The Baltimore Orioles are in first place. Wait, let it sink in…the ORIOLES are in first! The team has defied logic and science, and continue to hold onto what most consider to be the toughest division in the AL. The baseball world has been waiting for them to come down to earth, but they may have to wait a while longer. The short answer to their puzzling success is power. The O’s have mashed 78 team home runs, led by speedy outfielder Adam Jones (16). Jones hasn’t been the only hot hitter on the team, but his play earned him a new contract extension of 6 years and 85.5 million. I bet the Seattle Mariners are regretting that Eric Bedard trade right about now.
Player to Watch: Closer Jim Johnson
While the Orioles have been fueled by their propensity for the long ball, the unsung hero of this ball club has been closer Jim Johnson. The O’s have been able to overcome poor starting pitching in part with their hot hitting, but have locked down the 9th with Johnson. He has 18 saves on the year with a 1.38 ERA. He doesn’t overpower anyone, but he keeps the ball down and misses the barrel of the bat with his sinking and tailing pitches. Anyone paying attention to Johnson’s 2011 season shouldn’t be shocked by his numbers. He was “Mr. Everything” for the O’s pen las season pitching 91 innings, earning him the closers job at the end of the year. The Phillies would be wise to avoid seeing the stingy closer as much as possible if they hope to come away with W’s.
Most Hated Oriole: Camden Yards
Here me out on this one. The O’s ballpark has been the inspiration for the modern day boom of stadiums across the country. From Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Houston, to our very own Citizens Bank Park the contemporary ballpark lineage traces back to Camden Yards. What none of them have done though (no disrespect to the bank) is do it just as well. When people go to Orioles games they go primarily to see the park, not the team. While the “experience” factor is important in Philadelphia too, people show up to see the Phils just as much as the ambiance. Camden Yards is a modern day shrine, which draws the ire and jealousy of teams trying to emulate its success. Its like how every child with Jr. after his name feels. If you haven’t made plans this weekend, go down to Baltimore and take in Camden Yards. No matter how many stadiums are built it will always be one of the best.
1) The pitching trio of Blanton, Worley, and Lee serve up multiple deep flies, which the Phils are unable to duplicate.
2) Jim Thome makes his long awaited “DH” debut…and continues to struggle finding his timing after a long layoff.
3) The Phils draw a huge road crowd as usual, but give them nothing to cheer about. Fans can be found sulking all the way up I-95 after the weekend.
As bad as the Phillies have been this year, at least they aren’t the Twins. The only thing in Minnesota worth watching has been their beautiful new ballpark (still no Camden Yards). The team has struggled in nearly every aspect. They can’t find any consistent pitching, with a team ERA over 5. Coupled with the fact that their staff K/9 are a meager 5.85 (not even a full point about their ERA!) shows just how bad their staff has been. The M & M boys aren’t the same tandem that led the Twins to division titles in years past. Morneau can’t stay on the field long enough to get any consistency at the plate, and Mauer still has yet to develop the power you wan’t out of a 3-hole hitter. If the Twins are smart, they will get Mauer out from behind the plate to protect his future, as he’s about the only building block that’s not available to be traded. The fact that the media are already labeling the Twins as deadline sellers says it all.
Player to Watch: OF Josh Willingham
Most fans will remember Willingham from his days in a Marlins uniform. Believe it or not he is 4 years removed from playing for the Fish, and was even rumored as a potential left field option for the Phillies in the offseason. Ruben Amaro wishes he made a bigger push for the Willingham as he has been one of the lone bright spots for the Twins. He is slugging over .570 and has belted 11 home runs while playing his home games in a spacious ball park. Its easy to second guess the Phillies moves, but how much better would this lineup be with another hitter with some pop?
Most Hated Twin: C Joe Mauer
The young Minnesota native just makes it look easy. Mauer may not be Robert Redford from the natural, but his swing is a thing a beauty. Maybe it’s the blue collar, work hard mentality of this city, but its hard to like players who are just that gifted (unless they play for the Phils of course). He always seems to hit well over .300, knock in big runs, all while working 9 innings behind the plate. If that’s not enough to irk you, keep in mind that he is last contract extension was 180 million dollars! Mauer’s only redeeming quality may be his sense of humor (see head and shoulders commercial). Not bad Joe, but you’re no Peyton Manning.
Fansided Perspective: Nate and Shawn of Puckett’s Pond break down the latest from the Twin Cities.
1) It’s been a disappointing season for the Twins so far, who has been the biggest disappointment?
Shawn: The starting pitching certainly. I predicted the Twins would win 82 games. In predicting, I basically used fangraphs WAR from 2011 and predicted where the changes would occur this year. I predicted a typical year for Scott Baker (Tommy John surgery). I expected a decent Carl Pavano, but he hasn’t been very good and has probably been hurt (.6 WAR). Francisco Liriano is a wildcard but I expected a bounce-back there (.2 WAR). The rest of the rotation that started the year has a negative WAR.
Nate: I wouldn’t say there has been one player who is more disappointing than any other. If you want to blame someone, blame the entire Twins’ rotation. Francisco Liriano and Nick Blackburn were awful for the first two months of the season, Carl Pavano was slightly disappointing, and Jason Marquis was so bad the Twins designated him for assignment. If the Twins could have magically replaced those starters with four league average starting pitchers, they would probably be in first place in the weak AL Central instead of last.
2) Are the rumors of Justin Morneau on the trading block the usual internet shenanigans or is their some truth behind it?
Shawn: They are mostly interent shenanigans. Honestly, it could be a smart move for the Twins if Morneau can stay healthy and probably kick up his production another notch. I think he will probably be a better trade candidate next year due to the amount he is still owed and the risk. The Twins could trade him this year, but most of what they would receive would be salary relief. He’s too popular in the state and the clubhouse to trade merely for financial means. I still find it hard that they’d trade him at all.
Nate: It would be very logical to trade Morneau, so I doubt it’s just internet shenanigans. The Twins are in last place, they need to rebuild, and Morneau is a high-priced veteran a year and a half from free agency. His average and OBP are a bit low right now, but he is still bringing the power. If the Twins ate part of his salary, I think a contending team would consider trading some good prospects for him. Morneau has always been one of my favorite players, but I think trading him would be the right thing to do.
3) The MLB draft was a welcome distraction for our fellow struggling teams, what’s been the post draft reaction in Minnesota?
Shawn: The reaction seems positive. Buxton seems to be a real catch as a prospect. Keith Law actually said he’s rate him above Miguel Sano. (Minnesota’s 19 year old power phenom) And he commented, that rating him above Sano is “saying something”. Most everyone is impressed with the hard throwing pitching the Twins drafted as well.
Nate: I can’t speak for every Minnesotan, but from what I’ve heard people are a little disappointed that the Twins didn’t draft 50 Stephen Strasburgs. That said, I think most are excited about Byron Buxton’s potential, even though it will be several years before we know if he’ll pan out. The rest of the draft was focused on pitching, and the Twins finally went after some college arms who can throw 95 or higher. In past years they’ve tended to avoid power pitchers. Many of the pitchers they drafted are projects who will require some time to develop extra pitches, so as with Buxton we’ll need some time to tell if these guys were good picks or not.