Wednesday, August 8, 2012

MLB Dog Days of Summer Check-in: How bad is it in Boston and Houston?

You know your perennial All-Star first baseman? He's not turning it around. Hoping that your bullpen can start to hold down leads? It's not happening. Praying that your center fielder is going to regain that sock in his bat? Switch religions. 

It's the "dog days of summer". If your team isn't playing to how you thought they would, then what you see is what you got.  Baseball is over 100 games into its season, so hoping for a late season surge has gone from unlikely to damn near impossible. Sorry kids, time to start saying "well, there's always next year."

The only good to come out of this desolate section of the summer? The playoffs are right around the corner, and the herd is rapidly being thinned out. As the air has gotten thicker and the temperature has risen to record heights, teams throughout the league start dragging and the true core and character of your favorite squad has begun to rise to the top. We know who the contenders are, and sadly for some, who will be selecting in the upper half of the MLB draft next season. Over the next few days, MAMBINO will be taking a look at what has gone horribly wrong with some teams, but unsuspectingly right with others.

The Red Sox are nine games back of the Yankees in the AL East but only four and a half games back of the Tigers, Orioles and A's for the Wild Card. They're pretty far away from being dead in the water, but if you were to listen to the national media, you'd think that they were absolutely toasted. My first question is, in a season of incredible lows, what's been the worst part of it for you as a Sox fan? And do you think that they can make the playoffs, and will make the playoffs?
Mr. Marquez: Before 2004, we lived by the same mantra as Cubs fans do today: “There’s always next season.” After 2004, things were never going to be the same for a whole generation of Red Sox fans. Nor should they be. The passion isn’t the same - the pain of a loss, the scrutiny of a manager, the anticipation of a Yankee game, the desire to be inside Fenway – it isn’t on the unhealthy obsessive level. When a goal has been accomplished, it’s easy to lose motivation.

Since then we have continued to be spoiled as a city. Four months after the Red Sox swept the Cardinals, Tom Brady won his third Super Bowl. Two years after that the Red Sox won again this time with a core that was younger and primed to be a perennial juggernaut. Jon Lester threw only 63 innings that year after beating cancer. Dustin Pedroia was an MVP in his second season. Jacoby Ellsbury was in his first year and didn’t start in center field until the World Series. Clay Buchholz was left off the post-season roster after throwing a no-hitter in his third career start. The Patriots became the first team to go undefeated since the Dolphins (hey, they made it to the Super Bowl, okay?). The Celtics acquired Ray Allen and KG and won immediately. The Bruins somehow even managed to sneak in and win a Cup two summers ago. And the Patriots made it to a fifth Super Bowl in eleven years – maybe the most impressive team accomplishment of the 21st Century.

When you are spoiled though, expectations do get higher. When Jonathan Papelbon blew the save and Evan Longoria hit the home run, it brought out comparisons of Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner. THAT wound opened up. The Red Sox blew a 9 game lead with only 27 left. Think about if Seattle came back to take the Wild Card right now. It wouldn’t be worse than what the Red Sox did last season. The moment that Longoria touched on home plate it was one of those "let’s get them next season" moments.

And that’s why the worst part of this season has been every attempt by management to side with the players. It started when John Henry made a spontaneous appearance in the studio of The Sports Hub where Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti were predictably teeing off on everyone in the organization for chicken, beer, and choking. Henry had the opportunity to show the fans, the team, and the rest of the front office that he was drawing a line. And he didn’t. He defended everyone except Carl Crawford. The team had failed, and they did it in a way that painted an awful picture for how important winning was in this town. Here's a couple of other ways this has happened:

  • The Red Sox responded by first “firing” Terry Francona and replacing him with Bobby Valentine. Bobby V is considered a brilliant baseball mind by all accounts, but was brought in especially with an eye toward getting in players faces rather than coddling them. But there was one slight problem with the whole idea:  new GM Ben Cherington didn’t want Bobby V. He wanted the guy that old GM Theo Epstein hired in Chicago, Dale Sveum. Thus something was probably worked out behind closed doors and the rest of the staff were not really "Bobby’s guys". It's not surprising at all then that of course the coaches don’t all get along.
  • While the team parted ways with Jason Varitek and Time Wakefield (it wasn't exactly a difficult decision as neither guy drew interest from any of the other 29 teams) and Jonathan Papelbon, the players at the center of the team’s collapse in September – John Lackey, Jon Lester, and of course Josh Beckett - were all still here.
  • Fast forward to the season. Bobby V criticizes veteran Kevin Youkilis for not showing any fire at the plate and immediately becomes a symbol of evil among the players. Cherington jumps to Youk’s defense and Bobby has an awkward apology. Meanwhile, the fact that Youkilis is not performing is completely lost on everyone. Is a professional athlete really this fragile that he can’t hear a little criticism from his manager?
  • Then there’s Beckett. The former 2007 ALCS MVP has turned into a guy with no redeeming qualities. He has missed a turn in the rotation, but been healthy enough to golf. He won’t talk to the media. And if you ask anyone in the organization about him you would think they had him confused with Missy Franklin. 
Will they make the playoffs this season? No. The Tigers are better. The Angels are better. And since the Rays get Longoria back, they are better too. It also doesn’t help that the Red Sox play 32 of their last 50 on the road. They have won in my lifetime, but this will make it three straight years that they have missed the playoffs and four straight that they will not have won a playoff game. 

I think I’m ready to be emotionally invested again. 

The Houston Astros are 7.5 games back of the Chicago Cubs. They are the worst team in baseball's worst division. Next year they move to the American League. How did things get so bad? Will they be the first team to win 25% or less of their games since the 1962 Mets next season?

KOBEsh: Lets get into the most intriguing part of this discussion which is: just how bad is this Astros team? Well, they're pretty awful. At the beginning of the season, MAMBINO asked if this Astros team could be as bad as the 2003 Detroit Tigers, losers of an American League record 119 games. We said that the team wasn't quite that horrific, but it wouldn't be far off: 110 losses sounded just about right.
111 games into it, the Astros haven't gone 0-111, but they're not far off. The Astros are playing at a .324 clip, on pace for....52-110. Spot on! I'd feel great about this if nailing the record of a bad team was an Olympic sport.
The root of this no doubt historical season for the Astros is all the major problems you'd expect with a major league organization that's played to a record 77 games under .500 since going to the World Series in 2005. The Astros started their rebuilding in the middle of the 2010 season, when they should have started two years earlier.  Their returns for trading Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Lance Berkman, Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence could have left with them with something substantially better than the 18th-best farm system in the Majors. Instead, the Astros are stuck with a young team, which isn't always a bad thing, but when the ceiling for these young players is a .327 winning percentage, it's a really, really, really bad thing.
Which leads to the second part of the problem: the Astros, while winning in the middle of the last decade, weren't drafting nearly as successfully as their on-field team was playing. Players like Bud Norris, Jordan Lyles, Chris Johnson, Brian Bogusevic and Jason Castro haven't turned out nearly the way that the team had projected. Houston's scouting has been awful, and this putrid team of over the hill one-time prospects expresses that out loud. Moreover, because the major league team was winning, they continually were signing high-priced free agents, at the cost of compensatory first round picks coming from their draft. So while the squad in Houston was experiencing nearly unprecedented success, the farm system was slowly withering away.
That all being said, it's going to be difficult for even the Astros to lose more than three quarters of their games, but not completely out of the question. The team has been playing .324 ball, but with veterans like Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez and Carlos Lee being traded away, Houston is getting less experienced and though those players aren't elite, they certainly are starting-caliber major leaguers.
Looking at their schedule, the Astros have just about 39 games left, and 27 of those are against teams that are .500 or better. Let's say that they lost to all of the winning teams and beat all of the losing teams (who, including the Cubs and Brewers, have sub-.500 records that are better than the Astros'), they'd finish at 49-113, which leaves them with a .302 winning percentage. They'd have to lose 36 games and only win 4 more to come close to the Mets' 1962 record.  Combining the difficulty of their schedule and loss of their veteran players, it's still possible, but improbable. They're the awful team we forecasted, but not that awful. I expect the Astros to lose around 110 games, which would be "just" the worst in franchise history, rather worst in MLB history.

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