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Now that we are a few weeks into the season, let’s take stock. The Rockies and Braves play each other with the best records in baseball on the line. Former aces look mortal and sluggers are slumping. Everyone is overreacting, but it is important to remember: we are only a few weeks into the season! It’s a small sample size. Still, it doesn’t take long until a sample becomes a trend. With that in mind, here are the hot and cold starts and what to actually believe.

Hot Teams

Boston Red Sox 12-6 (.667) 1st Place AL East as of 3/23

Last year, the Red Sox finished in last place and were part of the salary dump trade to the Dodgers that people saw as a team giving up. And yet, here they are a year later sitting at first place in the AL East with a team and city that is playing for something beyond the standings. 

The Boston offense is producing well, and Mike Napoli looks like he is happy to be out of Texas. Big Papi is back from the DL and the top of the order is healthy (Ellsbury) and getting on base (Pedroia). The offense is doing well, but the success of the Red Sox so far comes down to one thing: pitching.

Last year, the Red Sox starting pitching was among the worst in the league. This year, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester are leading the way. Neither has lost a game yet on the season, and they look like the pitchers everyone expected them to be. So, do you believe it? Well, kind of. The fried chicken fiasco and the attitude of Josh Beckett are long gone. With that departure, the young Boston pitchers lost a bad influence and look like they are taking to new manager John Farrell well. Also important is the arrival of Allen Webster with the big league club. Webster was part of the trade with the Dodgers, and despite all the big names involved, is looking like he might be the diamond in the rough.

The Red Sox picked a great time to get hot. The city of Boston needs something to root for right now, and I think everyone in America is happy that they are succeeding. For now. The Red Sox aren’t going to keep up their current pace, but I am a believer in the younger, healthy rotation. If they can stay healthy, and the offense can continue to put runs on the board, there is no reason that Boston shouldn’t keep winning baseball games. Sports are always important when they come to signify something other than just the standings, and that is happening in the city of Boston right now. In the words of Big Papi:

Colorado Rockies 13-5 (.722) 1st place in NL West as of 3/23

The Rockies have surged out of the gates this year, surprising, given their last place finish in 2012. A healthy Tulowitzki, CarGo and Wilin Rosario lead the offense, while Jorge de la Rosa (2-1, 2.82 ERA) and Jhoulys Chacin (3-0, 1.46 ERA) anchor the staff.

The Rockies are doing well despite almost no roster turnover from last year, with 21 of the 25 roster spots returning from 2012, and no major free agent signings in the offseason. The main thing to focus on with the Rockies, as with any team, is health. Tulo is an all-star caliber shortstop who’s worst enemy is health. If he is healthy, he transforms any lineup. The Rockies offense is legit. Dexter Fowler is having a coming-out party and Rosario is showing that his offensive prowess last year was no fluke. 

Photo credit: Bleacherreport

The Tulo Mullet – Never forget.

However, the pitching will not hold up. Chacin just went on the DL and won’t be back any time soon. De La Rosa has shown potential throughout his career, and could be legit, but the rest of the staff is a shambles. Garland is coming off shoulder surgery, and can’t be trusted to hold up for an entire season. The bullpen is a strong point, but whether they can continue their success all season will come down to the managing of rookie manager Walt Wiess. 

The Rockies are currently scoring 4.22 runs per game, and the offense is capable of continuing at this pace. They may just surprise everyone and be a .500 team, but the starting pitching will not hold up. Expect a come back to earth, as early as tonight against the Braves.

Honorable Mentions:

Atlanta Braves 13-5 (.722) 1st place, NL East – legit. The offense with the additions of Justin Upton and Evan Gattis will have pop all year provided they can keep the strikeouts down. The pitching, including Paul Maholm should continue to keep runs off the board. The team is currently best in the majors with a ridiculous 2.36 ERA, and while this may come up a bit, the Braves are still the team to beat in the NL.

Oakland A’s 12-8 (.600) 2nd Place, AL West – legit (kind of). The A’s have succeeded so far thanks to an incredible 5.26 runs per game so far. There is no way they will keep this up. Coco Crisp is about to hit his season high in homers in the first few weeks. Jed Lowrie is hitting well, but has never been able to stay on the field for a full season. The A’s are a legitimate contender this year, but they will do it with their pitching, not their hitting. The hitters are on a hot streak right now, but the runs per game will come down, and it will be on the pitching staff to pick up the slack for the A’s to make it to the playoffs for the second year in a row.

Cold Teams

The two teams I will be talking about here are actually not doing terribly. They are only a few games below .500 and will both likely climb in the standings soon. However, they are included here because the expectations for success were so high. The Dodgers and Jays will both be fine and both be contenders by the end of the year, but they are both off to cold starts, and here is why:

LA Dodgers 8-10 (.444) 4th place, NL West

The Dodgers have run cold so far this year. Everything starts and ends with pitching, and even Clayton Kershaw has looked mortal (not counting opening day when he crushed my Giants). Zach Greinke landed on the DL after a brawl with Carlos Quentin. The rest of the staff has looked average, but none have stood out. Meanwhile, the offense is bipolar. Big name acquisitions such as Adrian Gonzalez (.385 avg) and Carl Crawford (.338 avg) are hitting great, while local stars Matt Kemp (.235 avg) Andre Ethier (.230 avg) are slumping badly. The hot and cold starts should even out, as good hitters don’t stay cold for long. That being said, there are some real problems with this team.

Photo Credit: USA Today

Not a good way to start a season.

The left side of the infield is weak. Shortstop and third base is currently a merry-go-round of average to bad players, and even when Hanley Ramirez comes back from the DL, the Dodgers will have below average defense and average offense at third or short depending on how they structure their lineup card. Kershaw is fine, but the rest of the staff could have troubles. Ryu is still adjusting to American baseball, Greinke is out indefinitely, Billingsley is having Tommy John and done for the year, Lilly is coming off another surgery, and Josh Beckett’s best years are far behind him. The bullpen is not yet reliable, and manager Don Mattingly has not yet figured out the intricacies of managing a bullpen over the course of the season.

There is a lot to worry about with the Dodgers, maybe buying a championship isn’t as easy as we thought.

Toronto Blue Jays 8-12 (.400) 5th place, AL East

Speaking of buying a championship: the Toronto Blue Jays are also having some troubles with their new roster. Fresh off relieving the city of Miami of their baseball team, the Jays are struggling to put it all together. Jose Reyes was lost to injury on a bad slide during an attempted steal of second base. Jose Bautista is still dealing with some nagging back issues, and the Jays are 2-4 without him in the lineup. Meanwhile, starters Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle have yet to contribute much in a Jays uniform.

Photo Credit: NY Daily News

Reyes may only be able to watch the Jays for most of this season

The Jays are batting .227 as a whole, good for 3rd worst in baseball behind the Mariners and Marlins. Meanwhile, the pitching staff has given up the second most runs in baseball behind only the Astros. If we go based on the numbers alone, the Jays should actually have a worse record than 8-12 at this point. They have been bailed out a bit by the long ball (21 on the year) and the arrival of J.P. Arencibia as a power threat, but the Jays seem to be trending in the wrong direction. A healthy Bautista will do a lot to curb some losses, but the Jays do not seem to be doing any better with the 2012 Miami Marlins roster than the 2012 Miami Marlins did.

Buster Posey vs. Clayton Kershaw – An Extended DebateImage

The Fastball

By: Ryan

While Ned Colletti has had a fairly quiet offseason, signing only two players, his acquisition of Zach Greinke and South Korean Ryu Hyun-jin added over $180 million dollars to the books, raising the Dodgers projected payroll to $214 million. With a lot money being thrown around and a surplus of pitchers (the Dodgers currently have eight starters), the Dodgers find themselves in an interesting situation, as Clayton Kershaw will be due for a contract extension at the end of the season. Colletti has made a push to make the Dodgers contenders in 2013, but his work is far from over, as he still has one major job; Colletti needs to make the most important lockdown in the NL West by giving Clayton Kershaw a longterm contract extension.

Kershaw’s career with the Dodgers up to this point has led him to become one of the best pitchers in the Major Leagues and the best left-hander in Dodger history since Sandy Koufax. After winning the Cy Young in 2011 with the pitching Triple Crown, Kershaw followed up his NL best performance with an equally dominant season. Kershaw’s 2012 season resume reads as follows: MLB leading ERA, NL leading WHIP, NL leading K, NL leading WAR, and the third best BABIP (batting average on balls in play) in the NL. Based on stats alone, it’s easy to see that Kershaw’s Cy Young runner-up performance was as equally dominant as R.A. Dickey’s season in 2012.

Kershaw’s control of the mound began in the two season prior to 2011 (his first two full seasons in the league). During these seasons, his ERA was under 3 and he averaged just under 200 K’s (198.5). He had a combined WAR of 9.9, all while pitching a combined 90 innings less than his most recent two season total. With four strong seasons completed, Kershaw has proven to be one of the most consistent pitchers in the game, making his longterm contract extension one of the safest bets in the Bigs.

Furthermore, Kershaw has proven his capabilities at the plate over the past two years with .225 (’11) and .207 (’12) batting averages. It’s not everyday that those numbers earn you praise at the plate, but those averages coupled with a two year total of 25 sacrifice bunts and a 20% strikeout per plate appearance ratio (nearly 15% less than that of Adam Dunn), show that Kershaw is no easy 9 spot. Good hitting pitchers are hard to come by and they have a significant impact on the game from both an offensive and defensive standpoint. Offensively, these pitches provide the runs they need to obtain/hold a lead in the game which consequently give the pitcher greater freedom on the mound. What’s not always apparent is the defensive impact that these pitchers have by forcing the opposing pitcher to work harder in order to get that normally easy out. This results in higher pitch counts and lower inning totals. Kershaw’s plate competancy combined with his pitching prowess make him one of the most valuable pitchers in the game two years running.

Posey, on the other hand, has had a very volatile first two complete seasons. Excluding the unfortunate incident in 2011, Posey’s first two full seasons, while impressive, still present some major question marks when considering him for a longterm extension.

His rookie campaign, in which he batted .305 and won the NL Rookie of the Year title, only had him playing in 108 games (mostly due to a May call up). The strongest offensive part of the season for Posey occurred in July and August, but were directly followed by his worse two offensive months, where he batted .233. This type of season naturally raises the question of longevity, especially with Posey being a catcher. Catchers are one of the most physical positions in the game, and as a result, many of them wind up facing major injuries in their careers. Between the three highest paid catchers in 2012, all of them have had seasons negatively impacted by injuries. Brian McCann batted a career low .230 in 2012 because he played through a shoulder injury that required offseason reconstruction. Joe Mauler played only 82 games in 2011 due to a difficult recovery from offseason knee surgery (among other health problems). Finally, Mike Napoli was forced to take a pay cut when the Red Sox discovered scarring on his hips during his post-contract signing physical. While the Giants have been attempting to protect the knees of their franchise catcher by having him play first base during the season, similar to Mauer, Posey remains predominantly a catcher, and as result, carries a larger injury risk compared to other players.

While pitchers can be just as risky, Kershaw has been fortunate to deal with only minor injuries not associated with his throwing elbow or shoulder. Kershaw battled with plantar fasciitis (inflammation in arch tendon of foot) and a hip strain, which put his health in question at the end of 2012. Yet, these injuries did not result in any major negative effects on his pitching mechanics, and both should be eliminated or manageable by 2013. Most importantly, Kerhsaw has lacked any sort of injury in his elbow or shoulder. This is in large part due to Kershaw’s plus form. ESPN posted an interesting article on pitching characteristics that cause extraneous strain on the shoulder and elbow, resulting in major injuries. Using many “good examples” from the article, Kershaw maintains an upright form, with a slight lean toward first base, and doesn’t let his elbow lag behind his rotation, thereby reducing the risk association with bad form.

The obvious rebuttal to Posey’s lackluster finish to his 2010 season is his most recent season, in which he finished .364 between September and October. There is no doubt that Posey’s second half was a necessity if the Giants were to pull ahead and into the playoffs, but it will be hard to match in the future by any player, let alone Posey himself. It must also be noted that Posey cooled off once the playoffs came around, batting a mere .200. Thus, while this regular season ending streak may serve as a testament to his longevity and potential, it comes after a yearlong break and raises the question as to whether this was an exceptional year or the norm.

There is no doubt that Posey is an integral part of the Giants lineup and one of the main factors that resulted in their two World Series Championships in three years. However, it is hard to determine what an average Buster Posey year looks like. Thus any contract made by Sabean will include a substantially larger amount of risk when compared to a similar contract given to Kershaw by Colletti.  Thus, Kershaw’s tenure has proven him to be the safer bet and similarly more deserving of the extension when compared to Buster Posey. The Dodger ace has consistency, solid form, and top of the rotation stuff which makes him the most worthy of a longterm contract (which I estimate at seven years/$185 million) all at the ripe young age of 25.

Other reads on this portion of the post can be found here, here, and here.

The Changeup

By: Matt

Buster Posey vs. Clayton Kershaw: a matchup that Giants and Dodger fans will see for many years to come. But for how many years is still up in the air. Both Kershaw and Posey are in their arbitration years, and both have been the subject of speculation for receiving a long-term contract extension. The two players represent the young stars of their franchise and the importance placed on developing young talent by the two teams in the last few years. While the Dodgers have recently been blessed with some very deep pockets due to a new television deal and new ownership not named McCourt, there has to be a ceiling somewhere. It is likely that both players will receive long term extensions in the next year, but it makes more sense and is more important that the Giants extend Posey than the Dodgers extend Kershaw.

No one has meant more to the Giants than Buster Posey. The first-round draft pick shot up the minors quickly and joined the big-league squad in late 2009. Posey hasn’t stopped hitting since being called up, batting .314 with a .883 OPS in his young career, highlighted by his MVP award in 2012. His defense and pitch calling has been solid as well and the only real question has been his durability and health. I don’t have to remind you of the violent collision at the plate in 2011 that derailed Posey’s season and the Giants with it. However, Buster did everything right in the offseason to get himself in shape for 2012, and Bochy worked some lineup magic to get him 610 plate appearances. Posey started 2012 slow, but got better as he got healthier and more comfortable. Despite two world series rings, an MVP and a Rookie of the Year, Buster Posey has has actually only played one full season. Chew on that for a second and it’s easy to think that the sky is the limit for this young man. Bochy was able to limit Posey’s innings behind the dish by giving him time at 1st and DH, a practice that will probably continue for the rest of his career and allow him to get playing time in almost every game while saving his knees. But this is not necessarily bad, as Hector Sanchez has a good bat at backup, and Brandon Belt has shown some versatility by getting some playing time in Left field.

Another thing that Posey had going for him in 2012 was the lineup around him. In 2010, the team was full of “castoffs and misfits,” and the only rock was Posey batting cleanup. In 2012, it was a different story, and the lineup got better as the year went on. With Pagan, Scutaro, and Melky/Pablo getting on base for him, and Pablo/Pence providing some protection, pitchers had to go after Posey and he was able to make them pay. The only player missing from last year’s top 5 will be Melky, but the Giants actually got better after he left, posting a 26-12 in the regular season after he was suspended. They also clearly were able to get it done without him in the postseason, posting an 11-5 record on their way to the title.

Going into the 2013 season, the Giants will have two players making more than $20 million in the last year of their contracts: Barry Zito and Big Time Timmy Jim Lincecum. Both players, though important to the Giants in winning the World Series two out of the last three years (it’s still awesome just to write that) will probably be looking for new teams come the end of the season. Zito, though he has had his redeeming moments recently, is still probably the worst contract signed by Sabean, and Lincecum, barring a complete turnaround is probably due for a huge contract reduction and likely a new team. While some players will likely receive raises from arbitration and the team will have a decision to make on Hunter Pence, the Giants will be going into the 2013 offseason with a lot of wiggle room in their budget, and with Posey set to receive another raise due to arbitration, it would behoove Sabean to lock Posey up long-term.

So how do you evaluate what kind of contract to give Posey? Well, the Joe Mauer contract would be the obvious place to start. Mauer received his extension coming off an MVP season of his own and received $23 million per year for 7 years on top of his previous contract. Since the deal, Mauer has faced troubles and hasn’t lived up to expectations, and the Twins have suffered with him. The main difference is that Mauer received his contract after 5 full seasons with WARs of 2.5, 5.6, 3.6, 5.3, and 7.6, while Posey has only had one full season, posting WARs of 3.7, 1.3, and 7.2. While the MVP, 7 WAR seasons at the end of those lists look similar, Mauer had been more consistently good, while Posey has not. Though it seems counter-intuitive, this is the reason the Giants should act now. Mauer and his agents had every right to ask for the huge contract in 2010 and were able to get it, while Posey, though he has had one fantastic season, will not be able to ask for as much. It is likely that if the Giants act before Posey puts up another monster season (which he will), the Giants will be able to get Posey locked up during his prime years for under $20 million a year.

The problem with giving Kershaw a long term extension is that by every right, he should get the biggest contract of all time. CC Sabathia will make $23 million in 2013 and Johan Santana will make $24 mil. These seem like decent starting points, but Kershaw has had a better start to his career than either of them. My colleague has just pointed out all of the things Kershaw has going for him, so I will cede to the previous post to show just how good he actually is. So, what kind of contract must the Dodgers offer him? $25 mil would be a starting point, but even that might seem too little considering that they just gave Zach Greinke about $23.5 million a year. Greinke is good, but he is not nearly as talented or reliable as Kershaw, who is and will be a perennial Cy Young candidate. So, where do you draw the line? $28 a year? $30? Considering the money that the Dodgers have been throwing around, Kershaw has every right to ask for it and look elsewhere if they won’t give it to him. The new money from the Dodgers owners has to have a limit, and their offseason moves might actually hinder them from resigning their most important player. The Red Sox contract dump that the Dodgers ignored will certainly help them next season, but in the long run, it may be looked at as one of the worst moves by a general manager in baseball history. Not only are most of the players they took on past their prime, but their contracts will more than double the Dodgers payroll from what it was in 2012. There has to be some limit to what ownership will provide, but the question will be whether they will be able to squeeze another $30 million a year out of Magic Johnson’s ego.

So, who do you think should receive the long term extension? Kershaw or Posey?

Leave your comments below.