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MLB: A Sea of Changes

   by Scott Spreitzer - 05/04/2011

Baseball is unique from other sports in that there are 162 games during the regular season, with teams playing just about every day for six months. That’s twice as much as a pro basketball regular season (82 games) and ten times more than an NFL season (16 games). That means there is an enormous amount of change taking place every day when it comes to handicapping baseball.

The White Sox quietly had a good start to the season at 6-3, which wasn’t surprising as their seemed to be plenty of talent, depth and flexibility. With the exception of the 2007 season, either the White Sox or Twins have won the American League Central title each year since 2002. Chicago kept Chris Sale in the bullpen and signed free agent Will Ohman to give the Sox three left-handed relievers in an effort to neutralize Minnesota's formidable left-handed hitters such as Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Denard Span and Jim Thome.

Yet, after that decent start the White Sox have been in a tailspin. The offense has been a disaster, with Alex Rios batting .168 and newcomer Adam Dunn worse at .157. Dunn has always been a guy who helps offenses even when he’s not hitting as he has a great ability to draw walks, but his on-base percentage with Chicago is below .300. Which means the last four years his OBP has fallen from .417, to .386, to .398, to .356 and now below .300. The team's on-base percentage is 23rd in baseball, real bad when you factor in all the talent they seemingly have.

The final indignity of this bad offensive start was Francisco Liriano’s no-hitter this week. 27 up and 27 down? Far from perfect. He threw 123 pitches, walked six and was clearly gassed late. Yet, the White Sox still couldn’t take advantage in a frustrating 1-0 loss. And his ERA was 9.31 coming in!

During a miserable 4-15 stretch Chicago scored a total of 50 runs. But the thing about baseball is that things change all the time, so keep up on any changes the White Sox make. It could lead to a team suddenly going on a nice run. After all, as bad as the hitting has been, the pitching staff has a decent starting rotation. And the White Sox still are considering a six-man rotation when Jake Peavy returns from a minor league rehabilitation assignment, which could be as early as next week.

"I like the idea because I give more rest to the guys, mostly Mark Buehrle," said manager Ozzie Guillen. Starter Gavin Floyd didn't finish each of the past two seasons because of injuries and Peavy could use more time off between starts. The White Sox are 17-8 in their last 25 games against a team with a winning percentage below .400, so perhaps an easy stretch in the schedule can get things turned around in the Windy City.

While the White Sox are a mystery, the Twins have struggled for obvious reasons: Injuries. Twins DH Jim Thome was put on the 15-day DL with a left oblique strain and Joe Mauer is still out, though he will resume light throwing and hitting this week. With slugger Thome out, they promoted infielder Trevor Plouffe from Class AAA Rochester. Thome, 40, is batting .214 with two homers and seven RBI. He will be eligible to return from the DL on May 16.

Plouffe returns to the majors just as the Twins have apparently pulled the plug on the Alexi Casilla shortstop experiment. Manager Ron Gardenhire started Casilla at second base this week, with Matt Tolbert moving to shortstop. They instructed Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the team's Opening Day second baseman, to take grounders at shortstop as he rehabs from a broken leg injury in Florida. But Nishioka remains at least one week from returning from the disabled list, and Plouffe will fill the gap.

Casilla made four errors in 21 games at shortstop and is batting .194 with a .257 on-base percentage. Note that Gardenhire does not want to use injuries as an excuse, either: He had a dozen players out for early hitting at 2 p.m. Tuesday, some of them in ski caps, and followed it up with a move showing that the status quo wasn't OK. He switched Alexi Casilla from shortstop back to second base, essentially admitting he screwed up the middle-infield decision in spring training when he set Casilla at short and Tsuyoshi Nishioka at second.

Moves like that may seem immaterial, but for handicapping purposes it’s essential to keep up on every move a team makes. If a struggling veteran starter is sent down and a kid up from Triple-AAA takes his spot in the rotation, that’s important. It’s important because many times teams have no book on a pitcher and in his first time around the league he can do extremely well as no one has seen him before.

Also, it’s important to find out: Was the player any good at Triple AAA? Is he a lefty? What kind of stuff does he throw? The Red Sox, for instance, have a heavy lefty offensive lineup and have struggled so far against southpaws. A team like the Twins ranks 30th in baseball in runs scored because of all their injuries. The under is 4-1 in the Twins last 5 games vs. a left-handed starter and 8-3 under the total in their last 11 games as a road underdog. They are also 12-5 under the total in the Twins last 17 road games. But do those total trends shift when the offense gets healthy?

Another team that has changes taking place is the NY Mets. The offense picked up considerably two weeks ago when RF Jason Bay got back in the lineup as they ripped off six wins in a row. They also just topped the Phillies, 2-1, as a +178 dog.

Now if they can get their catching situation straightened out. Josh Thole has thrown out only 15.3 percent (4-of-26) of runners attempting to steal against him and they are looking to make a move with Ronny Paulino. In addition, lefty ace Johan Santana is throwing the ball well while rehabbing. He’s getting better, but won’t be back until early July (circle that on your handicapping calendar). By the way, the Mets are 9-24 in their last 33 games vs. a right-handed starter.

Another factor is trades. The Giants apparently are trying to upgrade their offense with 3B Jose Reyes of the Mets. This is why there are so many avenues to examine when handicapping baseball: injuries, minor league players, newcomers, four-five-or-six man rotations, starters going on four days of rest, road travel, bullpen overuse and even ballpark configurations. Changes are continues on the diamond and in the dugouts. But piecing all these things together will help gain an advantage over oddsmakers and the rewards all well worth it!

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