The season is only two weeks old, but there’s already some major issues brewing for teams who expect to be contenders for the World Series this season. While many of the pundits like to magnify the season opening minor slumps by superstars (think Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter), there are real issues that teams will need to deal with to ensure a trip to the postseason.
White Sox Closer
This is easily the most alarming situation for a potential World Series team. The White Sox bullpen has already blown 6 of 7 save opportunities in the Sox first 12 games. Ozzie Guillen is already creating memorable YouTube moments and it might only be a matter of time before he attacks one of his relievers on the pitcher’s mound. So far, the White Sox bullpen has surrendered 7 homers in less than 40 innings of work. Something is going to have to change for Guillen and the White Sox if they are to make the postseason.
Former closer Bobby Jenks is now in Boston and it appears that last year’s first round pick, Chris Sale, isn’t ready to assume the 9th inning duties. Matt Thornton appears more suited to an 8th inning setup role and former Twins setup man Jesse Crain doesn’t have the kind of dominating stuff needed to be a top closer.
The White Sox currently trail Cleveland and Kansas City in the AL Central standings by only a game. The current standings along with the Twins slow start and injury problems probably give the White Sox more time to pursue an in-house solution to resolve this issue. Hopefully for the Sox, one of their relievers (Sergio Santos?) will step up and claim the job. But if the problems persist and the White Sox continue to lose winnable games, then GM Ken Williams might have to make a trade.
If the White Sox do pursue a trade, there are a few options that might be available. The most easily obtainable target for any team needing a closer would have to be the Mets Francisco Rodriguez. The problem with K-Rod is that he is due $11.5M this season and has a vesting option for 2012 for $17.5M if he finishes at least 55 games this season. The Padres Heath Bell is a pending free agent and the Padres would be foolish not to secure a king’s ransom in return for the elite closer. With these two, it comes down to whether Williams wants to pay for a closer with money or prospects? The Sox hope it doesn’t come to that.
Red Sox Pitching Staff
While the entire baseball establishment focused on the Red Sox offensive firepower, their pitching staff remained a question mark coming into the season. Last year, the Red Sox only two reliable starters were Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. They came into the season hoping that a pair of right handers (John Lackey and Josh Beckett) in their early 30′s who hadn’t pitched consistently at a high level since 2007, would revert to their previous all star forms. While Beckett seemed to find the fountain of youth on Sunday night against the Yankees, Lackey continues to struggle along with everybody else in the rotation besides Lester.
The Red Sox won 85 games last season and were the presumptive World Series champions coming into this season after acquiring Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to replace Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez. While they didn’t lose any offense, their ability to score runs wasn’t an issue last season. They LED all of MLB in runs scored. The reason why they only won 85 games and missed the playoffs was because of their pitching.
The only pitcher of significance that they added during the offseason was Bobby Jenks. That should shore up the 7th and maybe 8th innings. But the Red Sox have a gaping hole in middle relief when their starters consistently get knocked out in the 5th and 6th innings, if they make it that far. While the White Sox closer remedy is probably easier; they can just make a trade, the Red Sox have their hands tied because they are fully committed financially to their mediocre starting staff.
While everybody in Boston will be trotting out trade propositions for King Felix daily on the radio and internet, the fact is that Seattle has no motivation to trade the best young pitcher in baseball who is under contract for affordable money through 2014. The Red Sox pitching issues will almost have to be addressed in-house through the hope that their pitchers turn things around and maybe by inserting top prospect Felix Doubrant into the rotation.
No matter what the resolution might be to the Red Sox problems, we don’t even really know yet how Jonathan Papelbon is going to bounce back from last season’s off year. That could be an entirely different issue and won’t be discovered until the starters begin to give him save opportunities.
Dearth of Quality First Basemen for Contenders
First base production is shaping up as a potential problem for a number of contenders and could ignite a bunch of trade rumors and player movement as spring turns to summer. The Rockies with Todd Helton, Braves with rookie Freddie Freeman, Giants with Brandon Belt, Rangers with Mitch Moreland, Indians with Matt LaPorta, and the Angels with Mike Trumbo(filling in for Kendrys Morales) are all relying on questionable production out of a traditionally offensive position.
Helton continues to suffer from back issues and the Rockies can’t rely on him to produce in the middle of their order anymore. Freeman is a rookie in a lineup with other question marks and the offensively challenged Braves might need to upgrade first base if they are to generate enough offense to return to the playoffs. The Giants have other pieces that can replace Belt if he continues to struggle or gets sent down. But can the world champs rely on the smorgasbord of castoffs and role players to hit enough over the 162 game season again to make it back to October?
In the AL, the Rangers are relying on Moreland and can fill-in with other players, but with a potential championship in their sights, could they look to make a major upgrade at first? The Indians weren’t expected to contend this season but sometimes the future is now. How long can they continue to go with the annually disappointing LaPorta at first? The Angels have top prospect Trumbo filling in for the injured Morales but they could look for an upgrade if Morales doesn’t return to form.
What this means is that there should be a seller’s market this summer for first basemen. It’s difficult to contend for a championship with an offensive hole at a typically productive position like first base. Right now, there really isn’t any all star talent available to these teams. If someone doesn’t have a prospect playing first and wants to give one a chance, the Reds have former first round pick Yonder Alonso stuck in AAA behind last year’s NL MVP Joey Votto. Alonso could end up being a shrewd addition to a team looking for production at first if he can live up to his potential.
The most intriguing possibilities as the summer goes on, however, are a pair of NL Central first basemen. Both Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are going to be free agents following this season and while Pujols is a 10-5 guy and can’t be traded without approval, Fielder isn’t and could become available if the Brewers fall out of the race or decide to preemptively make a move before Fielder leaves following the season for only draft pick compensation.
For obvious reasons, Fielder is the more likely of the two all stars to be traded, but if the Cardinals were to be at least 10 games out at some point and it continued to appear unlikely that they would be able to sign Pujols, then he could conceivably waive his no-trade at the end of July to go to the right team and the Cards would be able to reap a windfall in a trade. Atlanta, for example, would have no problem submitting a package that included Freeman for a chance to win a World Series this season with Pujols.
It’s early in the season and some of those teams might fade away or start to get production from their current players, but first base isn’t a position where most teams are willing to make the stretch run with players who need to hit at the bottom of the lineup.
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