Finding Flaws: American League

All stats are through Monday’s games.

The 2005 season is only six weeks old, but there is one thing we know for sure. There is no perfect team out there. There’s probably not even a truly great team out there.

If some team(s) wins 100-plus games — four are on pace to do so currently — it won’t be because they didn’t have flaws, it was because they probably didn’t have many flaws and they were able to deal with the ones they had better than most of the other teams.

So, if every team has flaws, what are they? Glad you asked. This week, I’m going to look at the problems facing the five best AL teams (record-wise), and next week I’ll look at the top NL teams. Here we go:

Chicago White Sox, 27-12

Pitching certainly isn’t the problem for the White Sox, as they lead the American League with 3.64 runs allowed per game. However, they’re only eighth in the AL in scoring at 4.62 runs per game.

You would expect a team that’s on pace for 112 wins, as the White Sox are, to be among the league leaders in both runs allowed and runs scored. After all, of the six teams that have won at least 110 games, only the 1954 Indians didn’t lead the league in both categories, and they were first in runs allowed and second in runs scored.

Offensively, the White Sox have been, well, bad (you were expecting me to say offensive?). Of the nine players on the team with at least 50 at-bats this season, guess how many are hitting at least .280? Now guess how many have an on-base percentage of at least .340. How many have a slugging percentage of at least .450? And how many have an OPS better than .760?

The answers are 1, 2, 0, 1. Tadahito Iguchi is hitting .313, and Scott Podsednik is next at .277. Podsednik has a .387 OBP, followed by Iguchi at .352. Juan Uribe leads the team with a .446 SLG and, Iguchi has a team-high .795 OPS.

Overall, the White Sox are hitting .256/.324/.399 for a .723 OPS. Among AL teams, they rank ninth in batting average, eighth in OBP, ninth in SLG and ninth in OPS.

The good news is that Paul Konerko, Aaron Rowand and Jermaine Dye are all underperforming last year’s OPS by at least 135 points. If they each make up even half of the difference between last year and this year, that would be a huge boost to Chicago’s offense.

The White Sox are probably going to need that offensive boost, because while the defense has done a good job covering for the offense’s problems so far, it’s unlikely that the White Sox will finish with a 3.36 team ERA.

Baltimore Orioles, 24-13

The Orioles are third in the AL in runs scored and tied for fifth in runs allowed. They’ve reached those rankings thanks to maybe five or six players. The problem for the Orioles is the back end of the rotation and most of the offense.

Tackling the former issue first, Erik Bedard and Bruce Chen have been Baltimore’s two best starters this season, combining for a 2.82 ERA in 99 innings. Even if you think they’ve both turned a corner — I think Bedard has and Chen hasn’t — they’re not going to finish with a sub-3.00 ERA between them.

That means that the Orioles are going to need better than a 4.76 ERA from Sidney Ponson, Rodrigo Lopez and Daniel Cabrera. The problem is that all three of them are walking everybody in sight.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Lopez has a 3.72 BB/9IP rate, Ponson is at 3.74 BB/9IP and Cabrera is at 4.93. And only Cabrera is striking people out (8.79 K/9IP). Lopez is at 6.33 K/9IP and Ponson has 5.32 K/9IP this year.

Offensively, the Orioles are being led by their middle infielders, both of whom are likely to cool off a little bit. Miguel Tejada is a good hitter, but he’s hitting .333/.372/.614 (.986 OPS) and his career best OPS is .894 (last year). It’s possible that he’s still getting better and will finish with an OPS near 1.000, but I think it’s less than likely.

And Brian Roberts, whether he’s truly an improved hitter or not, is not going to finish the season hitting .382/.460/.664 (1.124 OPS). Over the rest of the season, I’d be surprised if his OPS is better than .900.

So, since the two players who are carrying the offense right now are likely to hit at least a little worse the rest of the way, other players will need to step up if the Orioles are going to have the great offense they’re supposed to have.

That’s where the problem comes in. Melvin Mora (.817 OPS), Javy Lopez (.838 OPS) and Jay Gibbons (.803 OPS) are hitting decently. Everybody else is either hurt (Sammy Sosa and Luis Matos, whose marks of .778 and .769 aren’t even that good) or terrible.

Rafael Palmeiro is hitting .222/.303/.350 (.653) and while he’s better than that, he’s no longer even an average hitter. Larry Bigbie is hitting .247/.284/.317 (.599), and he’s only had one partial season as an above average hitter. And B.J. Surhoff, hitting .277/.288/.415 (.703), has only had one season with an OPS above .800 in the past seven years.

The Orioles have put themselves in position to be a playoff contender, but they’re going to need something from Ponson/Lopez/Cabrera, and they’re going to need at least one or two hitters to start hitting significantly better than they are now.

Boston Red Sox, 22-16

The Red Sox are second in the AL in runs (210) and runs per game (5.53). That’s pretty impressive when you consider the following fact. Boston’s starting infield — Kevin Millar, Mark Bellhorn, Edgar Renteria and Bill Mueller — has a grand total of five home runs in 494 at-bats this season.

Millar — a first baseman, mind you — is hitting .239/.348/.328 (.676). He hit .297/.383/.474 (.857) last year.

Bellhorn — thanks to a single and a double in four at-bats Monday — is up to .232/.333/.375 (.708). He hit .264/.373/.444 (.817) last year.

Renteria — who only has to top a .716 OPS to better last year’s collection of shortstops offensively — is hitting .246/.296/.338 (.634). He hit .287/.327/.401 (.728) last year.

Mueller — who was a batting champion, albeit an unlikely one, two years ago — is hitting .264/.378/.321 (.699). He hit .283/.364/.446 (.811) last year.

The key to Boston’s offense — aside from Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz hitting a lot of home runs — was that the Red Sox didn’t have to deal with many bad hitters in the lineup. All seven players with at least 400 plate appearances had an OPS above .810.

After that, two of the four players with between 200 and 300 at-bats had an OPS above .780, and three of the four players with between 145 and 160 at-bats had an OPS above .865.

This year, all nine regulars have at least 100 at-bats, and there is a huge gap in production. Five of the nine are above .885 for their OPS, and the other four are below .710. And the two players with the most at-bats off the bench are both below .570 OPS.

Combine that with the fact that Keith Foulke has a 7.11 ERA, and nobody seems to know quite when Curt Schilling might be ready to pitch again, and the Red Sox have some problems they’re going to have to overcome if they want to have a shot at defending their title.

Los Angeles Angels, 22-16

Only three AL teams — Cleveland, Kansas City and Oakland — have scored fewer runs than the Angels, and they have a combined winning percentage of .372.

Basically, Vladimir Guerrero is the only player hitting for the Angels this year, and even he’s not hitting like he usually does. Guerrero is hitting .317/.374/.549 for a .923 OPS. He had a .989 OPS last year, and his career OPS is .978.

And after Guerrero, it’s ugly. Garret Anderson (.302/.327/.430 for a .756 OPS) is the only other hitter on the team with at least 50 at-bats who is above the following marks: .245 batting average, .305 on-base percentage, .420 slugging percentage, .700 OPS.

The only other player on the entire team who clears any — not all, any — of those numbers is Bengie Molina, who is hitting .282/.341/.513 (.854) in just 39 at-bats.

The only reason the Angels have a winning record right now is their pitching staff. The rotation has been solid (4.05 ERA, led by an impressive 2.91 ERA from Bartolo Colon) and the bullpen has been ridiculous. The Angels relievers have a 2.56 ERA, and four of the six relievers with more than five innings pitched have an ERA of 2.70 or lower.

Los Angeles better hope that the pitching staff holds up for a while, because the offense is hitting .242/.294/.380 for a .674 team OPS. The Angels are 11th in the AL in batting average, last in OBP and 13th in both SLG and OPS.

Things will get better, but this isn’t really a good offensive team. Darin Erstad has a .642 OPS after putting up a still-not-very-good .746 OPS last year, but guess what his OPS was in 2003? .642.

Orlando Cabrera’s .670 OPS isn’t far out of line with the rest of his career numbers. Steve Finley (.693 OPS) has taken good care of his body, but he’s 40 years old, and that’s an age when the ability to hit can simply disappear. Chone Figgins (.646 OPS) was better than this last year, but he still wasn’t great (.769 OPS).

Anderson would seem like a candidate for a big improvement, but he’s getting older and he’s only had two seasons with significantly better production than what he’s doing right now.

I’m not saying that none of these hitters will see a significant uptick in production, just that none of them are guaranteed to. At least one or two of them are going to have to, however, if the Angels really want to have a good team.

Minnesota Twins, 21-15

Minnesota’s biggest flaw thus far has been bad luck. Based on each team’s runs scored and runs allowed numbers, the Twins should be about a game behind the White Sox. Instead, they’re five back.

Just as with the White Sox, the pitchers have been carrying the hitters for the Twins. Minnesota is second in the AL in ERA (to Chicago), but only eighth in runs scored.

So, who is the main culprit for Minnesota on offense? How about just about anybody who hits right-handed. The Twins have three left-handed hitters on the roster — Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Jacque Jones.

Mauer is hitting .324/.405/.472 (.877). Morneau is hitting .381/.409/.714 (1.123). Jones is hitting .296/.414/.491 (.904).

Of the right-handed hitters, only Matthew LeCroy (.299/.386/.506 — .893) has an OPS better than .750. The only other righty with an OPS better than .725 is Mike Redmond (.748), and he only has 22 at-bats.

Shannon Stewart is hitting .281/.339/.386 (.725) and Torii Hunter is hitting .252/.322/.402 (.723). Last year, Stewart’s OPS was about 100 points higher (.827) and Hunter’s was 80 points better (.805).

More damaging is that Lew Ford, who surprised just about everybody by hitting .302/.383/.461 (.845) in his first 188 games, is hitting just .256/.324/.352 (.676).

Then there are the non-Morneau infielders. Michael Cuddyer, who finally earned a full-time starting job this year, is trying his best to lose it by hitting .257/.315/.345 (.660). Jason Bartlett, who won the job at shortstop with a strong Spring Training, is hitting just .242/.310/.374 (.684).

Nick Punto, who was just named the regular starter at second base, is only hitting .256/.322/.341 (.664). He only looks good in comparison to the player he replaced — Luis Rivas — who is “hitting” an abysmal .192/.259/.192 (.451).

The Twins are going to have one of the best pitching staffs in the AL, but they need more offense. The outfielders who aren’t hitting as well as last year need to pick things up, and at least one of those infielders needs to start hitting at least decently.

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