland," one executive said. "It's such a good deal that he could miss a full season and it would still be a good value. He could miss a significant portion of time, and they'd still feel good about it."

• Yes he Cantu: How many hitters in baseball are more underrated than Marlins hit factory Jorge Cantu? He may not be Albert Pujols. But he's the only player in the National League who has gotten a hit in every game this season. He has more extra-base hits (10) than singles (eight). He's second in the league in RBIs. He's hitting .429 with men in scoring position. And as we mentioned last week, the only NL hitters with more RBIs than Cantu since the 2009 All-Star break are Ryan Howard, Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp and Prince Fielder.

"He's our most professional hitter," his hitting coach, Jim Presley, told Rumblings. "He's got the same approach every day. He never deviates from it. They may get him out, but he's got an uncanny ability to get the barrel [of the bat] to the ball. … You never see him ground out to third, ground out to short, pop the ball up. He's always putting the barrel on it and having a good swing. And anything the pitchers try to do with him, he makes adjustments like that. It doesn't take him two days to adjust. It takes him an at-bat or two.

"He's our best hitter besides Hanley Ramirez," Presley said. And if you're the "second-best" hitter on the Florida Marlins, that's still high praise.

Josh Johnson
Johnson

Justin Verlander
Verlander

• Battle of the aces: Nate Robertson spent four years in the same rotation as Justin Verlander in Detroit. Now Robertson is in Florida, watching Josh Johnson mature into a similar, omnipotent, top-of-the-rotation force. So Rumblings asked Robertson how he'd compare those two.

"I think [Verlander] might have a little bit on Josh on the velo," Robertson said. "But the slider that Josh has is incredible. I saw him throw a 90-mile-an-hour slider the other day. And 'Ver' doesn't have that. But the thing about Josh is, he's not even completely polished yet. The raw ability he's going out and winning with is just special. He just goes out and flat overpowers guys. He struck out 10 the other day, and … that's just normal.

"They're both front-line guys with power stuff. As long as they're healthy, they're obviously both going to pitch for a really long time. They're both great guys to have on the mound when you're facing a really tough team, when you need to win a ball game. It's fun to watch, man. As a pitcher, you watch some of the pitches they throw, and you say, 'I just wish I could do that once.'"

• Unsuspended animation: Once there was a time when there was nothing more farcical in baseball than a player appealing his suspension. But since John McHale Jr. took over in 2003 as MLB's presiding "judge" who hears those appeals, justice is actually served in this sport.

Cliff Lee became the latest beneficiary this week, when McHale made his five-game spring-training suspension disappear. The union made a compelling, reasonable argument, that Lee was just returning from an injury when he sailed a pitch over the head of Arizona's Chris Snyder. And McHale, rather than just reduce the suspension, dropped the whole sentence.

It's the third suspension that MLB has completely overturned since 2007. The others: Shelley Duncan (three games, brawl, 2008) and Seth McClung (three games, "intentionally" throwing at Albert Pujols, 2007). That never happened in the bad old days. So who says there's no justice in baseball?

• Giveaway day: Seems as if the world has taken great delight in jumping on Tony La Russa for the way he managed that 20-inning game last weekend. Not that there wasn't plenty to second-guess. (Letting two pitchers hit with the bases loaded? Running Ryan Ludwick with Pujols at the plate in the 19th? Both legit questions.)

But just because La Russa approached that game differently than the Mets doesn't mean he approached it wrong. He clearly just wasn't going to blow out his bullpen or put one of his best starters at risk in order to win one game.

"He's managing to win the whole thing -- not a game," one NL scout said. "What's one game when you've got those kind of horses? He's got the big picture in mind. And he's not going to wreck it just to win a game. And you know what? I don't blame him -- not with the team he's got."

The Rumblings Scouting Bureau

Once again this week, we check in with some of America's foremost scouting minds:

• On Matt Garza: "He's got a chance to be a shutdown, ace-type starter. He used to get stubborn. If he'd get himself in trouble, his response was just to try to throw harder. Now he's not doing that. He's much more under control. He's really thinking through each situation and not letting it get out of hand. And he's almost got that Roy Halladay mind-set now. He wants to finish everything he starts."

Fausto Carmona
Carmona

• On Fausto Carmona: "Much better rhythm, much better balance. Throwing way more strikes than at any time last year. I don't see quite the same hard sinker as before. He's got less movement than he used to. But of the 12 balls I saw get put in play, eight were ground balls. So he's getting the same results."

• On Colby Rasmus: "I really like him. He's really a fun defensive player to watch run gap-to-gap. He's rangy. He's long. He gets to a lot of balls. And if you throw one down and in, he hammers the daylights out of it. I don't think he'll be an All-Star. But I think he'll be a quality everyday big league center fielder.

• On Ubaldo Jimenez: "I'm never surprised by what that guy does. That no-hitter is just indicative of what he can do -- walk six and still throw a no-no. And the last pitch of the game is 97 miles an hour. He throws some electric [stuff] up there. I'll tell you that."

Quotes of the week

• From the ever-quotable Ozzie Guillen, on whether the White Sox's offensive issues were going to keep him up at night: "I'm going to sleep like a baby. I'm going to wake up crying every two hours."

• From Nate Robertson, after a sportscaster on the clubhouse TV called him "Nate Robinson": "People call me that all the time, and I can't figure it out. I don't look anything like that guy -- and I can't dunk."

• From Rays manager Joe Maddon (to the St. Petersburg Times' Marc Topkin), after being informed by MLB that he can wear his favorite hoodie after all -- without even having to ask Bill Belichick to intervene: "I'm just happy to say, on behalf of all the hoodie-wearers everywhere, that MLB is back in line with that subculture that I really, truly can identify with."

• From Phillies reliever Chad Durbin (to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Bob Brookover), on what it's like to spend a night in the bullpen when Roy Halladay heads out there for another wire-to-wire start: "There's not much to do but put the voice mail on the [bullpen] phone."

Tweet of the week

From "Late Show" quip machine @Justin_Stangel:

"Mets-Cardinals series trudges on. Where the hell is the volcanic ash when you need it?"

Late-nighter of the week

From Stephen Colbert, on the Goldman Sachs scandal:

"What's the problem? There's nothing illegal about selling customers a product designed to fail. The Chicago Cubs do it every year. Are they going to jail?"

Headliner of the week

Finally, this bulletin just in from the always entertaining phillygameday.com:

MANUEL REPORTS NO PAIN AFTER
WATCHING LIDGE THROW OFF MOUND

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com