Monday, August 15, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, August 15, 2022 -- "Third Third Previews, Pt. 5"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 73
August 15, 2022

We come to the last of the Third Third series, which doubles as my top six teams from the preseason. Four of these six teams are among the best teams in baseball, and I still project that all six will make the playoffs, unless the White Sox suffer 11 more key injuries.

Listed records as of Monday morning. Number in front is the team’s preseason Newsletter rank, which is also the order in which the teams are listed. Note that a number of these teams were covered at the deadline and they will get most of our attention down the stretch.

6. New York Yankees (72-43, +201 run differential)

There are some cracks developing in a roster that peaked at 38 games above .500 five weeks ago. Since then, the Yankees are just 11-20. It’s really not quite that bad; the Yankees have outscored their opponents over the 31 games, and have just had all the one-run games go sideways: 4-11 in one-run games, including 1-5 in the stupid-runner contests. Neither their playoff berth or AL East title is in any danger of yet, but the slump has allowed the Astros to pass them for the best record in the AL and home-field advantage in a possible Yankees/Astros ALCS.

Injuries have played a big role, with the pitching staff taking the biggest hit. Righty relief sensation Michael King joined veteran Chad Green in being done for year. Luis Severino is out until September, as much to manage his workload as his lat strain. Against this backdrop the Yankees traded for Frankie Montas, Lou Trivino, and Scott Effross, then then dealt away Jordan Montgomery, upgrading their pitching without adding many innings.

Watching the Yankees, it’s the offense that concerns me more. It was always top-heavy, the team electing to play gloves behind the plate and at shortstop this year, and not getting much from Joey Gallo or Aaron Hicks in front of those lineup spots. Matt Carpenter’s emergence helped keep the line moving until he suffered a broken foot las week. With Giancarlo Stanton sidelined with a left Achilles issue, there are many nights when the offense looks like Aaron Judge and not much help. Once you get past DJ Lemahieu (now dealing with a toe injury), Judge and Anthony Rizzo, you’re left with a lot of right-handed batters helpless against right-handed pitching. Josh Donaldson has a .236/.312/.401 line with a 30% strikeout rate. Gleyber Torres is at .236/.292/.376. All Aaron Hicks does is walk (.211/.342/.298). All Andrew Benintendi does, at his best, is slap singles. The gloves who hit behind them are gloves. Harrison Bader, if he can come back healthy next month, will help the defense but do nothing to fix this problem.

The overall numbers are good to the Yankees, who are second in MLB in runs and wRC+. Getting Stanton back will stretch the lineup to four, and maybe Carpenter returns late in the year. Looking at this team, though, I’m convinced that when it falters, it’s going to be because teams just stop pitching to Aaron Judge and take their chances with everyone else, and do it with the kind of power right-handed relief that the AL playoff field will have in spades. If Carpenter never makes it back, that will be a winning strategy.

5. Atlanta Braves (70-46, +97)

Last year the Braves made a late-season push driven in part by trade-deadline pickups. This year, it’s all about their homegrown players.

Austin Riley is a contender for the NL MVP award with a .294/.356/.582 season to date. Michael Harris II is on his way to the NL Rookie of the Year Award, hitting .289/.328/.496 and playing plus defense in center field. William Contreras has hit .259/.338/.524 and made the All-Star team. Vaughn Grissom got called up after both Ozzie Albies and Orlando Arcia got hurt, and a week into his career has never lost a game in the majors. Grissom worked an 11-pitch walk in the ninth inning yesterday to key the Braves 3-1 win. Kyle Muller, who would probably be starting for 27 other teams, was called up Saturday to take a doubleheader start and threw five solid innings in a win. He joined, briefly, Braves farm products Kyle Wright and Spencer Strider in the rotation, two pitchers who have combined for a 3.13 ERA in 224 innings.

Imagine writing a paragraph that long and having no room for Ronald Acuña Jr. That’s how good the Braves’ young players have been this year.

With so much confidence in their own farm system, the Braves played the trade deadline lightly, adding Robbie Grossman and Jake Odorizzi in minor deals. Their primary move was to trade World Series Game Five starter Tucker Davidson for Raisel Iglesias and a willingness to take on the last three years of paying Iglesias. With Iglesias in house and now Kirby Yates coming off the IL, the Braves’ playoff bullpen could be very deep even before the possibility that Spencer Strider lands in it.

The problem the Braves have is up north. The Mets have taken eight of 12 from them, creating the 5 1/2-game gap between the two teams. They’ll get seven more cracks at the Metropolitans starting Monday night in Atlanta, kicking off a four-game series. At this point in the season, the Braves can’t just tread water, and need to take at least three if they’re going to chase down the Mets. They’d be advised to start out hot, as the Mets send Max Scherzer to the mound Wednesday and then Jacob deGrom Thursday. I said this about the Brewers/Cardinals series on Friday, and I’ll say it about this one now: It’s one of the biggest left on the 2022 schedule.

4. Chicago White Sox (59-56, -14)

The White Sox have been the most disappointing team in baseball this year, their lack of depth brutally exposed by a never-ending string of injuries. This was predictable. From April 11:

“Their margin for error, though, is a little smaller than it was two weeks ago, and the injuries have underlined just how thin they are. Disaster seasons can happen just like the team chasing the Sox remembers all too well.”

Rick Hahn made very few additions to his squad over the winter, mostly bolstering the bullpen with Kendall Graveman and Joe Kelly, then swapping contracts with the Dodgers to bring in A.J. Pollock for Craig Kimbrel. He doubled down on his roster at the trade deadline, making only a small deal that added Jake Diekman to the pen for backup catcher Reese McGuire. Hahn, arguably hampered by one of the worst farm systems in the game, was unable to improve an offense that, even at full health, features far too many bad hitters. On any given night, the Sox might be starting four, even five players with sub-.300 OBPs.

They really have had a brutal year of injuries. The White Sox core consists of Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez, Andrew Vaughn, and Jose Abreu. Those five have started together nine times in 115 games. Outside that group. Yasmani Grandal missed six weeks and Lance Lynn missed two months. Yoan Moncada, who could be considered part of that core, has collapsed to a .198/.266/.315 line. The White Sox are 56-53 with perhaps three position players meeting expectations and no one exceeding them.

The Sox go into the final third, however, as healthy as they have been all season. They have their five starters in place, the bullpen is intact, and of that core, only Tim Anderson is on the IL. Their weekend sweep over the Tigers helped them tie the Twins, and both sit 2 1/2 games back of the Guardians. The Sox have seven games left with the latter, including four in Cleveland in a wraparound series this weekend. They have nine left with the Twins, including the final three of the season on the South Side. As rough as the first four months have been, the Sox are still in position to, are still my pick to, take the AL Central.

3. Houston Astros (75-41, +141)

For the second straight trade deadline, James Click made a series of surgical strikes that didn’t make headlines, but did make the Astros a little bit better, a little bit harder to beat in a short series. We covered the way adding Trey Mancini improves the offense, and that trade looms larger with Michael Brantley’s season-ending surgery. They also got Christian Vazquez as an upgrade on Martin Maldonado and Will Smith to be the LOTBY (Left-Handed Three-Batter Guy, with apologies to John Sickels).

Like the Yankees and Dodgers, the Astros entered the deadline thinking more about October than August and September. Their place in the tournament is assured, as is their bye, and their games now are largely to determine who will have home-field advantage in an ALCS against the Yankees.

The Astros, with the return of Lance McCullers (six shutout innings in his debut), have six average or better starting pitchers, an incredible luxury in today’s game. Five of them are completely homegrown, as is three-quarters of the infield and three of the four regular outfielders. The MVP candidate at DH was acquired in a trade before he ever played a pro game in the U.S. Look around the league, and you’ll find players drafted and/or developed by the Astros playing starring roles for the Twins, the Padres, the Blue Jays, all on very expensive contracts. The Astros turned Gerrit Cole into GERRIT COLE and Charlie Morton into an October legend.

Reputations are hard to shake, and for some people, certainly people who live near me, the sign stealing will be the only story of this era of Astros baseball. We’re three years past it now, though, with almost everyone involved -- and all the people in power -- having left Houston, and the Astros are just getting better. Long after the echoes of the trash-can banging have gone silent, what we will be left with is an epic run of talent development that produced three pennants and one World Series title, and is not over yet.

2. Tampa Bay Rays (60-53, +21)

They haven’t looked like a playoff team in a really long time. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, they’re the worst baserunning team in baseball, and they’re the worst Rays defensive team in quite some time. Their pitching depth has been tested by an epic run of injuries.

Mostly, though, they’ve looked like a Rays team from before they started hitting. They’re 11th in the AL in runs, tenth in OBP, a miserable 13th in SLG. Playing in the Trop means all that comes out to a 101 wRC+, slightly above average, but that includes Harold Ramirez (142 OPS+) and Wander Franco (105) and Manuel Margot (131), none of whom have played in a while. The Rays’ young players have been a disaster, with Vidal Brujan (.167/.230/.246) and Josh Lowe (.221/.284/.343) failing to launch in multiple opportunities. Their failures and the injuries around them have forced Erik Neander to go outside the organization, and that hasn’t worked, either. Trades for Luke Raley, Christian Bethancourt, David Peralta, and Jose Siri have not paid dividends. The Rays have the worst kind of offense, one that strikes out a lot (24%, sixth in MLB) without the power that’s supposed to come with all that whiffing (.377 SLG, 24th; .139 isolated power, 22nd).

The Rays got to 34-23 on June 9, and have been foundering ever since, a 26-30 mark in a little over two months. They slipped out of playoff position over the weekend, only to move back in with two wins over the Orioles. The good news is they’re edging closer to full health. Pete Fairbanks came back just before the All-Star break, and he’s probably the team’s best reliever. Margot started a rehab assignment last week, Ramirez started one Sunday, and Franco is a couple of days behind Ramirez. All three should be back at the Trop by September 1, and likely sooner. That should be enough to drag the offense above average, and more importantly, stave off the collection of .510 teams behind them in the playoff chase.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (79-34, +247)

Back around Opening Day I was asked if we should be on #117Watch with the Dodgers. I’d taken to using the hashtag last year when early in the season it looked like they had a chance to set the all-time wins record. I dismissed the idea this year because I just don’t think the incentives are in place. Sports teams are no longer judged by their regular season work, but by whether they win the championship. It’s a pretty lousy way to enjoy sports, if you ask me, but I don’t make the rules.

The Dodgers still aren’t on #117Watch, I don’t think, but a 30-4 run dating to early July at least made me think about it. They lost yesterday to the Royals, dropping them under .700. To get to 117 wins they would have to close 38-11, a .776 pace that seems out of reach until you note that they’ve played .842 ball since the start of July.

The Dodgers can, with a good week, move to the top of this list, the best 40-game stretches in baseball history.

-dians    2017    35-5
Tigers    1984    35-5
Royals    1977    35-5
Dodgers   2022    34-6
Dodgers   2017    34-6
Yankees   1998    34-6

Do the Dodgers feel like a .700 team? We know that they have superstars, but none of their regulars are playing far above their heads, and a few of them, Cody Bellinger in particular, have been disappointing. Max Muncy is having his worst year as a major leaguer. Walker Buehler has missed two months and Clayton Kershaw is out as well. With all that, they’re winning 70% of their games and outscoring their opponents by two runs a game.

After making the biggest trade at last year’s deadline, Andrew Friedman kept his powder dry, secure in the knowledge that his team will have the best record in baseball this year and home-field advantage for as long as they advance. Picking up Chris Martin added a different look in the bullpen, and trading for Joey Gallo is a worthwhile -- and basically free -- gamble on a player who has star upside. If nothing else, he adds yet another plus defensive outfielder to the Dodgers’ mix.

(So, I couldn’t write this at the time of the Andrew Benintendi trade, because Joey Gallo’s playing time was uncertain. It’s taken me a bit to get to the Yankees and Dodgers in the Third Thirds. Once Gallo was traded to the Dodgers, though, I wrote this on Slack and will just have to ask you to trust me if you didn’t see it there: Gallo will out-hit Benintendi over the rest of the season.)

The Dodgers will get their improvements internally. They have given looks to top prospects Miguel Vargas and Ryan Pepiot. Andrew Heaney is off the IL and back in the rotation. Dustin May will make his return Saturday against the Marlins after looking fantastic in his rehab starts. Buehler isn’t throwing from a mound yet, but the Dodgers will work to get him back for the Division Series, still two months away. That’s when the Dodgers season really starts.