The Baseball Savant

where sabermetrics & betting collide with our national pasttime

2012 AL Central Preview and Predictions

In case you haven’t noticed, this is the 3rd installment of my previews & predictions for the 2012 season. I’ve covered both East divisions and the links are as follows:

AL EAST
NL EAST

As always I’ll keep the same format. I’ll list the team alphabetically and list some key questions I think are important for the 2012 season. I’ll try to answer some of those questions or draw them out in paragraph form and then at the very end give my prediction for how the division will finish as per the regular season standings. The AL Central is a pretty interesting division in that it’s the most lopsided division in all of baseball if you take a look at the futures lines out in Vegas. Every division has some intrigue to it except for the AL Central which most people assume Detroit will dominate while the other 4 teams are playing for a .500 record. That isn’t too far from the truth on paper, but what makes things interesting is that you know some team in the Central is going to get hot and at least make a go of it. The trick is knowing who that team will be. Note too that the Central isn’t nearly as bad as some people might think. Cleveland, Chicago & Kansas City definitely have reasons for their fans to tune in. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for one or more of those teams to make a legitimate run.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Key Questions
1. How will Brent Morel & Dayan Viciedo do now that expectations are higher in 2012?
2. Will Adam Dunn ever be Adam Dunn again? How much does he have to retain for Chicago to be happy?
3. John Danks & Gavin Floyd were better than their ERAs indicated? Can they rebound in 2012 and be top of the rotation starters?
4. How will Chris Sale do as a potential #1 starter in his first go around in the White Sox rotation?
5. How long before Addison Reed is closing for Chicago & how long before he’s completely dominant?
6.Will the Sox be better & more relaxed under Robin Ventura than they were under former manager Ozzie Gullen?
7. Where art thou Jake Peavy and how long can you remain healthy in 2012?

One thing that is easy to forget in baseball but is still paramount to success is having your players fit certain profiles at specific positions. The reason a guy like Troy Tulowitzki is so valuable isn’t because he’s such a great hitter, but because he’s such a great hitter at a position that teams need to be thinking about defense first. The same goes for Carlos Santana. Last year Brent Morel was a liability at 3B offensively. With his 76OPS+, Morel probably shouldn’t have been playing at all even if he was Brooks Robinson with the glove. From the start of 2011 until August 14th, Morel was absolutely hacktastic with a slash line of 251/268/311 with a BB% of 1.4%! That isn’t a typo! Morel simply wouldn’t take a walk to save his life. From that point forward, something must have clicked because Morel became a different hitter. From August 15th until the end of the season Morel hit 231/324/485 with a BB% of 11.8%! Morel hit for a lot more power and the slash line could even look better if Morel didn’t have a BABIP of .229 during that time. The White Sox need this because they can’t take a loss at the hot corner. Morel didn’t have this kind of discipline in the minors so it could be seen as evolution as a hitter, but it’ll be interesting to see if Morel can use what he learned in the last month and a half to catapult himself in 2012. Dayan Viciedo is another young player who increased his plate discipline. In 2010 at AAA-Charlotte, Viciedo’s BB% was an even 3.0%. In 2011 at AAA-Charlotte, he increased that rate to 8.9%! A legitimate power hitter, Viciedo has enough power to play RF which should help offset the loss of Carlos Quentin to San Diego. The White Sox are going to get some offensive production from Konerko & Ramirez to be sure, but they need their corner players to hit like corner players. Morel & Viciedo are a big part of that equation.

The move to Chicago didn’t work out so well for Adam Dunn, but that doesn’t mean it can’t end well. From 2004-2010 Adam Dunn posted a 135 OPS+ while averaging 40HR, 101RBI & 107BB. If you followed NL baseball at all you knew that Dunn was not a big fan of playing DH, but he’s a defensive liability and really the only place Dunn fits into the White Sox lineup is at DH. That said, Dunn didn’t have to sign with Chicago, but sign with him he & then proceeded to hit 159/292/277 in 2011. The power was gone as Dunn posted just 11HR, but his BB% was still there. Dunn’s BB% was 15.1% in 2011 and for his career heading into 2011 it stood at 16.3%. A drop but not significantly so. Dunn was burned by a couple of factors. The first was a BABIP that stood at .240 while he spent time in the .320s in the two years prior. The 2nd reason was a HR/FB% of 9.6% whereas for his career heading into 2011 was in the 20% range! Dunn is going to be 32-years old this year so he’s leaving his prime years and he’s going to decline, but there is no doubt Dunn will be better this season. Luck can’t stay that bad forever. We know he’s not going to hit for a high average, but Dunn could easily get back to the 250/370/500 days with 30HR and a 100RBI.

John Danks & Gavin Floyd are the 1-2 starters in the White Sox rotation, but that didn’t mean #1-#2 starter results in 2011. Danks & Floyd combined last season to post a record of 20-25 with a combined ERA+ of less than 100 meaning they were below league average! Throw in the fact that neither made at least 32 starts nor pitched 200IP and they were top of the rotation starters in name only. However, it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Danks sported an ERA of 4.33 but his xFIP was 3.79 showing he threw better than what might be the case at first glance. Danks was the victim of a little higher than usual BABIP & HR/FB%. Danks actually improved his K/9, BB/9 and K/BB showing he actually made advances in his pitching rather than regressions. The same is true for Gavin Floyd. Floyd posted an ERA of 4.37, but his xFIP was 3.73 which was almost identical to Danks’. Floyd also made advances with his peripherals as he posted a lower BB/9 and a higher K/BB while keeping his K/9 virtually the same as it was in 2010. Floyd wasn’t as unlucky as Danks with his BABIP but he got jobbed with runners on base which is pretty volatile. No one is going to mistake either Danks or Floyd as a #1 starter as they both are probably pretty good #2 starters at the top of their games, but Chicago needs them to be operating as such in order to be competitive. Floyd was 17-8 in 2008. He had an FIP of 3.46 in 2010. Danks was 15-11 with a 3.70FIP in 2010. These two pitchers have shown they can put together great seasons and the Sox are hoping a little regression will push them in the right direction. With no Mark Buehrle around to eat innings, Chicago needs their front-2 starters to behave as such in order to make a move in the Central.

The reason Danks & Floyd don’t have to be #1 starters is because Chris Sale is the heir apparent. Sale fits the bill as a #1 starter as he stands 6’5 and throws fastballs that average 95mph and can tough 98-99mph! He already has a plus changeup and a developed slider allowed him to be completely dominant out of the bullpen last year as Sale posted a 2.79ERA with a K/9 of 10.0! With two plus pitches and another that could become a plus pitch, Sale has the makings of not only a #1 starter, but a starter who could challenge for Cy Young awards and put his team on his back to make a run at division titles. That’s a lot to put on a 23-year old making his first foray in a big league rotation, but Sale is ready. The really tough part for fans and analysts alike is trying to extrapolate what Sale will be when making the transition from bullpen to starting rotation. It’s entirely possible that the Sox try to protect the youngster, but if the Sox are in contention and Sale is a big part, it’ll get increasingly more difficult for them not to turn to Sale every 5th day. And that is the trick my friends. If Sale really does become a dominating starter then everything else follows within the rotation. Danks & Floyd are moved back to mid-rotation starters which is a plus for the Sox when it comes to matchups. I don’t think the entire 2012 White Sox season rests upon how Chris Sale does as a starter, but it’s a pretty big piece that will make life easier on everyone else if he’s ready.

Speaking of big guys with even bigger fastballs, Addison Reed started the 2011 season in Low-A ball and ended up with the White Sox! Reed put up Play Station numbers in the minors last year pitching 78.3IP allowing just 43H, 3HR & 14BB while recording 111 strikeouts! In case you were wondering, those peripherals are 12.8K/9, 1.6BB/9, 0.3HR/9, 4.9H/9 and 7.9K/BB! That’s amazing! Reed didn’t disappoint when he got to the major leagues either. The 22-year old threw just 7.3IP but was able to get 12K to only 1BB. As you can guess, Reed has an outstanding fastball that sits in the mid-90s. Even scarier is a slider which is graded a plus-plus that some believe is actually better than his fastball which is truly amazing. Reed has outstanding velocity difference between the two pitches with both being swing & miss offering. The White Sox have used him as a reliever and his primary role this season will be a set-up man for Matt Thornton unless Ventura decides at some point to make Reed the full time closer. What’s a little different about Reed is his developing changeup that he doesn’t need much if he is simply a 1-inning guy out of the pen. On the other hand, Reed has shown a pretty nice aptitude for pitching and developing a changeup that is simply average makes him a #2 starter. I wouldn’t expect to see Reed as a starter this season, but it is something to watch going forward. It’ll be neat to watch Reed dominate as a guy who can get you 60-80IP of high leverage baseball aren’t exactly common. Along with Chris Sale, watching Addison Reed’s development is a big deal for White Sox Nation.

The most important question might very well be the change in managers for Chicago, going from an outspoken firebrand of a manager in Ozzie Guillen to a guy that has the perception of being a bit more quiet & reserved. That isn’t to say that Robin Ventura won’t be an extremely demanding manager or even a hard ass, but from the looks of things, he’ll bring a much different personality to the White Sox’s manager’s chair than did Guillen did. The proof of course is in the pudding and we won’t really know what to think until a season or two into the marriage, but I’m really interested to know if the players will respond better to Ventura’s ability to motivate than they did Guillen’s in recent times. Ventura won’t have the luxury of Mark Buehrle, but Guillen isn’t getting Addison Reed & Chris Sale either. There really is no way good to measure this outcome here, but it will be worthwhile to see if the White Sox can maybe maintain a modicum of sanity under Robin Ventura. Then again, things won’t be nearly as interesting without Guillen around. The White Sox are hoping that their on field performances do the talking.

I almost didn’t list Jake Peavy as a question coming into 2012 because the Sox have so many key questions already, but I decided to address Peavy only because of what it could mean for the White Sox. The White Sox as a team were nothing fancy when it came to their pitching staff. They ranked 8th in the AL in team ERA, but a closer look at their peripherals show us a little something different. The White Sox were actually tied with Boston & New York for the #1 spot in K/9 at 7.5. They were tied with Seattle for the #1 spot in BB/9 at 2.7. The White Sox led the AL in K/BB at 2.78. The White Sox ranked tied for 2nd in the AL in HR/9 at 0.9. Despite the 4.10 ERA that ranked 8th in the league, the White Sox ranked #1 in FIP at 3.66! They also ranked #1 in xFIP at 3.69! So we are saying that the White Sox were either the best or 2nd best in categories like FIP, xFIP, K/9, BB/9, K/BB & HR/9! That adds up to them having the best pitching staff in the AL. Proving why Pythagorean has Runs Scored equally weighted, the Sox still managed to win just 79 games despite their pitching because their wOBA ranked 11th in the AL. What does this have to do with Jake Peavy? Because Peavy was 19-6 and winning a Cy Young award back in 2007. He’s a no doubt #1 starter if he’s on. He’s recovering from a torn latissimus dorsi which is just odd and unusual for a pitcher, but if he can come back to even 95%, the White Sox have their #1 starter. Chris Sale could be a #2 guy as early as this year meaning John Danks is a #3 and Gavin Floyd is a #4! You throw guys like Addison Reed & Matt Thornton at the end of games and the White Sox are right there with Detroit for the AL Central. Chris Sale is a gigantic part of what could make the Sox great this year, but Peavy is the elephant in the room nobody else in the AL Central wants woken up. Peavy being healthy doesn’t just affect his starts, but rather how the entire pitching staff is set up. The White Sox had the best staff in baseball pretty much without him last year. Now Peavy comes in supposedly healthy. He could change a pennant race.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

Key Questions
1. Shin Soo Choo & Grady Sizemore are coming back at 100%. How much of a bounce back season with either of them have?
2. Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall are the future. Will they take a step forward in development in 2012?
3. Carlos Santana is getting ready to enter his prime years. How much better can he get?
4. Ubaldo Jimenez & Derek Lowe are the new starters in town, but can they combine with Masterson & Tomlin to make the Indians relevant?
5. How will the synergy between the Indians bullpen and starting rotation hold up over the course of the season?

At the end of the 2008 season, all Indians fans could talk about was the face of the franchise named Grady Sizemore. At just 25, Sizemore turned his arguably his best season to date posting a 133OPS+ and a 30/30 season with 33HR & 38SB. Throw in a 13.2% walk rate and gold glove winning defense in CF, and not only was Sizemore thought of as the face of the franchise, but he was seriously considered to be in the running for best baseball player on the planet! PECOTA was listing Barry Bonds as a potential comparable which is getting into extreme territory when it comes to hitting ability. Sizemore hadn’t even entered his prime years so who good could the kid potentially be? We’ll never find out as the last 3 years have been injury plagued with elbow & knee problems. The speed is gone and so is the gold glove defense, but Sizemore could still benefit the Indians in a lot of ways. If he can play passable defense in CF then he’s got great value. Plus, despite him probably never stealing 30 bases again, there is no reason to think Sizemore couldn’t still have his great plate discipline and 30HR power. Cleveland has enough problems on offense, but getting Sizemore back with patience & discipline would be a huge step in the right direction. As for Choo, he missed time last year due to injury as well and the Tribe definitely need him back to his hitting ways. Choo was a beast in 2009-2010 before injury problems caught up to him. He’s supposedly healthy now and just 29 years of age. Choo should get back to his mashing ways for the Indians out in RF, but if injuries have stayed around then Cleveland fans will be able to play a helluva game of “What Might Have Been” when talking about both Sizemore & Choo.

We can be reasonably certain that Asdrubal Cabrera isn’t going to give us a repeat of his power performance in 2012. With Sizemore & Choo coming off injuries & Travis Hafner now being 35-years old, it’s time to look at the future of Cleveland hitting and with that you have to start with Jason Kipnis at 2B and Lonnie Chisenhall at 3B. Kipnis spent the majority of 2011 thumping on International League pitchers down in Columbus. He got called up for 30 odd games and didn’t miss a beat posting a slash line of 272/333/507 including 7HR, 19RBI & 5SB. That’s great production for a keystone player and portends 20-25HR power over the course of a full season. There are some pretty good second base players in the AL and Kipnis could join those ranks as early as this season. He could also have a little more room to grow with the batting average as his BB% was a little higher in AAA than it was in his stint with Cleveland in 2011. Lonnie Chisenhall is a different kind of animal at the hot corner. Like Kipnis he’s projected to have 20-25HR power, but the problem right now is that he’s not overpowering opponents which would force Cleveland’s hand in playing him. Jack Hanrahan is an absolute wizard with the leather which means his defense can carry his bat a little bit. Either way, the future for Cleveland in the lineup is Kipnis & Chisenhall. Keep an eye for these two players. Chisenhall starts the year at AAA-Columbus, but don’t be surprised when he gets the call. He should be able to step right in and hit a little bit.

Kipnis & Chisenhall might be a glance into the future of the Indians, but the RIGHT NOW is nothing less than Carlos Santana! In his first full season as the starting catcher, Santana put up silly numbers hitting 239/351/457 with 27HR, 79HR and a BB% of 14.7%! That .239 batting average is a bit misleading because Santana has shown he can post a BB% a little higher than what he did in 2011, plus his BABIP was only .263. I think we can all agree that Santana can hit the ball harder than what would sustain a .263 BABIP! It’ll be hard for Santana to garner MVP votes unless he starts putting up offensive numbers in the Mike Piazza range which he probably won’t do, but the guy is only going to be 26-years old this season meaning he’s now entering his peak. If he can hit 35HR with 100BB and 110RBI all from the catcher’s spot, he’ll get some MVP consideration unless Cleveland is simply the new Houston. That’s not going to happen which means Santana might have the ability to carry this team for awhile with his boom stick all by his lonesome! If you are thinking about Joe Mauer’s MVP a couple of years ago then it’s probably a bad analogy. Mauer is incredible as a defensive catcher while Santana is still growing into the role. It’s not really important. What remains to be seen his how high Santana can get his ceiling to be. It’ll be interesting to see what he does for an encore.

Ubaldo Jimenez & Derek Lowe are the new pitchers on the block for the Indians. Jimenez was brought over for a pretty penny as the Indians sent Colorado Drew Pomeranz & Alex White, but Jimenez showed just how dominant he could be in 2010 when he went 19-8 for the Rockies with a 161ERA+! Jimenez finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting that year among NL hurlers, but followed it up with a 2011 that saw some DL time. Jimenez is an ace when he’s right featuring mid-90s gas with a solid changeup. He’s got a pretty good swing & miss slider too. Jimenez is stingy with the HR balls and gets about 8-9 strikeouts per 9IP, but one thing that can be a bit erratic about Jimenez is his control. He’s never been one to get his walk rate around 3.0BB/9 so if he’s off he’s going to allow quite a few extra runners. Given his stuff and the fact that he appears to be 100%, the Indians got themselves an ace that should have a big year in 2012. Derek Lowe is a little bit different. A junk baller who eats up innings, Lowe is taking a beating for posting a 9-17 record last year with the Braves, but Lowe posted an xFIP of 3.65 compared to the 5.05 ERA he had. D-Lowe was 38-years old last season so I don’t want to say it was all luck induced, but over the last two seasons in Atlanta, Lowe was a better pitcher than his ERA indicated. He’ll be 39 this season, but if you look at his peripherals he’s still pretty good about not allowing a big HR/9 and his K/9 is still north of 6.5. I don’t know if the run support in Cleveland will be any better than it was in Atlanta, but maybe he can keep Cleveland in games and throw 200IP while doing so. The main point here is that if Jimenez & Lowe can produce, it forces Justin Masterson down to the #3 hole in the rotation while Josh Tomlin then becomes a #4 starter. This is much more in line with what a competitive team should/could be. If Jimenez pitches like a #2 or Lowe pitches like a #4 then everything is thrown off a bit. It’ll be fascinating to watch going forward.

Cleveland had a pretty good bullpen last year posting a 3.71ERA which ranked 5th but was pretty close to 2nd. The Yankees bullpen posted a 3.12ERA which was tops, but #2 were the Angels who posted an ERA of 3.52. The Angels were closer to Cleveland at #5 than they were to New York at #1. What makes it more impressive from Cleveland’s standpoint is that they ranked #5 in IP among bullpens. The only bullpen that threw more IP with a lower ERA than Cleveland who posted a 3.67ERA in about 25 more IP. Given that analysis you can at least make the argument that the Indians were right there with the best bullpens in the American League not named the Yankees. What’s interesting here is that Justin Masterson threw 216IP last season, but he was the only guy who posted 200+IP. This season the Indians could get 200+IP out of Masterson, Jimenez & Lowe which would take quite a bit of pressure off of the bullpen. If Josh Tomlin makes 32-33 starts then he’ll post over 200IP as well. Bullpens are volatile entities and Cleveland doesn’t have the kind of relief pitchers with such dominating stuff that they can post great years without question from season to season. Vinnie Pestano is closer, but lefties mashed him in 2011 so he needs to get better there. However, if the starting pitching can afford the relievers some rest and this in turn keeps the bullpen fresh & effective then Cleveland could put together some pretty good pitching numbers that could help them win games.

DETROIT TIGERS

Key Questions
1. Will anybody get on base for this team?
2. How will moving Miguel Cabrera to 3B affect the overall team defense and his ability to stay focused on his offensive prowess?
3. Can Brennan Boesch breakout this season as a legitimate offensive threat behind Cabrera & Fielder?
4. What will Justin Verlander do as an encore? Will he finally become a postseason ace?
5. Was Doug Fister really that good?
6. It’s time for Max Scherzer & Rick Porcello to pitch to potential. Can they take a step forward in their development as mid to top of the rotation starters?

The Tigers enter the 2012 season full formed so the questions posed are almost superficial in nature. There is no doubt the Tigers are the large & obvious favorites to win the AL Central. So large in fact nobody is really giving the other 4 teams in the Central a chance to catch them meaning the Tigers are biding their time until the playoffs come around so they can potentially get to a World Series and get Jimmy Leyland a World Series ring! Even with their favored status, there are quite a few things to watch for in 2012 regarding Detroit. Yes they are good. Yes they are a playoff team, but there are things that could make them THAT much better. The first of these conundrums is Detroit’s lack of production from the top of the lineup. In 2011 the Tigers triple slash line from the leadoff spot was 243/311/369. That OPS ranked 10th in the AL while the .311 OBP% ranked 11th. The #2 spot wasn’t much better hitting 262/329/414 which ranked 8th in OPS & 9th in OBP%. If you thought hitting 3rd was much better, guess again. The Tigers #3 hitter hit 276/317/430 which ranked #9 in OPS. Who were the main culprits? Austin Jackson hit leadoff. Brennan Boesch & Don Kelly got the majority of time in the #2 hole while Boesch, Magglio Ordonez & Delmon Young resided in the #3 slot. Amazingly enough, the Tigers hit 344/447/582 for the best OPS in the AL when it came to clean up hitters. Obviously Miguel Cabrera hit leadoff for Detroit in 2011. The good news is that it at least seems early on that Cabrera is going to take over the #3 hole which means Detroit will now be the best #3 hole hitting team in the majors! Prince Fielder will take over in the #4 slot giving the Tigers the best 3-4 combo in the game. However, Austin Jackson & Brennan Boesch still remain in the #1-#2 holes respectively. Jackson’s plate discipline isn’t awful, but the guy does have contact issues which results in massive strikeout totals. Boesch doesn’t have the contact issues Jackson has, but he’s not as patient either. Detroit is going to score a lot of runs. We know that, but they could be outstanding and Fielder & Cabrera should have 100RBI each this season. It’ll be interesting to watch something truly special if Detroit can simply set the table for their two gigantic bats.

The move to 3B for Miguel Cabrera is an interesting move. There is a lot of chatter about whether Cabrera will do well there. He hasn’t been a full time third baseman since 2006-2007 with the Marlins. For those thinking it might affect his hitting, keep in mind that during his two full seasons at 3B for Florida, Cabrera posted a 155OPS+ and played in a total of 355 of 364 games. That’s getting it done. The problem though is that Cabrera is barreling towards 30 years of age and he’s not the most athletic or lithe guy in baseball. Huge at 6’4/250lbs, some of Cabrera’s offensive value could be eroded by this defensive liabilities. Mind you he’ll still come out WAY ahead on the positive side of the ledger, but the defense is something to think about. What’s sort of weird in all of it is Detroit’s insistence of going with Fielder & Cabrera at the infield corners is the fact that Victor Martinez is injured which opens up the DH spot. You could obviously alternate Cabrera & Fielder in the DH/1B slot if you wanted to making sure each player remains healthy for the long haul, but instead Jimmy Leyland will go with a different DH. I’m not sure it’s a huge deal really, but an interesting one and it’ll be worth watching how much this defensive alignment affects the Tigers throughout the season.

Brennan Boesch started his rapid ascent in 2009 when in AA he hit 275/318/510 with 28HR, 93RBI & 11SB. As you can see he wasn’t the most patient hitter, but a promotion to AAA the next season produced a slash line of 379/455/621 in 15 games put him in the Detroit OF for good in 2010 which is where he’s remained. Boesch is a huge guy at 6’4/230lbs with enough power to be a 30HR hitter in the major leagues. Last year as a full time starter he hit 283/341/458 with 16HR in 115 games. That’s 20+HR over a full season and Boesch even improved his plate discipline having a BB% of 7.4% which is greater than the 5.8% he had in AA in 2009. There are a lot of people thinking this could be the year that Boesch breaks out. He should be Detroit’s everyday #2 hitter which puts Cabrera & Fielder behind him. There should be no shortage of good pitches to hit and if Boesch keeps improving on his plate discipline then he has the potential to be a very dangerous hitter. The Tigers definitely need better hitting at the top of the lineup and Boesch could be a pretty big part of that. As I’ve said before, the Tigers are definitely going to score runs, but there is opportunity for this to be a truly special offense. Boesch is a big part of that.

Win the pitching triple crown? Check. Win the AL Cy Young? Check. Win the AL MVP? Check! Justin Verlander also led the AL in inning pitched, ERA+ and WHIP! It was definitely a season for the ages for the 28-year old righty, and now the question becomes what he does for an encore? Common sense tells us that Verlander has to come down to earth just a bit. It seems very unlikely that he posts another year at 24-5 with a 170 ERA+, but how much can we expect from him? Again we are talking about inches here not miles. While Verlander can be expected to regress just a bit, there is not much doubt that he’s the best pitcher in the majors at the very top of his game, with all due respect to Roy Halladay. Verlander has a curveball that is simply unfair at this point and it’s almost impossible to hit. I don’t think Verlander regresses all that much from a skill standpoint, but the HUGE question surrounding Verlander will not be his ability to perform as a #1 starter in the playoffs. His postseason record is abysmal with an ERA of 5+. With his stuff and ability to chew innings up, he should be the kind of pitcher that can put Detroit on his back and single handedly win a post season series. It hasn’t happened yet and that is now all we are waiting to see from #35.

The Tigers got a huge boost towards the postseason last year when they made a mid-season trade with Seattle that sent Doug Fister to Motown. Fister was having an interesting season in Seattle. Despite an ERA of 3.33 and an FIP of 3.27, Fister’s record for the Mariners was an abysmal 3-12! His ERA+ was 116 so what the Tigers were hoping for would be a solid mid-rotation starter. What they got back was a borderline ace as Fister pitched in 11 games (10 starts) where he went 8-1 with a 1.79ERA, increasing his ERA+ to a ridiculously high 229! In his last 10 starts, Fister actually pitched better than Verlander! The big question now is whether or not Fister can replicate that success? Fister won’t post an ERA+ of 229, but his peripherals suggest he’s the real deal. Even including his numbers from Seattle, Fister had the following peripherals: 6.1K/9, 1.5BB/9 and 0.5HR/9. Those peripherals are legitimate. Admittedly Fister was helped by a very low HR/FB% in 2011, but it isn’t like he has a history of giving up tons of bombs. With the K/9 sitting at 6.1, Fister isn’t going to overpower anyone, but pitchers can be wildly successful if they simply don’t allow walks or homers. Fister does neither and one of the most interesting questions for 2011 is how well Fister becomes.

In some ways the Doug Fister question is so interesting is because with Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello in the rotation, the Tigers essentially need Fister to be a #3/#4 starter which is an incredible advantage. However, Scherzer & Porcello need to make that developmental step that pushes Fister further down the rotation hierarchy. Armed with great raw ability, Scherzer is a borderline #1 starter but has struggled  with consistency. This inconsistency was easily forgiven when Scherzer was a prospect, but he’s just a year younger than Verlander and hasn’t really made that jump into lock down starter territory. Porcello is even more perplexing. He has mid-90s heat, but rarely uses it depending on a 2-seam fastball that he can sink to get tons of batters to ground out. Only 23, Porcello still has plenty of room to grow and if he can figure out how to come up with a true swing and miss pitch, he’ll turn into ace material. Scherzer & Porcello give Detroit the potential to throw out 3-#1 starters, but Porcello & Scherzer need to take steps forward and it’ll be interesting to see their development in 2012.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

Key Questions
1. Jeff Francouer and Alex Gordon had incredible seasons last year. Are they going to be able to replicate that kind of success?
2. How big of an impact will players like Mike Moustakas & Salvador Perez have on this year’s team? How long will it take?
3. Is this the season Eric Hosmer becomes a legtimate superstar, giving the Royals potentially a face of the franchise unseen since George Brett?
4. Will Billy Butler ever turn his doubles prowess into a few taters giving him 30+HR power and making him an ELITE hitter in the process?
5. Did the Royals really miss completely with all their young pitching prospects that looked so good just a year or two ago?
6. How will Jonathan Sanchez shake the rotation up, and does he give the Royals a #1/#2 starter they can count on for 33 starts in 2012?

You probably didn’t notice this unless you were a Royals fan or playing fantasy baseball, but one of the more shocking things in 2011 was the hot starts guys like Francouer & Gordon got off to and never really let up. Francouer hit 314/357/569 in April for the Royals which was nothing short of a miracle given how he’s played in the past. He would certainly cool off over the course of the rest of the season hitting 279/324/457 from May onward, but some of that is a bit misleading. Francouer hit like garbage in May & June which leveled his overall production off a bit from from July 3rd until the end of the season, Francouer would hit 314/355/514. You add it all up and he posted a 119 OPS+ which is the best full season Francouer has ever had. Gordon was even better hitting 339/395/541 through the month of April. Like Francouer, Gordon cooled off a bit in May but from June 2nd until the end of the year, Gordon would hit 313/391/510. He would post an OPS+ of 140, get some MVP votes and win a Gold Glove for his play in LF. Amazingly enough, the Royals finished 6th & 5th in the AL in runs scored & OPS respectively! Gordon & Francouer were a big reason for that. So the question becomes whether or not these guys can replicate their “breakout” seasons. Both players were 27 which is interesting. That means the players are entering their “prime” years, but it could also mean that both players just experienced their “career” year. To me what’s interesting is the psyche of both players. Gordon came up in the Royals system with the George Brett comparisons running rampant. Gordon grew up in Nebraska as a Royals fan and even his brother Brett is named after George Brett! It’s possible the pressure of becoming George Brett was simply too much for him to handle. Moving away from the spotlight and to LF might have jump started Gordon’s career. Gordon was always an offensive beast and it is interesting to think he could be coming into his own now that he’s away from 3B and other guys like Hosmer, Butler & Moustakas are sort of taking the spotlight. Francouer is somewhat the same. A Georgia native, Francouer was drafted by the Braves and was though to be their next superstar player after Chipper Jones. Francouer was thought to be a 30/30 player for years to come, but his game never really took off in Atlanta. Shipped to the Mets, there were rumors that Francoeur wasn’t much for playing in the Big Apple. Away from the pressure cooker that is New York baseball and the expectations of the hometown kid making good with the local big league club, Francouer came to Kansas City and thrived. It will be really interesting to see if these two players keep up their hitting ways> Not only will it give the Royals a couple of corner outfielders that actually hit like corner outfielders, but it will also be a fascinating study on how some players thrive in certain situations, but crash in others.

A notorious slow starter, Moustakas was always a highly rated prospect, but he took off in 2010 at the age of 21 when he hit 347/413/687 in AA followed by a call up to AAA where he hit 293/314/564. There was some thought that Moutakas would begin the 2011 season in Kansas City, but instead was sent to Omaha where he hit 287/347/498. Called up to Kansas City in June, Moustakas once again got off to a slow start hitting 195/248/244 in his first 55 games. In his last 34 games, Moose turned it around and hit 368/404/556 in his final 34! Moustakas isn’t a very disciplined hitter, but he makes contact well and hits the ball exceptionally hard. A potential 30+HR guy, it will be interesting to see if Moustakas can keep hitting as he moves forward. He’s only 23-years old this year so there will obviously be some bumps along the way, but Moustakas definitely gives KC a big bat at a position that demands it. Salvador Perez was a real revelation last season. A fantastic defensive prospect behind the plate, Perez came up to KC as a 21-year old and hit 331/361/473 in 39 games! The Royals were wise to sign Perez to a pretty cheap contract extension and in theory should have their catcher of the future for the next 7-8 years! A defensive first position, Perez is a beast but becomes almost an MVP type of player if his offense is a harbinger of things to come! Unfortunately for KC, Perez suffered a knee injury and will be out until July. Considering the nature of his position, knee injuries aren’t the best thing to be coming back from, but Perez is pretty young so maybe there won’t be residual effects. The bottom line is that these two players are very young and can be very important pieces that catapults this Royals organization into the competitive AL fire.

Speaking of young players, Eric Hosmer didn’t break camp with the Royals either in 2011 in much the same fashion that Moustakas didn’t. Hosmer wasn’t having any of it! Sent down to Omaha, the 21-year old HAMMERED triple-A pitching to the tune of 439/525/582 before forcing the Royals to bring him up to the big club. Hosmer was immediately made a starter and didn’t stop hitting finishing the year with a 293/334/465 line that resulted in an OPS+ of 118 and a 3rd place finish for the A.L. Rookie of the Year award. Like Francouer & Moustakas, Hosmer isn’t a walk machine, but he’s got incredible contact ability that could easily make him a .315-35-130 type of player at 1B. A huge guy at 6’4/230lbs, there really is no telling what type of ceiling Hosmer has given that he hit 19HR as a 21-year old in his first taste of the big leagues! While he’s only 22 this season, the thought of Hosmer becoming the best Royals player since George Brett is already materializing with more than just Royals fans. While it seems almost impossible to lay expectations on a 22-year old kid to chase the mantle of best player in franchise history, that is what Hosmer is essentially taking on. At this point I think he’s the face of the franchise, but when the *superstar* status hits I’m not sure. If he can turn in a .300-30-100 season this year then he should garner a couple of MVP votes. What holds him back just a bit is Kansas City really needs to resolve their pitching situation because right now it’s horrible and it will keep the Royals from truly competing in the AL Central. Watching the morphing of Hosmer into a perennial All-Star is going to be fun.

Billy Butler can hit. We all know this. One of the most tantalizing things about hitting prospects is their propensity to hit doubles. The thought is that some of those doubles will turn into homers as the player ages, matures and gets a bit stronger. Butler has always been a doubles guy and that’s essentially been true of him as a major league player as well. Over the last 3 seasons, Butler has hit 51, 45, & 44 doubles respectively. His HR totals during those same three year were 21, 15, & 19. So far the home run totals haven’t gone up as Butler turned some of his prodigious doubles production into taters. There is still time for Butler to turn the corner with his HR power. It’s easy to forget just how young this guy is. He’s only 26 this season meaning he could just now be entering into his prime if not still a year away. The next 6 or so years will be his *peak* seasons, consequently you have to wonder if this year or even 2013 might be the year Butler turns the corner and hits 35 doubles instead of 50, but turns those 15 doubles int0 15HR giving him 35HR potential. What’s interesting too is the talk about Hosmer becoming the face of the franchise because of his youth. Remember that Butler currently has a career OPS+ of 120. George Brett’s career OPS+ was 135. Butler is quite a ways from that, but posting a great 6-7 year run could put Butler into the same stratosphere although somewhat different because Brett was a good defensive 3B while Butler doesn’t play a lick of defense. The problem with all the Brett comparisons I’m throwing out there is that of course Brett is an insanely special talent. The other is that Brett played with Kansas City his entire life. If KC remains a small market with limited resources then it seems improbably if not entirely impossible that Moustakas, Hosmer, Gordon & Butler remain with Kansas City for their entire careers! It’s interesting to be sure. For Butler, he needs to turn those doubles into home runs and he’ll be on his way.

While we may be on the cusp of a golden era of Kansas City hitters, the same certainly can’t be said about the Kansas City pitchers. According to Baseball America, pitchers John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy, Chris Dwyer & Aaron Crow ranked #4, #5, #7, #8 & #9 respectively in Kansas City’s top-30 prospects heading into 2011. Lamb was coming off a 2010 season in which he dominated Low-A and High-A hitters as a 19 year old! Montgomery fared pretty well at AA-NW Arkansas as a 20-year old in 2010! Duffy was 21-years old, but posted a 2.95ERA in AA along with a K/9 of 9.2! Dwyer was 22, but posted extremely good numbers in High-A/AA in 2010. Crow was the old man of the group at 23 years of age, but hit the ground running after being in the indy leagues. Interestingly enough, everyone of these pitchers was left handed outside of crow. All of them had the potential to be #2/#3 starters. Having 5 of your top-10 prospects be pitchers is almost a guarantee that you are going to hit on some of them. For a team like Kansas City, they have to develop their own pitchers because it’s too expensive a proposition to go out and build your rotation through free agency, but did the Royals miss on all 5 prospects? John Lamb now ranks #6 according to Baseball America. He had Tommy John surgery last June and likely won’t be back to form until 2013. Mike Montgomery ascended to the #1 spot on Baseball America’s Kansas City list of prospects, but the big lefty didn’t have an easy go of it in 2012 at AAA-Omaha. Granted, Montgomery was only 21, but he posted an ERA of 5.32, a BB/9 of 4.1 and a HR/9 of 0.9. Montgomery still projects as a #2 starter and he’s young enough to fulfill that projection, but he’ll need to start improving. Danny Duffy spent the majority of 2011 with the Royals, but he posted a 5.64ERA in 20 starts. Duffy had a nice K/9 of 7.4, but also walked 4.4 batters per 9IP and gave up 1.4HR per 9IP! Chris Dwyer also had a rough year in AA-NW Arkansas. The former Clemson Tiger posted a 5.60ERA in 27 starts as a 23-year old walking 5.0 hitters per 9IP! Aaron Crow was the one bright spot among KC pitching prospects. He spent the year in Kansas City and made the All-Star team, but he did it in relief. Obviously teams need relievers, but the Royals need their top shelf starting pitching prospects to become just that, starting pitchers. It’s entirely possible the Royals missed on everyone of these starters! With Crow in the bullpen and Lamb out of the season, only Montgomery, Duffy & Dwyer are left carrying to the torch of the top flight 2011 prospects. Heading into 2012, the Royals now have guys like Jake Ororizzi (#4 in 2012 BA), Kelvin Herrera (#7 in 2012 BA), Jason Adam (#9 in 2012 BA), and Yordano Ventura (#10 in 2012 BA), but even that’s suspect. Odorizzi is mid-rotation starter if he’s a starter at all. Herrera is a bullpen arm. Adam is a mid-rotation starter. Ventura has mechanical problems that will likely mean a move to the bullpen. The hitting in Kansas City is starting to get really good, but the Royals management needs to figure out a way to get some pitching to go along with it.

I think Jonathan Sanchez is an interesting guy and one you don’t typically associate with Kansas City in recent time. San Francisco thought he was an extra piece, and while I would rather have him than Melky Cabrera, I can see where SF was coming from considering they already had Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner & Barry Zito locked into the rotation. Sanchez certainly has his problems. He’s got massive control issues that aren’t going away, but he’s also the sort of pitcher that can throw a no-hitter on any given night. During his time in San Francisco, Sanchez posted a K/9 of 9.4 which is easily in the #1 starter tier. His HR/9 at 0.9 was also very passable and Sanchez simply didn’t allow opposing hitters to hit the ball hard off of him. His H/9 of 7.7 could be thought of as a function of a generous BABIP, but Sanchez did this over 700+IP! Hitters just don’t hit the ball well against Sanchez. The problem with Sanchez is that he doesn’t exactly know where the ball is going. His BB/9 over those same 700+IP was 4.8! The difference between Sanchez being a #4 starter and a true elite #1 starter is basically 2 walks per 9IP! Sanchez was at best a #4 starter for the Giants, but he immediately becomes the Royals #1 starter now that Greinke is toiling in Milwaukee. Obviously his control issues aren’t likely to go away, but it will be interesting to see if Sanchez can give KC 30+ starts and close to 200IP. Remember that Sanchez at #1 pushes the other pitchers down a notch which could be good when it comes to match ups. He doesn’t make KC a contender, but he could give KC a solid starter which could mean being more competitive. You learn to live with the walks so KC is simply hoping for consistency and innings.

MINNESOTA TWINS

Key Questions
1. Can Joe Mauer & Justin Morneau stay healthy & revert to their MVP caliber form?
2. Can Francisco Liriano & Scott Baker stay healthy enough to give Minnesota a pretty good 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation?
3. How will the development of prospects Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Aaron Hicks progress in 2012?

That isn’t a boatload of questions, but frankly the Twins are terrible and don’t really look to improve anytime soon. The first question is sort of a generic questions, but the most important by a huge margin. Joe Mauer won the MVP award in 2009 and looked like he might very well be the best player in the game. A great defensive catcher, Mauer was staring the Hall-of-Fame in the face and starting the question of whether or not he could be the best player to ever don the tools of ignorance. He battled through injuries in 2010, but still managed to post an OPS+ of 140 which is insane given that Mauer only hit 9HR in his follow up to a 28HR outburst that led to the MVP. The injuries did him in last season as Mauer posted an OPS+ of 103 while spending time at 1B, DH and even playing a game in RF! The Mauer question is multi-faceted though. Sure the Twins are much better if Mauer is one of the best players in baseball. They are much better when he’s catching, but injuries and age equalize everything. Last season was the first in an 8-year/$184MM contract the Twins game Mauer. That’s $23MM a year in case you were wondering and that $23MM was supposed to be an MVP caliber catcher, not an injury plagued corner infielder. Even a full return to health could be disastrous for Minnesota as the Twins might think moving Mauer out from behind the plate could prolong his career and help him avoid injury. Either way, the future prospects of Mauer’s value to Minnesota look dim. Next year he’ll be 30 which is the wrong age for catchers and he’ll still have 6-years/$138MM left on that deal which will soon feel like an albatross to the Minnesota faithful. Things are much better regarding Justin Morneau. Morneau has missed most of the last 2 years with concussion type symptoms and hasn’t played a full season since 2008! The Twins are already moving him to DH which will cut down on his time in the field which they think could prolong his career as well. The Twins are only on the hook for $28MM over the next two seasons with Morneau who will likely play his last game with Minnesota next season. A dynamic, MVP caliber hitter before injuries hit, the Twins are certainly better with him and guys like Morneau simply don’t grow on trees. He’s a shell of his former self which is unfortunate for the Twins as he’s another HUGE reason they could get back to respectability.

Francisco Liriano busted out as a 22-year old in 2006 which caused many people to believe Johan Santana was expendable. Then Tommy John surgery hit and Liriano has basically never been the same. He seemed to find his groove in 2010, but then fell apart last season with more injury issues. Liriano can’t control the baseball. He hasn’t since undergoing the TJS, but 2010 gave us a glimpse of what could happen if Liriano is right and able to harness his prolific stuff. He’s probably never going to revert back to the form he showed in 2006, but he’s also only 28 years old which is almost infant like when it comes to pitchers who sometimes don’t hit their stride until they reach 30! The Twins have absolutely no starting pitching, so if Liriano can give them #2 starter innings, they’d be miles ahead of where they’d be otherwise. Speaking of hurt pitchers, Scott Baker is another guy who simply can’t get out of his own way when it comes to injuries. Baker is a guy who strikes out over 7 batters per game. He walks less than 2 and doesn’t kill himself with the long ball! That’s a #2/#3 starter! The health predictions for these two pitchers don’t look promising, but if they can each pitch 190-200IP, then Minnesota could be quite a bit better than people think.

When there isn’t much going on with the big league club, it’s time to start looking at the prospects. Minnesota has a trio of young hitters that profile to be impact bats at the major league level. The problem is with just how young those hitters are. Miguel Sano will only be 19 this season and hasn’t played a lick of baseball above the Rookie leagues! Eddie Rosario is just 20 years old this season and like Sano, hasn’t played above Rookie ball. Sano hit 292/352/637 & Rosario hit 337/397/670 last season in Elizabethton, but the minors are littered with guys who hammered rookie level pitchers only to flame out at High-A/AA. Aaron Hick is a 5-tool OF who will only be 22 this season, but has shown any power at all since turning professional. He has a chance to stick in CF and the Twins are hoping he’ll blossom into a Torii Hunter clone, but those comparisons get further and further away the long Hicks goes without improvement. You never know how players this young will turn out, but the potential is certainly there for these 3 guys to turn into All-Star caliber players. Sano has the potential to be an MVP caliber player. With not much going on at the big league level, the Twins have to hope that these guys start a reaction that leads Minnesota back to contention with some home grown talent.

PREDICTIONS

1. Detroit Tigers
2. Chicago White Sox
3. Cleveland Indians
4. Kansas City Royals
5. Minnesota Twins

Too much hitting with Detroit supported by a talented group of hitters even before Fielder jumped on board make Detroit an overwhelming favorite to win the division yet again even if Verlander regresses to just all star level performance which will be more than enough to distance Detroit away from their competitors. People are sleeping on the White Sox, but decent young players coming up along with a starting rotation that should *regress* to the mean which portends for great things on the south side especially as I think guys like Morel, De Aza, Viceido, Dunn, & Konerko give the Sox enough thump, and don’t be surprised to see Chicago make it closer to Detroit than anyone is giving them credit for. I think adding Lowe & Jimenez will bolster the Tribe’s chances in the Central to a higher number than initially thought, but the problem in Cleveland is that it doesn’t look like they’ll have a ton of offense to go around which will put them in the middle of the pack. Kansas City might really be entering into a golden age of hitters with the likes of Butler, Moustakas, Hosmer, Perez, Gordon & Francouer, but the pitching staff hasn’t kept pace which means the Royals should have no problems scoring runs, but they’ll have too many problems preventing them to be a significant threat in 2012. Minnesota is simply a mess from the top down having to deal with injuries and a farm system that is pretty much barren of any kind of talent that can help the ballclub in the short term which means the Twins finishing last in the Central is the easiest prediction to make among the 5 organizations.

April 16, 2012 Posted by | A.L. Central, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins | Leave a comment

2012 NL East Preview and Predictions

Continuing on with my previews and predictions, I’m staying in the East after having completed the AL East. I’ll stick the same format by listing the teams in alphabetical order and then listing a few key questions I think are relevant for the upcoming season. Lastly I’ll note my predicted order of finish for the division. Good enough! I want to make a quick note about the NL East. The best division in baseball is certainly the AL East. You can argue that the 3 best teams in the East might very well be the 3 best teams in all of baseball which is astounding. I think the Blue Jays could even make a case for being a top-1o or top-12 team in all of baseball which gives the East 4 of the best dozen teams in the land. The NL East isn’t quite that competitive, but it’s getting that way. Atlanta has starting pitching upon starting pitching while the Marlins & Nationals have young players who are poised to take those teams to significant heights. It’s all potential now for those 3 teams, but the NL East should be a blood bath and won’t be an easy walk for early favorite Philadelphia. Even the Mets don’t look as bad as people might think. The most interesting & competitive division in baseball is the AL East in my opinion, but the NL East is a VERY close second. There are reasons to watch every team and it will be hard to sit down on any particular night and not see a very good game being played by a member of the NL East. It should be a truly amazing division in 2012.

ATLANTA BRAVES

Key Questions
1. Can Jason Heyward rebound from an absolutely dreadful sophomore campaign?
2. How will the final season of Chipper Jones’s career look & can he at least stay healthy enough for us to enjoy it?
3. Is this the year Tommy Hanson takes a big leap forward & becomes an unquestioned #1 starter for a playoff team?
4. Wow that rotation is ridiculously young! Can it really compete with the Marlins & Phillies in the East?
5. Can Atlanta’s trio of Latin starters (Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, and Randall Delgado take a step forward?
6. Will Atlanta’s offense get better to help support a pitching staff that is playoff worthy?

It has been interesting to watch the cycle the Braves have gone through recently. As a kid watching the Braves in the mid to late 80s, they were terrible. Then the 1990s hit and the Braves were dominant making the playoffs in 14 straight seasons (not counting 1994). They were in the World Series 5 times in 8 straight years although they won just one in 1995. Now the Braves have been to the playoffs once in the last 6 years and haven’t won a playoff series since 2001! A big part of the Braves recapturing that dominance is the emergence of Jason Heyward. Heyward bursted onto the scene in 2010 as a 20-year old phenom who posted a 131 OPS+ and was an All-Star. Word was out that Heyward was the next big thing in baseball and it was only a matter of time before he became one of the best if not the best player in the game. Then 2011 happened and things got a little muddy. The season started out promising for Heyward as he hit 263/354/525 in the month of April with 7HR, but it went downhill from there. From May onward Heyward hit 215/308/343 and was even benched at one point by manager Freddi Gonzalez! To make matters worse, Chipper Jones questioned Heyward’s toughness which certainly didn’t help matters. A couple of thoughts here. The first is that sophomore slumps happen. Heyward is only going to be 22-years old meaning he could be at least 5-years away from hitting his prime. Some growing pains are going to occur. The other thought is that Chipper Jones is THE MAN and isn’t giving up on that. If Jones was essentially the guy for the past 10-15 years win the Braves clubhouse then Heyward is going to fulfill that role when Jones is gone. That transfer of power can never be easy and I’m sure Jones believes Heyward has a lot to learn about that leadership position. I wonder if that plays on Heyward’s mind at all? Regardless, the Braves need Heyward to play like he did in 2010 rather than 2011 because things are getting crazy in the NL East!

We now know that this will be Chipper Jones’s last year in a major league uniform. He’s 40-years old this season and he’ll have been a professional baseball player from 1990-2012! That’s 23 years! I would love to see Chipper at full strength this season, but he’s already slated to begin the season on the DL which is unfortunate. To date, Chipper’s triple slash line for his career is 304/402/533 with an OPS+ of 141. I don’t know how many games Chipper is going to play and I know major league baseball players don’t think this way, but for me I really hope that Jones finishes his career with a 300/400/500 line and keeps his OPS+ at least at 140. It will be almost impossible for his batting average to fall below .300. If he gets 400AB this season he’d have to hit .198 to drop his career average to .299. Given Jones’s plate discipline, his OBP% isn’t going below .400 either. With a SLG% at .533 it also seems unlikely it’ll drop below that meaning the 141 OPS+ should be safe. I hope so. The other thing to be concerned about with Chipper is him going out a winner. It’s amazing to think Chipper won a World Series in his rookie year and now 17 years later hasn’t won a single thing. I’m not sure Atlanta has the ability to win a World Series although anything can happen in a short series, but it would be nice to see Chipper lace them up in the postseason one more time.

Along with Heyward, the development of Tommy Hanson is of the utmost importance. Hanson took a step back last season due to injury, but he actually increased his K/9 and decreased his BB/9. He gave up a few too many gopher balls, but some of that is attributable to luck as he gave up a larger than average HR/FB%. Even with Julio Teheran in the system, Hanson is the face of the Braves starting rotation for the future if he can stay healthy. Shoulder tendonitis limited his ability to play in 2011, but his secondary offerings have never been better. At age-25 he needs to take a step forward and regain the momentum he had going into the winter of 2010-2011. If that can happen then the Braves have a starter that can go toe to toe with anyone and puts the rest of the starting rotation in more manageable slots that create mismatches. Jurrjens becomes a #3. Beachy becomes a #4 and Minor becomes a #5. Top to bottom with Tim Hudson at #2, the Braves can match up even with the Phillies, but it all starts with Hanson and his ability to stay healthy & effective.

Speaking of the rotation, currently Tim Hudson (age-36) is expected to begin the year on the DL which means the rotation will be Tommy Hanson (age-25), Jair Jurrjens (age-26), Brandon Beachy (age-25), Mike Minor (age-24), and Randall Delgado (age-22) will comprise the rotation with an average age of 24.4 years of age. The total number of major league innings pitched for those 5 starters is 1477.7IP! Tim Hudson has a total of 2503.3 in his career. That’s over 1,000 more innings! Even with Tim Hudson in the mix, the Braves are throwing out an insanely young rotation that will be expected to compete arm for arm with a grizzled group of veterans in Philadelphia and a fairly experienced staff in Miami. You throw in an underrated staff in New York and a young and dynamic group of hurlers in Washington, and Braves fans definitely have cause for concern about their quintent of starters being able to withstand the assault that will be known as the NL East in 2012. Hanson & Jurrjens have to stay healthy. Can Beachy be as dominant as he was in 2011? Can Minor be as good as he was in the minors? Can Hudson turn in another year like he did in 2011? There is fantastic potential here, but can the Braves convert potential into production?

The Braves almost have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to starting pitching. While some believe (and rightly so) there is no such thing as a pitching prospect, the Braves have their fair share. As a 20-year old last season in AAA, Julio Teheran went 15-3 with a 2.33ERA. He’s slated to go back to Gwinett to start the 2012 season, but he showed there was nothing left for him to prove in the minor leagues. Teheran has #1 starter stuff and now it’s only a question of whether or not he can fulfill that potential at the major league level. As a 20-year old last season Arodys Vizcaino pitched 90 innings between A+/AA ball striking out 92 while walking just 28 and allowing just 6HR. He moved to the bullpen when promoted to AAA where he fanned 8 in 7IP before coming up to Atlanta where he struck out 17 in 17IP. Vizcaino is expected to be in Atlanta’s bullpen to start the season, but could be a mid-rotation starter. Randall Delgado is actually starting the season in the rotation due to Hudson’s injury. While Delgado didn’t have as successful of seasons as Teheran and Vizcaino, he was solid in his own right and found his way into Atlanta where he made 7 starts. It certainly is an incredible problem to have, but if these 3 guys make improvements, then the Braves could have Hudson, Hanson, Jurrjens, Beachy, Minor, Teheran, Vizcaino & Delgado all needing starts at the major league level. All 8 pitchers are at worse #3 starters while 3-4 of them are potential #1 starters.

The last question has to do with Atlanta’s offense. The Braves ranked 10th last year in the NL in runs scored and as much as we like the pitching, you have to score runs to win baseball games. The Braves should know and understand this model, but for whatever reason they’ve had a tough time figuring out how to get impact bats into the lineup. Heyward is supposed to spearhead that growth. So is Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann. While the Braves have gotten fantastic returns on McCann and pretty solid results out of Freeman and Heyward, they had to go outside of the organization to grab Dan Uggla to give the offense a bit of punch. The problem is that the offensive output begins and ends with those 4 players. Chipper Jones is 40 and Martin Prado is no replacement. Michael Bourn is a one trick pony out in CF while the Braves have nothing in LF, a position which requires big offensive numbers. Tyler Pastornicky looks to be a fine defensive SS, but he’s not bringing anything to the offense. That’s essentially 5 holes in the lineup for Atlanta which simply won’t do offensively.

MIAMI MARLINS

Key Questions
1. Giving Jose Reyes a huge contract is risky. Can he stay healthy and manage to make the Marlins look good?
2. Hanley Ramirez moves over to 3B after a very disappointing 2011 season. Can he rebound & play the good guy despite the position change?
3. Does Giancarlo Stanton become the most feared power hitters in the major leagues?
4. Josh Johnson has Hall-of-Fame talent, but is the guy ever going to put together a string of healthy seasons to showcase his ability?
5. How will Ozzie Guillen do as the manager of the Marlins?
6. Will south Floridians show up in droves to watch the “new” Miami Marlins in their new ballpark?

Grabbing Jose Reyes as a free agent definitely signifies that the Marlins think they can win now. It makes sense really for them to try and be a competitive team in a new ballpark. Why open a new stadium with a terrible product? Reyes is a big part of that contention plan, but are the Marlins really getting a superstar player? It’s debatable at best. Reyes hasn’t played a full season since 2008 and he’s no longer the defensive player he used to be. While he’ll certainly be an upgrade defensively over Hanley Ramirez who is moving to the hot corner, Reyes must keep his bat in the lineup to give the Marlins the value they were hoping to get when they signed him. Reyes can hit as evidenced by the batting title he won last season with a .337 batting average, but in order to keep himself in the lineup he basically gave up stealing bases in the 2nd half which is also a major part of his game. The Marlins need a 100% healthy Reyes who can stay that way to be competitive. A non-running Jose Reyes is nothing more than a guy relying on BABIP to get his average to .330 without much power. EEK.

From 2007-2009, Hanley Ramirez was making a pretty good case for being potentially the best player in baseball. During those 3 seasons Ramirez averaged a batting line of 325/398/549 with 29HR, 38SB & 85RBI while maintaining an OPS+ of 145! Did I mention he did this while playing shortstop!? Unfortunately Han-Ram couldn’t keep the good times rolling in 2010 as the power went away to a certain degree. It wasn’t all bad though. Ramirez in a disappointing season still posted an OPS+ of “only” 126. Last year Ramirez was marred with injuries as he appeared in only 92 games and hit 243/333/379. Forget the idea that the Marlins are just a team in contention. This is a team who should seriously be challenging the Phillies for NL East supremacy. While Jose Reyes is the big free agent signing and Giancarlo Stanton is the young guy with immense power, Hanley Ramirez is still the most important player on this team that has the potential to hit .330-30-120 with 100R and 30SB! He’s only 28 so don’t be surprised if this guy hasn’t had his “career” year yet.

Stanton is a beast. Last year at the tender age of 21, Stanton hit 36HR on his way to a full season of OPS+ of 141! With Stanton emerging as a gigantic star and possibly the most prolific HR hitter in the NL now that Pujols & Fielder have departed to the American League. I think Stanton is going to be in for an interesting year because he’s not sneaking up on anyone any more. He’s Miami’s legitimate #4 hitter providing protection for Hanley Ramirez. There is no indication that Stanton isn’t the real deal. How many guys have 56HR before they turn 22 years of age? The only real knock on Stanton might be his strikeout rate, but does it really matter if he strikes out 170 times if his OPS+ is in the 140-150 range & he’s bombing 40HR a year? It hardly matters. He’s the face of the franchise for the next 15-years if the Marlins choose to keep him.

As important as Stanton, Ramirez & Reyes might be, the most important guy on the roster might very well be Josh  Johnson. Johnson’s fastball/slider combination is ridiculous and he easily has the stuff of a #1 starter. What he doesn’t have that a #1 starter does is the ability to take the ball every fifth day, make 33-34 starts and log 220IP. Johnson has been in the majors since 2005 and has only had one season where he has surpassed the 200IP mark. It’s interesting really how Johnson comes into the season. Obviously the Marlins would like to have him at 100% every season, but this year is unique for what the Marlins have done to get to where they currently are. They brought in Mark Buehrle & Carlos Zambrano via free agency. Those aren’t HUGE deals, but Buehrle gives the Fish a pitcher who is going to grab 200IP and make his 33 starts. The former White Sox hurler isn’t an ace, but he’s a solid #2/#3 starter. Anibal Sanchez has the stuff to be a top shelf #2 starter if it all comes together. I actually like Ricky Nolasco quite a bit and as a #3/#4 starter he becomes a decent mismatch for the opposition. Zambrano has pitched great this spring and slots in as the #5 starter which certainly takes a lot of pressure off the Big Z. This of course all hinges on Johnson, and his ability to stay healthy.

A huge question for the Marlins this year doesn’t even involve a player, but with the manager. Typically it wouldn’t make a huge difference who the manager is, but when Ozzie Guillen is the manager in question, it’s difficult not to notice. I think Guillen’s biggest challenges this season is keeping Carlos Zambrano on an even keel and also managing the Jose Reyes/Hanley Ramirez situation. So far this spring Zambrano is pitching fantastic and Reyes & Ramirez are saying all the right things. What more can you ask for at this point? We all know Ozzie well enough that there are going to be media gaffes where he starts talking off the cuff and going crazy, but that’s just Ozzie being Ozzie. If he manages Zambrano, Reyes & Ramirez right while making the most of his pitching staff and keeping pressure off Stanton, he’ll have done his job in spades and Miami should be in the playoffs.

The last question might the one with the most importance. The Marlins simply don’t draw well. Some of that is because ownership of the Marlins is a joke at best and downright insulting at worst. Now the Marlins have switched from the Florida Marlins to the Miami Marlins and now have a new ballpark in Marlins Park. It’s not just the new ballpark either. The Marlins are built to win now, and the questions will start to manifest about whether or not baseball is viable in Miami should the locals fail to show up with a very nice product on the field. As a traditionalist I sort of like the idea of baseball in Florida only being there throughout spring training, but Miami is the 5th biggest urban area in the nation, being smaller than only New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. Each of those markets save Philly has not just one baseball team, but rather two! The Marlins are definitely one of the most intersting teams in all the majors this year. The everyday players are worth watching every day out. If Josh Johnson stays healthy then really there is a 5-man rotation that is worth watching every day as well. If Miamians choose to ignore this team, then I think it’s more damning for the ownership rather than the onfield product. Even with all the stuff going on at field level, the most interesting question might be the fans who actually fill up the new stadium.

NEW YORK METS

Key Questions
1. How will David Wright fare now that the fences have been moved in, and will he remain a Met at the trade deadline?
2. Will Lucas Duda & Ike Davis emerge as the new power hitting building blocks of a future competitive Mets squad?
3. What will Johan Santana look like? Can he remain healthy for an entire season & give the Mets 30+ starts?
4. Will Matt Harvey & Zack Wheeler take steps forward this year to give us a glimpse of a future 1-2 punch at the top of the Mets rotation?

The Mets are a mess and basically have no shot at winning what is becoming an absurdly competitive division rivaling that of their AL counterpart. GM Sandy Alderson knows this and is thus making moves to allow the Mets to be competitive down the road in 2014 and beyond which is why David Wright is the first key question. Wright is going to be 29 years old which certainly isn’t young, but it is his prime years. The Mets have a club option on him for 2013 that goes away if he is traded meaning trading Wright in 2012 doesn’t allow a potential trade partner the luxury of having Wright in 2013 for a full season should they trade for him. Already the best 3B in Mets history, Wright has been statistically damaged by the move to Citi Field. For his career, Wright hit 318/403/555 at Shea Stadium compared to his 279/377/449 line at Citi Field. His HR rate at Shea was a bomb every 21.3PA. At Citi Field it’s a homer every 38.2PA! His BABIP at Citi Field is actually better than it was at Shea so the only thing really differenct for him is the power outage over the last 3 seasons. What is a bit interesting is that Wright’s strike rate has dramatically increased. At Shea Stadium, Wright struck out in 14.5% of his plate appearances. At Citi Field that number increases to 21.3%. That’s a 50% increase which makes you wonder if Wright sees the ball worse in his new digs. Moving the fences in may help, but the real issue here is if they do help, what happens with Wright? It makes sense for the Mets to trade him if he does a great job with the fences in. He’ll become a very expensive proposition in 2014 or even 2013 when he becomes a free agent. Typically the Mets would be resourceful enough to dole out big bucks for their franchise player, but maybe that isn’t going to happen. Wright has certainly fallen on hard times, but if he bounces back to form because of the fences then don’t the Mets have to keep him?

Speaking of franchise players, Ike Davis is a sexy pick to become a 30+HR monster for the Mets this year due to the adjustment with the fences. Davis had a solid rookie campaign in 2010 when he hit 264/351/440 with 19HR and an OPS+ of 115. A stellar season for his first go around in a major league uniform. Last year Davis was absolutely mashing to the tune of 302/383/543 before injuries derailed his season and limited him to just 36 games. His OPS+ was 155 during this time period and projected over 150 games, Davis was on pace to hit 30HR with 104RBI. Given the struggles of David Wright, Ike Davis might have been the new “it” player for the Mets had he been able to keep pace without injury. That projection is what has people so excited about Davis’s potential in 2012. If Davis could hit 30HR in the Citi Field with the fences moved back, what is he going to do with the fences moved in? The same is being contemplated for Lucas Duda. Duda started the season down in AAA where he destroyed International League pitching to the tune of 302/414/597 before being called up to Queens and then hitting 292/370/482 in 100 games. A monster at 6’4/255lbs, Duda can hit for power, but has pretty good patience at the plate. His swing can get long at times which is typical for long guys like him, but he’s another 30HR guy waiting to happen for the Mets. Seeing how Duda & Davis do with the spotlight on them is potentially the most intriguing question the Mets face in 2012. These are guys that can certainly be building blocks on the next competitive Mets team. If Wright gets back to the form he had at Shea Stadium, then the Mets have a middle of the order that can compete with anyone.

We all know Johan Santana isn’t ever going to be what he once was, but according to FIP he hasn’t been that kind of pitcher since 2006 and he still put up Cy Young worthy numbers in 2007 and 2008. Santana doesn’t have to be what he was in his prime with the Twins, but if he can get back to the sort of pitcher who doesn’t walk hitters and is stingy with the gopher ball then the Mets will have found themselves a very good #2 starter which isn’t all that easy to find. The intriguing thing about Santana is much the same as it is with Wright, which is whether or not the Mets can flip him for anything? New York is on the hook for Santana for at least $54.5 million dollars for the next two seasons meaning it’s a contract that simply isn’t going away. Santana has a buyout for 2014 at $5.5 million which the Mets will almost certainly exercise, but you wonder if the Mets could get a couple of pieces in return in a trade if it agreed to eat a significant part of Santana’s deal? It all might be beside the point. The NL East is a funny division in that while it might be ultra competitive with the top-4 spots, the Mets aren’t completely out of it. The Phillies are an aging team and it’s not out of the realm of possibility for their hitting to implode. The Nationals are on the come, but still a bit too young in the rotation and potentially a few injuries away in the lineup to be competitive. The Braves rotation is filled by a bunch of guys not even 25 years of age yet and the hitting could be in the tank should Jason Heyward continue to crash. That leaves Miami who is led by manager Ozzie Guillen. Need I say more? That will be a high wire act all season long. A healthy Santana combined with Wright, Davis & Duda hitting like gangbusters along with a solid backend rotation and a stingy bullpen could make the Mets good enough to make noise this season. When you have that many “ifs” not all of them are going to go down, but while it’s fun to think of trading Wright & Santana for the future of the ballclub, there is much to be excited about right now.

As to that future, Zack Wheeler & Matt Harvey might be the two most important pieces. The Mets absolutely STOLE Wheeler from the Giants in the Carlos Beltran trade. The 21-year old averaged 10.1K/9 in high-A last season and was extremely stingy with the HR ball. At 6’4/190lbs, Wheeler can still fill out some and his fastball already sits in the mid-90s. He’s got a plus curve ball and fringy changeup. He still needs to refine his command/control, but even with average command he’s a #2 starter if he can navigate the injury gauntlet. Wheeler also introduced a cutter/slider in 2011 giving him a 4th option in his arsenal. Harvey, a University of North Carolina product, was a 1st round pick in 2010 but made his professional debut in 2011. It was worth the wait. Like Wheeler, Harvey is 6’4, but filled out at 225-230lbs. Harvey is practically the same pitcher as Wheeler except he throws a slider instead of a curve. He doesn’t really throw a change up at all, but the development of that pitch and better command is all that stands between him and top of the rotation material. With Wheeler & Harvey the Mets have the top of their rotation of the future if the picks work out. This is why baseball is such a cruel game. If these two guys pitch to their potential then the Mets become a dangerous team as early as 2014. If they don’t then it’s almost back to the drawing board with out elite starters at the top end of your rotation.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Key Questions
1. How much longer can this team hold it together despite a rapid aging process?
2. Are Vance Worley’s 2011 abilities sustainable?
3. Will the Phillies be able to get anything out of LF this season?
4. Will Cole Hamels be a Phillie for the foreseeable future?
5. Is it time to deal Chase Utley?

The Phillies questions are more vague than anything because they are a team contending for a World Series title and anything less than a ring is going to be a disappointment. This of course transitions well into key question #1 which is how much longer can this aging group of players hold it together? The only player in the starting lineup younger than 30 this season is Hunter Pence who will be 29-years old. The entire rotation is 30+ except for Vance Worley who will be just 24 and Cole Hamels who will be 28. Even the bench is old with guys like Jim Thome (41), Juan Pierre (34), Laynce Nix (31), Pete Orr (33) and Brian Schneider (35)! It certainly seems like Roy Halladay & Cliff Lee can pitch forever but Halladay is 35 this season while Lee is 33. Nothing truly lasts forever. It took Greg Maddux until he was 37 to start faltering, but it did happen. This isn’t to say that the Phillies are in danger of falling completely off the map, but Ryan Howard is already starting the year on the DL. Chase Utley hasn’t played a full season since 2009. Jimmy Rollins missed 20 games last season and half a year in 2010. The cracks are certainly starting to show and with injuries come decreases in output. The Phillies ranked 7th in the NL in runs scored last season. When they won the World Series in 2008 they ranked 2nd. In 2009 when they lost the World Series they ranked 1st. It’s premature to put Philly out to pasture, but the window is closing and if the offense continues its descent into the bottom tier of NL offenses, then all Philadelphia really becomes is San Francisco playing in a much less forgiving division.

With all the age questions swirling around the Phillies, Vance Worley’s breakout in 2011 was a welcomed youthful surprise. While he probably wasn’t as good as his 11-3 record might indicate, Worley certainly has a skill set that is very good and one that shows that this breakout in 2011 is sustainable. Worley isn’t an overpowering pitcher but he has always had good control/command with his fastball/slider combination. He’s somewhat of a junkball pitcher with a fastball sitting around 90mph which is below average for a right handed pitcher. Then again, he’s stingy where it counts. Pitching is simple and hard at the same time. It’s rare that a pitcher is truly elite in that he can simply overpower hitters on a continual basis. They aren’t major league hitters for nothing, BUT the simplicity in pitching is making sure you don’t issue walks and keep the ball in the yard. If you do those two things you’ll almost always be pretty darn successful. It’s simple in theory, but it’s extremely difficult in action. Worley was able to do this in 2011 for the Phillies. Did Worley get a little lucky with his BABIP, LOB% and HR/FB% last season? Absolutely, but those things need to happen in series for a pitcher to go 11-3. Keep in mind that Worley’s FIP was 3.32 and his xFIP was 3.66. Those are still pretty solid numbers for a guy expected to be Philadelphia’s #5 starter! Worley is a backend starter right now and although he doesn’t throw 95mph, let’s not forget his K/9 last year was 8+. As long as Halladay, Lee & Hamels are in Philly, he’ll never rise above his 4th starter status, but if he can make 32 starts and throw 200IP keeping his K/9 at 8+ then how is he not a #2 starter in the making pitching from the backend? It’ll be interesting to see if Worley can make the jump now that the NL is well aware of his prowess.

Key Question #3 is a trick question! Last season 40-year old Raul Ibanez actually posted a WAR of -1.3! That means the Phillies were paying a guy $12+ million to actually make them worse! The question isn’t whether or not the Phillies can get anything out of the LF position, it’s whether or not the Phillies can get ABSOLUTELY NOTHING out of LF! If they got a LF who posted nothing but replacement level numbers, they’d actually improve in 2012! As it stands right now the Phillies are probably going to go with some sort of odd platoon system in LF with John Mayberry, Juan Pierre and Laynce Nix. Oddly enough Pierre actually posted a negative WAR for the White Sox too in 2011! Pierre has a weird voo doo about him though that makes managers want to play him. Even Charlie Manuel has said Pierre might become more than just a 5th outfielder. There really is no justifiable reason to play Pierre. Sure he can steal bases, but he’s not very good at getting on base and he has an odd reverse split where he actually hits lefties better. Nix can actually hit with some power against righties, but he can’t get on base to save his life and he can’t hit lefties either. John Mayberry is the logical choice here. He hammered lefties last season and wasn’t too bad against RHP either. Plus he’s the youngest of the bunch and you can make a case he’ll get better against RHP the more he sees them. Mayberry is a former 1st round draft pick and used to be a pretty good prospect when he was with the Rangers organization. He could definitely be an under the radar type of player for the Phillies this season if Philadelphia gives him a chance to play everyday. As long as he’s better than Raul Ibanez was last season, the Phillies will come out ahead. It will be intersting to see if Mayberry really is given a chance to succeed or will Juan Pierre’s crazy Jedi-mind tricks work on Manuel to insert him into the starting lineup the first time Mayberry goes 0 for 4.

The subject of Cole Hamels contract status has already come up and it’s bound to keep resurfacing this season. Hamels is a free agent after the season meaning he’s hitting the market. The Phillies have no room to trade the guy if they are intent on trying to win a World Series so either they are going to try to get something done during the season or they are going to risk him going to the open market. If we are looking at this past winter’s free agent signings, then you can look at LA’s signing of CJ Wilson to a 5-year/$77.5MM deal as a barometer. Hamels will hit the free agent market at age-29 while Wilson was 31. Hamels is making $15MM now, and he’ll certainly want a raise. Note that Roy Halladay is making $20MM while Cliff Lee is making $21.5MM. Let’s assume Hamels wants $18MM over 7 years given his age. That’s a 7-year/$126MM deal. The years are crazy and Philadelphia wants to stay in the 4-years/$80-$85MM range which would put Hamels’s annual rate over $20MM/year, but as with any player Hamels would like to have more years on the deal. Clearly the Phillies are going do everything in their power to keep Hamels. Halladay & Lee are aging and there is no question that Hamels is a #1 starter. Keeping him away from potential rivals is another reason why Philly should be aiming to keep the lefty. The Yankees & Dodgers loom large as teams who could snag Hamels and I wouldn’t’ even count out teams like the Cubs, Mets, Cardinals and Red Sox as potential players. I don’t expect any drama here, but it’ll be interesting to watch unfold.

While the Phillies shouldn’t entertain thoughts of trading Cole Hamels, can the same be said of Chase Utley? Keystone players take a beating and once they get over a certain age their bodies begin to break down rapidly. This hasn’t been any different for Chase Utley. Utley had an incredible run from 2005-2009, but from 2010-2011 things have not gone the way Philly fans would have hoped. The Phillies are on the hook for Utley through 2013. He’s a great hitter and a superior defender so if he can play in 100-120 games he’s worth every penny the Phillie are paying him. What makes things difficult is knowing that Utley will be 35 when he becomes a free agent meaning the Phillies have to resign for significantly less money or Utley will take his injury laden talents to a team willing to risk sizable money on him. As Branch Rickey used to say you always want to trade a player a year too early than a year too late. If Utley is back to form the Phillies are probably no different without him in the lineup considering you have to figure he’ll miss a quarter of the season anyway. Do you maximize his trade value or keep him and let him play in 2013 before beginning to contemplate dealing him when his value will be decreased by being another year older? Of course the Phillies could ride the Utley Express until his contract expires. It’s always difficult to gauge how to maximize value with a player this good on a team he means so much to while trying to win a World Series championship. The Utley story lines are just beginning and should be fascinating.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Key Questions
1. Can the Nationals expect big time production from both Jayson Werth & Adam LaRoche after disappointing 2011 seasons?
2. Is Mike Morse for real?
3. How long before Bryce Harper is a fixture in the Washington outfield?
4. Ryan Zimmerman is an MVP caliber type of player. Isn’t it time for him to start playing like it?
5. Can anyone bat leadoff for this team?
6. Can Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman establish themselves as a 1-2 punch that can go toe-to-toe with any other duo in major league baseball?

The Nationals ranked 12th in the senior circuit in runs last year, but that certainly wasn’t the goal heading into the season. While Washington was going to have their problems heading into the season with the pitching staff, the additions of Adam LaRoche & Jayson Werth hoped to bolster an offense that should have been pretty good. While LaRoche’s injury did open the door for Mike Morse to a certain extent, the Nationals would love for LaRoche to get back to his 30HR ways in 2012. Ditto that for Jayson Werth who averaged about a 130 OPS+ in his previous 4 seasons before turning in a 97 OPS+ season in 2011. There is nothing to suggest LaRoche can’t bounce back. Before being derailed by injury, LaRoche was posting the best walk rate of his career although he was being abused by BABIP. LaRoche had also cut way down on his strikeouts. The BABIP would have eventually came around if a full season would have been played, and now LaRoche will get to continue what he started in 2011 while the Nationals hope those superficial gains early on the season were a sign of bigger things to come. Werth’s complete lack of power production is a little more perplexing. He hit a lot more groundballs than normal and his HR/FB% went down even with a big decrease in fly balls. That compounds disaster, but outside of that and getting screwed by BABIP, there isn’t much to see with Werth that could be seen as a trend demarcating future disappointment. Werth is 33-years old this season so he’s out of his prime years, but a decent sized bounce back could easily be expected. The Nationals have power all over the starting lineup, but it’ll be interesting to see if LaRoche & Werth bounce back seeing how big a part of the lineup both men are.

It’s been a long winding road for Morse who came into the White Sox organization as a SS, but simply outgrew the position. Morse came into his power potential later on, but sort of stalled in the minors because he didn’t do all that much in his call ups to the majors. Last season he got a taste of full time work and made the most of his opportunities by hitting 303/360/550 with 31HR & 95RBI! Morse doesn’t walk all that much so he needs to make contact and keep his BABIP up in order to maintain that .300 batting average. Because his ISO OBP% is only around 50, he can’t let his average slip into the .275-.280 range or else his SLG% will have to carry him entirely because his OBP% will be in the .320s. That’s not bad if he hits 30HR a year, but it’s not as valuable as his 2011 season. You could certainly argue that his BABIP or HR/FB% might come down a little bit in 2012 causing some regression, but for the most part there is nothing that stands out which would cause concern for Morse going forward. He’s a late starter and he’ll already be 30 this season. Scheduled to start the year on the DL, age & injuries could ruin his career before it even gets started, but if he can log in 140 games in 2012, I don’t see why his production would fall off that much. Washington might as well squeeze him for all he’s worth while he still has it!

Last year at the age of 18, Bryce Harper absolutely destroyed Low-A ball in the South Atlanta League. The average age of a hitter in the Sally League was 21.4 years. Harper was 3.4 years younger than average! The Nationals were pretty aggressive with his promotion, sending him to Harrisburg, Washington’s AA affiliate in the Eastern League. The average age of a hitter in the Eastern League was 24.3, which means Harper was over 6-years younger than the average player in AA! That’s RIDICULOUS. Harper struggled against advanced pitching though with a 256/329/395 line in 37 games for Harrisburg. Seeing that he’ll just be 19-years old in 2012, it would make some sense to put Harper back in AA or even High-A Potomac, but it appears that the Nationals will start the season with Harper down in Syracuse at AAA. If Harper dominates AAA pitching then it won’t be long before Harper is in the starting lineup in Nationals Park. With Morse & Werth in the OF, bringing in Harper could complete a dynamic outfield, but I’d tread carefully if I was Washington. The odds are pretty long you’ll win a division in 2012 so why start Harper’s service time when it’s completely justifiable to let him sit in the minors for an entire season? Maybe Harper is ready. Maybe he’s not, but watching how Washington handles him will be one of the if not the most important dramas in baseball this season.

Ryan Zimmerman struggled with injuries last season, but is supposedly 100% healthy going into 2012. With Stephen Strasburg & Bryce Harper on the way, Zimmerman was barely the face of the franchise before he wasn’t. Now, nobody thinks of Zimmerman when they think of the Nationals, although he’s a definite MVP candidate if he can consolidate all of his tools into a single season. It’s easy to forget that Zimmerman got to the majors at the age of 20 and he’ll only be 27 years old this season meaning by some metrics, he’s only just about to enter into his “prime.” When he’s working right, Zimmerman is a .300 hitter with 35HR capacity with the ability to score 100 runs and drive in 120. That’s before he entered his peak! There is still a career year out there for Zimmerman if he can avoid the DL and put it all together. He has the capacity to be Evan Longoria with the bat, but play much better defense which would make him hands down the best 3B in the major leagues. Lost in all the Strasburg/Harper talk is that Zimmerman is an 8-9 win guy in the making which would clearly make him an MVP candidate. The question remains is whether or not Zimmerman can have those career years as he grows into his prime baseball playing years? The Nationals are closer than people realize and it’ll be Zimmerman’s name on the MVP ballot that takes them to the top of the NL East. The fun is watching if/when he can make it happen.

Lineup construction we are told by sabrmetrics isn’t that important, but there has to be some benefit to constructing a lineup that maximizes value. Maybe it’s not as much value as we might think it merits, but value nonetheless. The Nationals are a good example of this. While they have oodles of power at C, 1B, 2B, 3B, LF, and RF, they don’t have anyone to drive in. Does it make a lot of sense for Mike Morse to hit leadoff if you know he’s going to hit 30HR? That’s probably a lot of solo HR that don’t have maximized value. Don Mattingly had an incredible year in 1985 when he had 145RBI, but let’s not forget that Ricky Henderson and his .419 OBP% was leading off that year or that Willie Randolph and his .382 OBP% hit in the 2nd spot frequently while Donnie Baseball hit 3rd. With the power the Nationals have at 6 of the 8 positions, that only leaves Ian Desmond at SS and Roger Bernadina at CF to drive runs in. Last season Desmond’s OBP% was .298. Bernadina’s was .301. If you want to stick Bernadina & Desmond at the bottom of the lineup then you are looking at making a 3rd of your batting order automatic outs, but what choice does Davey Johnson really have? It’ll be interesting to see if he turns to Jayson Werth as a potential leadoff hitter. Werth is a great basestealer, albeit not in mass volumes, and has good plate discipline. Sure he’ll potentially hit 25HR from the leadoff spot, but the Nationals have to find a table setter from somewhere don’t they?

Like the Mets with Zack Wheeler & Matt Harvey, the Nationals are very dependent upon the development of Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg. We all know about Strasburg. The kid is a BEAST and if he’s 100% healthy and can make 33 starts and throw 230IP then he’s the best pitcher in the majors. End of story. But Strasburg is going to be 23-years old and has already had Tommy John surgery. Surgeries on elbows aren’t what they used to be and Strasburg picked up right where he left off last season when he made 5 starts at the end of the year. Who knows what lies ahead for the guy though? He’s absolutely filthy on the mound and there is nothing keeping him from Cooperstown except his health. It will be fascinating to watch how the Nationals handle him. You’d like to think powers that be would handle both Strasburg and Harper with kid gloves, but Strasburg is the type of pitcher that can put a team on his back and win a championship. Harper is the same way except he’s a hitter. It’s hard not to pull the trigger on THAT MUCH talent. What’s weird is that Jordan Zimmerman is worthy of Cy Young awards as well yet is sort of forgotten about amidst the Strasburg hype. Zimmerman has a low to mid-90s fastball with exquisite control who is absolutely stingy with the gopher ball. Zimmerman’s slider was a real outpitch in 2011 and the more he refines his approach the more striekouts the guy is going to rack up at the major league level. The National League has shown that you need a dynamite front rotation to compete. Zimmerman & Strasburg can make that happen for Washington, but they are both still very young and have to show they can do it over a full season. I know attendance has been down at Nationals Park recently, but when #37 and #27 are on the mound, that place should be sold out!

PREDICTIONS

1. Philadelphia Phillies
2. Miami Marlins
3. Washington Nationals
4. Atlanta Braves
5. New York Mets

The Phillies have too much starting pitching to bet against, and even with the hitters starting to decline, I think the emergence of John Mayberry & Hunter Pence give them more than enough to hold off the up and coming teams such as Miami & Washington. The Marlins youthful offense really gets going and Hanley Ramirez gets back to MVP form which will combine with just enough pitching to make the Marlins wildly successful in their new ballpark and challenge Philadelphia. Washington will finish 3rd which is better than 2011, but 2012 will be more of a consolidation year for guys like Harper, Strasburg and Zimmerman before the Nationals make a big push to become the new big dogs of the NL East in 2013. It kills me to predict Atlanta finishing 4th, but that lineup is brutal and if Heyward doesn’t come back full circle then Atlanta’s best hitter might very well be Dan Uggla or Brian McCann which a contender does not make. The Mets could be better than people think if guys like David Wright & Jason Bay hit better while Lucas Duda & Ike Davis grow into power hitters, but the overall sum of the parts isn’t there yet and the NL East just gets tougher and tougher.

April 2, 2012 Posted by | Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, N.L. East, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Previews, Washington Nationals | Leave a comment

2012 AL East Preview and Predictions

Typically previews & predictions can be a little bit lengthy, but I’m going to try and shorten them up a little bit with a brief overview and then some key questions that I think will be interesting to watch over the course of the season. I’ll go alphabetically and then give you my predicted order of finish.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Key Questions
1. Can J.J. Hardy reproduce his power output from 2011 and match his career high 30HR?
2. Do Manny Machado, Jon Schoop, Adam Jones & Matt Wieters keep progressing as a core group of hitters?
3. Can Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusuz & Zach Britton take a few steps forward as mid to back end starters?
4. Dylan Bundy! Can the 2011 1st Round pick keep progressing towards being a #1 starter?

For the most part the Baltimore Orioles are a team in a complete mess. Their amateur drafts have been horrific lately producing not much of anything while their attempts are free agent signings haven’t gone all that well either. The Orioles are never going to outspend teams like the Yankees, Red Sox or even the Blue Jays if Toronto decided to open up the checkbook. On the other hand, there might not be a better team in the major leagues right now in developing talent than the Tampa Bay Rays. That’s a frightful combination for the Orioles which isn’t even taking into account that this is the most competitive division in all of sports, not just baseball.

With that in mind all Baltimore can really do is start from scratch and start building from the ground up. New GM Dan Duquette seems to be doing just that. Adam Jones & Matt Wieters give the Orioles a couple of cornerstones with which to build their offense around up the middle at a couple of key positions. Jones hasn’t peaked yet and neither really has Wieters. Manny Machado is the best positional prospect the Orioles have and was playing in High-A ball last year at 18! If he gets to AA this year and AAA in 2013 then he’ll still be just 21 by the time he gets to the major leagues! Machado is a SS now but could move to 3B, LF or RF depending on how his body fills out. Schoop isn’t nearly the prospect Machado is, but he’s good in his own right. He has enough bat to play 2B or SS if Machado moves off the position. These 4 players could form a huge backbone for the Orioles and their development and improvement is absolutely vital to Baltimore’s long range goals of being competitive.

Dylan Bundy’s success is also paramount to Baltimore. The #4 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Bundy’s fastball sits in the mid-90s with easy velocity while being able to hit triple digits. He hasn’t thrown a professional inning yet, but is already considered one of the best 10 prospects in the game. The last time the Orioles had a legitimate staff ace was Mike Mussina which was over 10 years ago back in 2000! Bundy is the heir apparent. With the organizational pitching depth chart being fairly thin, it’s paramount for Baltimore to keep this guy healthy.

Britton, Matusz & Arrieta are interesting guys. With Bundy on the horizon, none of these guys are going to have the “ace” mantle laid upon them. Still, it wouldn’t be awful for Baltimore to find all 3 of them being able to become mid-rotation starters. Britton was a rookie last season with a 3.10ERA in his first 14 starts before falling apart and posting a 6.55ERA in his final 14 starts. He’s opening the season on the DL which isn’t a good sign given how many starters Baltimore went through in 2011, but there is stuff to work with there. Arrieta has pretty good stuff but pretty wild command. He had some elbow surgery last season to remove bone chips so hopefully he’s back 100% this season. Matusz is an enigma in that he completely fell off the face of the earth in 2011! I don’t think Matusz was nearly as bad as his stats suggested. His ERA was 10.69 but his xFIP was 5.22! Matusz is having an outstanding spring for what it’s worth and should open up the season in the rotation. You could also throw Chris Tillman into the mix here, but then the questions start expanding exponentially.

BOSTON RED SOX

Key Questions
1. How will year 1 of the Ben Cherington/Bobby Valentine duo compare to the Theo Epstein/Terry Francona team?
2. Can position players Kevin Youkilis and Carl Crawford stay healthy all season?
3. Can Adrian Gonzalez & Jacoby Ellsbury sustain their offensive outbreaks from 2011?
4. Will Jarrod Saltalamacchia finally bust out now that he’s not looking over his shoulder at Jason Varitek?
5. Will the starting rotation remain healthy and effective, especially guys like Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront?
6. Will Andrew Bailey be able to pick up right where Jon Papelbon left off and be effective in the Boston baseball fishbowl?

To be completely honest I didn’t think there would be this many questions surrounding the Red Sox coming into the 2011 season. Question #1 is the biggest, and while I’m not too worried about how effective Cherington can be, there are already rumors abounding that the Red Sox players are not completely happy with the way Bobby Valentine is running things down in Florida. Maybe that’s just Curt Schilling running his mouth, but apparently Valentine has irked a few people in his short stay leading the Sox. You can debate on just how much influence a manager has on a baseball game, but one thing the manager is responsible for is managing the personalities on the team which is something I think is very underrated by most stat oriented analysts. Keep in mind too that Valentine hasn’t won anything at the major league level. He took the Mets to the 2000 World Series, but they lost while Terry Francona sported two World Series rings and will never buy dinner in Beantown ever again. The East is entirely too difficult for a team to heap on extra problems within the clubhouse on top of playing teams like the Yankees, Rays & Blue Jays. This will be interesting to watch because of the Red Sox start out slow and the grumblings about Valentine increase, he could be out before he ever starts.

The 2nd question is fairly obvious. Youkilis can argue he’s the best hitter in the lineup. Through his first 85 games last season, Youk was hitting 288/403/510. Something happened here which caused him to nosedive and finish the season missing 42 games, but when he’s on, he’s an extremely difficult out to get for the opposition. Take a look at that line and realize too that Youkilis hit .218 for the month of April! A healthy Youkilis makes Boston’s formidable lineup downright scary. Carl Crawford just had a terrible season. In his last 5 years in Tampa, Crawford put up a 303/350/462 triple slash line, but in his first year in Boston he hit 255/289/405. He looked uncomfortable the entire season. He missed time with injury. All in all the season was a complete disaster for the left fielder, so I’m sure Crawford is thinking about some redemption. At their best, Youkilis is a 300/400/500 player who can hit 25HR, score 100R and plate 100RBI. Crawford is a 300/350/450 guy who can hit 18-20HR, score 100R, give you 85RBI, but also steal 35 bases. Boston led the AL in runs scored last year. If these guys come back to full strength, that shouldn’t be a problem again.

Like Youkilis & Crawford, the answer for Ellsbury & Gonzalez are pretty easy. Ellsbury really is this good, but he learned to turn on an inside fastball last year which resulted in him banging out 32HR. Most projection systems this season don’t call for 20HR! That’s a dropoff, but one that is going to be expected. I don’t think pitchers are going to be as willing to give Jacoby the gas this year. Last season, Ellsbury ranked 11th in the majors in % of fastballs seen. He’ll be much further down that list this year, but it’s also an opportunity to see if Ellsbury really has become a legitimate power hitter. He’s going to see a lot more breaking stuff this season and if the taters keep coming then obviously pitchers are screwed. The top-10 hitters in baseball in fastballs seen averaged 5.3HR. Ellsbury hit 32. The questions around A-Gon swirl around his unsustainable BABIP. Heading into the 2011 season, for his career Gonzalez had amassed a .310 BABIP. In 2011, he led the major leagues with a .380 BABIP which led to a 338/410/558 slash line. Some people are bringing up Manny Ramirez as a possible comparable here, but Manny had a .340 BABIP in Cleveland before he came to Boston. In Boston, Ramirez’s BABIP actually decreased to .334 so what Gonzalez is doing is completely an outlier. On the other hand, Fenway is a lot more forgiving a ballpark than Petco so Gonzalez increasing his BABIP certainly seems feasible. It will be interesting to see what Gonzalez does this season, but if he hits .280-.290 it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

As a catcher Salty was highly regarded as a prospect, but so far hasn’t become the All-Star people thought he was going to be. According to Baseball America, Saltalamacchia was Atlanta’s #1 overall prospect going into the 2007 season. His calling card was his ability to hit the baseball which so far hasn’t really translated all that well. Maybe it was him bouncing around from Atlanta to Texas to Boston, but last year we saw a little glimpse of what the big signal caller can do. Last season he posted his best offensive season to date and projects as a 20-25HR hitter if given the playing time. Salty has shown patience at the plate in the past, but he didn’t show much last season, which means we are seeing all the skill set needed for him to be a force, but we haven’t seen it all at one time. Maybe this season is the opportunity he’s been waiting for as the true #1 backstop. He’ll need to make the most of it as prospect Ryan Lavarnway is ready to take over. I don’t think it’s necessary and the Red Sox would probably just love for Salty to make 130-140 starts, but in 2004 & 2007, Jason Varitek averaged 18HR, 70RBI and 110 OPS+. Saltalamacchia is capable of those kinds of numbers.

To me the biggest problem with Boston might be their starting rotation. They don’t really have a true ace that can log major minutes. The Yankees have CC Sabathia who can log 230IP if needed. Tampa Bay has James Shields & David Price who both can get up over 210IP. The Red Sox didn’t have a single pitcher throw more than 200IP last season. I believe Jon Lester is that type of pitcher, but Lester has a few disturbing trends going on. His K/9 has decreased for the last 3 seasons and his ERA+ has decreased over the past 4 seasons. Lester also can’t really blame his defense as his FIP was 3.83 in 2011. Then again, before his last 4 starts, Lester posted a sub-3.00 ERA for the season before those frightful 4 starts which resulted in an 8.24ERA! Beckett had a pretty good statistical season last year, but he’s spent 11 years in the major leagues and in 2 of them he’s logged more than 30 starts. Clay Buchholz didn’t even throw 83IP a year ago. Boston is also experimenting with Daniel Bard & Felix Doubront at the backend of the rotation. Keep in mind that when Bard was a starter in the minor leagues he couldn’t stop walking 7 batters per 9IP. A move to pen improved his control, but over the last 2 seasons his BABIP out of the pen has been .224 and that isn’t going to stay that way in the rotation. Not even close. Doubront had a 4.33ERA at Pawtucket last season with a penchant for giving up the long ball. There just isn’t much there.

I don’t see Andrew Bailey struggling too bad as closer for the Sox. The media spotlight will be a lot brighter than it was in Oakland, and replacing Papelbon won’t the be the easiest thing, but Bailey was good enough out in Oakland to close for Boston. I think the one problem there is his ability to stay healthy which hasn’t been so good the past couple of years. Boston went out and grabbed Mark Melancon to set him up who had a lot of 9th inning experience last year for the Astros. I think, as with the starting pitching, there is more question marks around Boston’s pitching than there has been in a long time. It’s going to make for an interesting year at the Fens!

NEW YORK YANKEES

Key Questions
1. Can the old guys keep producing or is Father Time going to rear his ugly head?
2. Can the changes Curtis Granderson made against LHP be sustained indefinitely?
3. Will Alex Rodriguez have one more injury free elite year?
4. Was C.C. Sabathia’s end of year run a sign of bad things to come?
5. Will the rotation behind Sabathia be able to sustain a full season?
6. Is David Robertson going to be able to replicate his 2011 season?

It’s no secret that New York’s offense is aging rather quickly. The average age of the projected starting batting order is 33 years with Brett Gardner being the youngest at 28. It seems like Rodriguez is injured a lot and he’ll be 36 this season. Derek Jeter is pushing 40 for crying out loud and it’s important to remember that Jeter was the starting SS for the Yankees when they won the World Series back in 1996! Teixeira will be 32 which is basically the beginning of his post “peak” years. The Yankees went out and got a DH after trading prospect Jesus Montero, but Raul Ibanez is 40! The Yankees were certainly able to score runs. They finished 2nd in the AL in that category so I don’t want to be melodramatic about New York’s prospects. Teixeira had the worst season of his career yet still hit 39HR. A-Rod was having a good season until injuries got to him. Jeter got off to a slow start & wound up on the DL, but he caught fire after coming off the DL and was a definite asset. Curtis Granderson & Robinson Cano are machines. The question remains, however, as to how long it could all last.

The Yankees got a huge boost offensively last season with Granderson’s new found approach against lefties, his nemesis until 2011. Whatever hitting coach Kevin Long did, it worked in spades as Granderson jacked 16 bombs off of lefties in 2011 compared to the 20HR he had hit ins career against southpaws. Granderson put up a 272/347/597 line against lefties which was WAY OUTSIDE OF HIS CAREER norms against them! He only hit 258/372/531 against right handed batters! It truly was an amazing turnaround and oddly enough the Yankees have gone from being a team represented by Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and even Alex Rodriguez to one in which the marquee players are Granderson and Robinson Cano. The Yankees could probably be served even better if Granderson was moved to LF and Brett Gardner was inserted into centerfield because they’d be better defensively. What will be interesting in the coming months will be the sustainability of Granderson’s ability to hit lefties. With this sort of jump in performance we’d be talking about regression to the mean, but Granderson could very well have turned over a new leaf. If so, he’ll once again be one of the most valuable hitters in the AL.

I think Alex Rodriguez is at a crossroads. He hasn’t had a healthy season since 2007 when he won his third MVP award. That’s 4 seasons riddled with injury and you almost get the feeling that A-Rod could indeed battle legacy issues. He only hit 16HR last year meaning if he kept up that pace, he’d need 8 more seasons at 16HR just to tie the career HR record of 762. That would also put A-Rod at age-43 before it happened! Ridiculous! At this point Rodriguez has almost become a media figure more than anything else. He’s known more for his ridiculous contract he signed in Texas and the even more ridiculous extension he signed with the Yankees. He’s now a known steroid abuser which paints everything in a bad light. It’s too bad really and the one way A-Rod could quiet all that down is by having another elite season before he settles into predictable decline. It’s not unusual for an all-time great to post one last hurrah before becoming a supporting player or even a liability, & you have to wonder if A-Rod will be able to pull it off. I know baseball is a team game and one player simply can’t will his team to win championships. It’s an unfair metric, but give how much credence A-Rod has put on that very metric, it seems almost disappointing to know he might have just one ring to show for a 20-year career. I guess that’s one more than Ted Williams & Ernie Banks combined, but you get the point.

The 2012 Baseball Prospectus Annual  brought up a controversial point about CC Sabathia. Manager Joe Girardi put Sabathia back out on the mound after a 30 minute rain delay on July 26th against the Mariners. Sabathia was dominant going 7IP with 14K, but it’s certainly a line of demarcation in Sabathia’s season. Let’s look at the two:

2011 thru July 26th: 7.6H/9, 8.3K/9, 3.5K/BB, 2.4BB/9, 0.3HR/9, 2.56ERA, BABIP = .291, FIP = 2.65
2011 after July 26th: 11.4H/9, 9.7K/9, 4.6K/BB, 2.1BB/9, 1.4HR/9, 4.06ERA, BABIP = .396, FIP = 3.87

Clearly the culprits are BABIP and HR/9. While the 1.4HR/9 was way out of character in the latter part of the season, the 0.3HR/9 was just as much out of character as Sabathia’s career HR/9 is 0.8. It’s interesting to note that this did happen after Sabathia was put out there after a decent rain delay, but once again this feels like poor writing on Baseball Prospectus’s part. Sure the ERA & HR/9 went up, but Sabathia got horribly unlucky with this BABIP while simultaneously regressing a bit with his HR/9. After the Seattle game, Sabathia actually became more dominant with better control when looking at strikeouts and walks. How can you explain that. Even still, I suppose it is worth noting and watching, but my feeling is that this was lazy writing at its best. Wow BP has fallen hard and fast.

New York finds themselves a little bit in Boston’s situation regarding the rotation. Sabathia is the stalwart, but after him it’s a cluster of uncertainty. Grabbing Michael Pineda from Seattle in exchange for Jesus Montero was a pretty solid move considering it game the Yankees a potential ace to go with Sabathia at the top of the rotation, but Pineda was a rookie last year and certainly no sure thing. It looks as if Pineda is going to start the year on the DL forcing the Yankess to move Freddy Garcia into the rotation. Hiroki Kuroda is an interesting addition. He put up stellar numbers for the Dodgers the last couple of seasons, but the NL West isn’t the AL East, Chavez Ravine isn’t Yankee Stadium, and Kuroda is going to be 37-years old. It’s risky. Phil Hughes is coming off of injury and don’t let the 2010 season fool you. Sure Hughes was 18-8, but his ERA+ was 103 which means Hughes was league average. Ivan Nova had a good rookie year last year, but he’s not got the kind of peripherals that scream stud starter at you. He’s a 3rd/4th starter at best. Garcia is the same as Nova. He doesn’t have the peripherals any longer to get it done anymore than a backend starter would be expected. That leaves Sabathia and a bunch of question marks.

It’s worth mentioning David Robertson I think. Amazingly enough Robertson was the most valuable relief pitcher in a bullpen that included Mariano Rivera! His 2.8WAR was stellar although it came with some extreme luck. Robertson walks almost 5 batter per 9 innings, but he gets away with it because he strikes out 14 hitters per 9IP! What’s interesting about Robertson is that his HR/9 last season was 0.14 which was way out of line with his previous levels and his HR/FB% was a paltry 2.3%! Getting even luckier, Robertson’s LOB% was 89.8% which is just ridiculous! All of these numbers scream regression which would be unfortunate for the Yankees given how much they’ll need their bullpen to buttress the starters while we wait and see how the starters work out. It might not seems significant talking about a set up reliever, but the AL East is a different kind of beast and those 3 wins above replacement are extremely important, even for the Yankees. If Robertson regresses then the Yankees will have to find a couple of wins from somebody else, which might not be all that easy.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

Key Questions
1. Can Desmond Jennings remain healthy & effective for the entirety of the 2012 season?
2. Is this the year Evan Longoria plays 160 games and “peaks” at age-26?
3. Does Matt Moore wind up a front of the rotation starter by year’s end?
4. Can Jeremy Hellickson keep up his Houdini act and is it really a Houdini act?
5. Can Luke Scott & Carlos Pena provide plenty of offensive firepower to supplement Longoria, Zobrist, Jennings, & Upton?

It seemingly took forever, but Desmond Jennings finally made it to Tampa Bay and stayed. With Carl Crawford leaving for Boston and Jennings having spent so much time in Durham, the thought was that it was finally time for Jennings to come up and stick with the Rays in 2011. Instead he was shipped to Durham. With Sam Fuld starting off hot and Jennings suffering an injury while playing with the Bulls, his arrival in the AL East took a bit longer, but Jennings made the most of it when he finally got the call. In his first 34 games, Jennings hit 354/440/646, making many people wonder why Jennings wasn’t called up years earlier! Unfortunately he cooled off hitting 154/261/231 in his final 29 games. Jennings hasn’t been an overtly healthy player in his career as a professional. He did play in 152 games last year between Durham & Tampa which is a good sign, but you now have to wonder if he was worn down or if major league pitchers adjusted to his ability and shut him down. He’s a 20HR/50SB guy waiting to happen and the Rays could certainly use that sort of offensive production at the top of their lineup, but Jennings is going to have to show he can grind through a major league season and adjust to opposing pitchers the same way they appeared to adjust to him.

Don’t let the .244 batting average fool you. Longoria is an offensive beast that was tamed by a .239 BABIP almost certain not to repeat. It’s not even a question of whether or not Longoria is good. That’s already established, but now it’s interesting to see when Longoria is going to put it all together and have truly a season for the ages. Just 26, you could argue he’s still a year away from his prime, but when you look at his skill set you can envision a season where he hits .320-45-135 with 120R and potentially 10SB. He’s the best 3B in the majors right now and he looks to stay that way for the next 6-7 years. It’s possibly Brett Lawrie could have something to say about that, but for now Longoria is the man and he’s not intent upon giving up the crown. Longoria is going to produce at an MVP level. We know what. What we don’t know is if he’ll turn in a Hall-of-Fame season. That will be what will be fun to watch in 2012 and in the future. When is that gigantic step forward going to take place and how awesome will it look?

A quick look at Matt Moore’s minor league stats basically tells you all you need to know about this guy. He’s a front line starter just waiting for the opportunity to embarrass opposing hitters. How quickly he makes that jump is a question most Rays fans have coming into 2012. The 22-year old Moore started 2011 in AA where he destroyed the opposition. He did the same in AAA. His first start in the majors came against the Yankees in Yankee Stadium. He only went 5IP but he struckout 11 hitters and only allowed 4 hits while nary a run crossed the plate. That’s not a bad way to start out your career as a major league starter. On pure stuff alone Moore is the most talented pitcher in the Rays rotation which is downright ridiculous considering David Price & James Shields also call the Rays rotation home. Moore doesn’t have to be the #1 starter on the Rays staff. That will come in time, but for 2011, Price & Shields can take care of those duties. What’s interesting about whether or not Moore becomes a front end starter is how that affects Tampa’s chances in the postseason. If Moore does hit the ground running then the Rays could potentially throw out 3 #1 starters in a short series, which could make them virtually unbeatable.

Lost in all the Matt Moore, David Price & James Shields talk is the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson was touted as a future #1 starter while coming up through the Rays system, but he didn’t show the swing and miss stuff at the major league level despite having great superficial stats. It’s hard to hammer a rookie starter on a playoff team who goes 13-10 with a 2.95ERA, but Hellickson’s FIP was 4.44 and his xFIP was 4.72! Hellickson got extremely lucky posting a BABIP of .223 which screams out regression. His BB/9 at 3.43 wasn’t fantastic and his HR/9 was 1.0. Neither number is particularly impressive. Another interesting thing about Hellickson is that he led the AL in IFFB% (Infield Fly Ball%). A fly ball pitcher for the most part, Hellickson’s FB% included 16.2% of infield pop ups. Pop ups are ridiculously easy to take advantage of so you can see how Hellickson’s BABIP would be suppressed a bit. Throw in Tampa Bay’s outstanding defense and you can see why Hellickson outperformed his FIP by as much as he did. The trick is wondering if all of that is repeatable!? Is inducing pop flys on the infield a legitimate skill that Hellickson is a master at exploiting? It’ll be interesting to watch in 2012.

The Rays don’t typically make huge splashes in free agency and rather allows the market to come to them, but I think they did a pretty good job going out and grabbing Carlos Pena & Luke Scott. Pena is coming back home to Tampa after spending a year with the Cubs. He was the Rays starting 1B when the Rays went to the World Series in 2009 and during his 4-year run with the Rays, Pena averaged a 135OPS+ with 36HR & 102RBI. Given the apparent lack of power in the Rays lineup before Pena & Scott came on board, coming back home must have been a welcome sight for both the Rays & Pena. Even though the Cubs were out of contention all season last year, Pena still stayed healthy, walked 100 times, hit 28HR and posted a 123OPS+. If he can replicate that production this season, the Rays will be more than happy. Luke Scott was dogged by a bad shoulder last season that resulted in surgery. He also had LASIK surgery on his eyes. Scott can hit and getting him out of the field could be a good thing for him as well. Remember that in 2010, Scott posted a 144 OPS+ for the Orioles. It’s going to be hard for the Rays to compete with Boston & New York offensively, which is why how these two players do is of vast importance. A healthy & effective Luke Scott & Carlos Pena can go a long way with BJ Upton, Desmond Jennings, Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist & Matt Joyce. That’s 7 lineup spots which is good enough to allow the pitching staff to worry about the rest.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Key Questions
1. Can Travis d’Arnaud, Anthony Gose & Jake Marisnick take big steps forward in the minor leagues to force the issue for 2013?
2. Is Colby Rasmus ever going to convert on his prodigious amount of talent?
3. Can Dustin McGowan finally get a year where he’s not inundated with injury?
4. Will Toronto have anything to show for their starting pitching besides Romero & Morrow?

There aren’t as many questions for the Jays as their might be for Boston, New York or Tampa Bay, and that reflects a couple of things. The first is that they aren’t quite up to the Big 3’s level of play just yet. The second is that they aren’t THAT FAR away like the Orioles might be. The Jays have been one of the more interesting teams to watch over the past few years. They have a stellar front office and I think John Farrell is going to make an exceptional manager. They should be able to spend more money being in Toronto, but for whatever reason the Blue Jays have not caught the imaginations of the hometown faithful since the early 1990s when the Jays won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, meaning attendance isn’t exactly booming.

Clearly the Jays are into growing their home grown talent which speaks to question #1. With J.P. Arrencibia emerging last season behind the plate, it seems odd to talk about the next catcher in Toronto, but d’Arnaud is forcing the issue. Already a better defensive catcher & a better hitter, d’Arnaud ripped up the Eastern League last year hitting 311/371/542 in AA ball. He was in position to make a run for Toronto’s roster out of the gate, but he’ll start the season in AAA. He might not spend much time there. Anthony Gose didn’t tear up AA the way d’Arnaud did, but he was just a 20-year old and hit 253/349/415 with 70SB! Gose also hit 16HR which indicated he turned some of his enormous tool potential into legitimate baseball skills. He projects as Toronto’s future CF which is interesting now that Colby Rasmus is on the roster. He should open the year up in AAA and push for some time with the Jays if Rasmus implodes. Potentially the player with the most superstar potential is Jake Marisnick. A legitimate 5-tool CF, Marisnick went crazy on the Midwest League last season hitting 320/392/496 with 47 extra base hits, 77RBI and 37SB! He’s 6’4/210lbs and might do a little growing. He should have enough bat to carry a corner OF spot should Rasmus/Gose solidify themselves in CF. Clearly prospects are just that, but with guys like Lawrie, Bautista, Escobar & Encarnacion already at the major league level combined with the bats on the way could mean a legitimately tough offense for opponents, even in the AL East, to worry about.

Colby Rasmus is an interesting player. It’s amazing that the Jays were able to get this guy from St. Louis in the first place especially considering the fact that the Cardinals are now without Tony LaRussa, who seemed to clash with Rasmus qutie a bit. LaRussa is an interesting fellow because apparently he clashed with Scott Rolen too which is interesting. Anyway, let’s not forget that Rasmus will only be 25-years old this season and in 2010 he posted a 132 OPS+ for the Cardinals! Right or wrong, Rasmus has this thing about feeling relaxed in his atmosphere and Blue Jays fans can only hope he feels relaxed and at east now playing north of the border. At his best Rasmus is a 5-tool CF who has prove just how valuable he can be at the major league level. He strikes out too much, but he can take a walk. It’s not inconceivable to think this guy turns out like Curtis Granderson, only better, but Rasmus has to focus & commit 100% to baseball. If he becomes a 130OPS+ CF with good defense, then the Jays immediately get an MVP talent for the foreseeable future.

Speaking of potential, how about Dustin McGowan? After going through more surgeries than a histrionic woman with Munchausen Syndrome, people wondered what McGowan would show in his time back with the Blue Jays in 2011. His fastball sat in the mid-90s. He struck out 20 hitters in 21IP. The stuff was clearly there. What also was there was difficulty controlling his stuff and giving up a few too many home runs. McGowan is now 30-years old and is a starting pitcher who has never thrown more than 170IP in a single season. He certainly has the potential to be a #2 starter if he can put everything together and is finally done with his prolific injury issues, but that is a huge if. You never like to see a player with this much skill be hindered because his body is breaking down, but that seems to be the case with McGowan unless he can reverse the trend. Unfortunately as of this writing, McGowan is scheduled to start the 2012 season on the DL. With Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow & Henderson Alavarez locking down 60% of the rotation, all McGowan needs to do is be a back end starter. If he can regain his stuff, that would make the Blue Jays exceptionally happy. Being a fan of pitchers and especially one that is as talented as McGowan, seeing him succeed would make me exceptionally happy.

Like everyone in the East except for Tampa, the Jays enter the year with questions surrounding their rotation. Ricky Romero & Brandon Morrow are firmly ensconced in their roles atop the starting hierarchy, but after that duo things begin to get murky. Brett Cecil’s averaged fastball velocity last year was around 88mph. He’s backend material miscast as a #3 starter for Toronto. Kyle Drabeck can’t stop walking hitters. Dustin McGowan is already on the DL and Henderson Alvarez is just 22-years of age. Even Romero & Morrow have their issues. Romero is more a #2 starter, but Morrow hasn’t quite taken the leap to #1 starter status yet despite having more than enough “stuff” to be an elite #1 starter. There certainly is a lot to like especially if everyone pitches to potential & McGowan can stay healthy, but who knows if that can happen?

PREDICTIONS

1. Tampa Bay Rays
2. New York Yankees
3. Boston Red Sox
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles

The Rays have the best rotation in the East and possibly the entire AL while Carlos Pena & Luke Scott will combine with Longoria, Jennings, Upton, Joyce & Zobrist to give them more than enough offense to win the East. The calls of New York’s demise are greatly exaggerated, but I do think the question marks in the rotation will ultimately doom the Bombers even though I don’t think the age of the starting lineup will be as big an issue as people believe. Boston is going to hit and going to hit hard, but I already get the feeling that the Bobby Valentine experiment might be going awry before the season even begins which will ultimately kill team chemistry and hurt Boston’s chances. Toronto is closer than what you think, but the starting pitching simply isn’t there although this team should hit with authority and be the team nobody wants to face. It’ll be fun to keep an eye on the younger players, but the Orioles are a mess and only a miracle would put this team within 10 games of contention.

April 1, 2012 Posted by | A.L. East, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Previews, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays | 1 Comment

Getting the Information the Sports Book Doesn’t Have

In the 2012 Hardball Times, James Holzhauer makes a very compelling although intuitive statement in his essay entitled “Diary of a Mad Sports Bettor.” The statement is:

Placing winning sports bets often hinges on an information advantage. The problem is that most publicly available information is already factored into the betting odds.

Intuitive right? But the problem is that most people don’t live and breath by those very prescient words. Holzhauer goes on to talk about the inherent advantage the team playing at home has on their visitors, but the problem is that any bookie is already going to factor in the odds of the home team winning in the initial line. The person placing the bet has no inherent advantage in taking the home team because the value of playing at home really isn’t there due to the bookies already knowing about this advantage and adjusting the line accordingly. Holzhauer further explains this in recounting his success in betting on the World Baseball Classic. The trick to beating those odds was in diving deep into a tournament the sports books didn’t really know a ton about it. By becoming an “expert” on all the foreign teams and some computer simulation, Holzhauer was able to lick those odds for tremendous profit.

How does that really help us going into 2012 when betting on baseball games? Baseball betting is all about starting pitching match-ups, but luckily for us there are so many variables within baseball that a sports book simply cannot keep up with every nuanced statistic that can affect the outcome of a baseball game. For example, say you have the following match-up:

St. Louis-Wainwright -130
Cincinnati-Latos +120

Those odds note that St. Louis’s odds of winning is 56.5% while Cincinnati’s is 45.5%. If Cincy is a better than 45.5% bet to win then clearly the bet is for the Reds. The trick here is trying to figure out if the Cardinals are greater than 56.5% favorites or are the Reds greater than 45.5% favorites? What do we know? That’s the trick in trying to bet this game. How can we make that determination by factoring in something that the sports books didn’t factor in? Is umpiring crew factored in? How much of recent success is factored in? If you knew that Jason Motte wasn’t going to pitch would it swing things more in favor of Cincinnati? If Joey Votto had the day off would it swing things more towards St. Louis? How does bullpen usage affect which relievers could be available for this particular game and do the bookies go so far as to forecast which relievers won’t be available based on usage patters and figure those variables into the odds?

You simply have to widen the information gap into your favor, but how to do that is the fundamental question.

 

March 17, 2012 Posted by | Hardball Times, James Holzhauer, Rules of Betting Baseball | Leave a comment

Is the Baseball Prospectus Annual Becoming Worthless?

I don’t know how things are over at the actual website, and maybe things there are a lot more conducive to baseball analysis that would give you an edge whether it being in your fantasy leagues, betting habits, or simply what to watch for during a game or season, but the people writing the annual are essentially mailing it in. I was going over some player comments for my upcoming fantasy draft and read the following about Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez:

Many a lazy analysis begins and ends with BABIP! BABIP BABIP check out this guy’s BABIP! But Hernandez’s season is the sort of year for which DIPS was discovered. Despite only a minor bump in line drives allowed a 46-point BABIP spike ruined his ERA. Every other performance measure including his FIP held steady with his Cy Young-winning 2010 season. Hitters got more aggressive early in the count against Hernandez and did most of their damage on the first pitch. Opponents’ OPS on Hernandez’s first pitch was 400 points higher than it had been in 2010. But after the first pitch hitters hit just .216/.287/.284 against him; in 2010 after the first pitch they hit .215/.283/.319. This is either a useful bit of information that Hernandez can use to adjust – and he already has, throwing more off-speed pitches to start at bats – or the sort of misleading small sample that makes baseball analysis maddening. BABIP!

What really did we learn here? If I rip on this I can already see the counterargument that although BABIP could be a lazy analytical tool, it isn’t so in this particular case. Everything about King Felix’s season last year actually revolves around his BABIP because essentially everything from 2010 to 2011 that a pitcher could control was exactly the same. What’s more interesting to me about Hernandez is something I noted last year over at FanGraphs and their Pitchfx data. FanGraphs assigns value to a particular pitch and it’s interesting to know that in 2009 & 2010 Hernandez’s most valuable pitch was his fastball. However, he saw a pretty big decline in the usage thereof in favor of his changeup. The values of those two pitches in 2011 reversed as Hernandez’s value for his fastball turned negative while his changeup essentially became his best pitch.

When you look at the heat maps you can’t really tell any difference with what Hernandez is doing with the pitches other than he’s gotten a lot more confidence in his changeup, and given how young Felix is, it’s certainly possibly that hitters are either getting better at hitting his fastball or he’s becoming even better at using his prodigious weapons to keep opposing hitters off their toes. To me this is an even better analysis because it strikes to the heart of Hernandez’s evolution into a top flight pitcher. We already know he’s one of the game’s, if not the best starters. Why this is true and will continue to be true, barring injury, is a much more useful tool to analyze the King moving forward rather than using BABIP as a scapegoat for lazy analysis and then actually use it to prove a point. The problem for me is that I don’t know what exactly we are supposed to take from this analysis.

Even the first pitch tidbit is a bit lazy. Sure on first pitches Hernandez allowed a triple slash line of 366/371/496, but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Hernandez is one of the very elite so a first pitch line like that will only result in a massive decrease in all other pitches or else we wouldn’t be talking about one of the game’s best. However, Hernandez gave up a 397/387/521 line on 1-0 counts. He gave up a 367/367/700 line on 2-0 counts. Even on 0-1 counts Hernandez gave up a line of 368/389/517! Hernandez isn’t great after his first or even his second pitch. It’s when he works past his first couple of pitches.

I don’t know who did the write up for the Mariners this season and I haven’t looked at any player comments for the Mariners yet beyond the one for Felix Hernandez, but it was terribly disappointing and very below the standard Baseball Prospectus has set in previous years.

March 17, 2012 Posted by | Baseball Prospectus, Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners | Leave a comment

How Does A.J. Burnett’s Injury Affect Pittsburgh’s Chances?

This past Wednesday, newly acquired starting pitcher A.J. Burnett was bunting balls for the Pirates when an errant ball came back and hit him in the eye causing an orbital fracture! Talk about bad luck! Burnett had surgery on Friday to repair the damage and now reports are that he’ll be on the shelf for 2-3 months. It’s a pretty significant blow for Pittsburgh. I think heading into the season most people would agree that the Bucs are behind Cincinnati, Milwaukee, & St. Louis, but ahead of Chicago & Houston. The Pirates are seen more as a team with potential if everything falls right. A big part of that potential was wrapped up in Burnett and Erik Bedard being able to stay relatively healthy. Even if this doesn’t have anything to do with his arm, Burnett has already had one set back and if he’s out for 2-3 months, then the earliest Pittsburgh can expect him back is May meaning he’ll miss a month of games or at least 4-6 starts. If Burnett is on the long side of recover then a 3-month period puts him back in a Pirates uniform in June which means he’s most likely to miss around 9-11 starts! That’s significant.

Interestingly enough, there hasn’t been any movement in Pittsburgh’s lines due to Burnett’s injury. According to BetUS they are still +6000 to win the World Series and still +1800 to win the NL Central. While you certainly wouldn’t take the +6000 for Pittsburgh to wind up World Series champions, I didn’t think it was an awful play to take the +1800 to win the Central. In my post about Division Winners, I said this about Pittsburgh at +1800:

The rest of the division shouldn’t play much of a factor, but if you are betting long shots then Pittsburgh isn’t a bad one to go for. They brought in Erik Bedard on an incentive laden contract & then traded for AJ Burnett. Those two guys come with enough caution to think neither will work out in the Steel City, but if fate throws the Bucs a bone, Pittsburgh could potentially have enough offense to scare some teams with a rotation anchored by Bedard, Burnett, Kevin Correia & James McDonald.

Burnett is a big part of that picture. Without him for 4-11 starts is enough for me to think I’d now pass on Pittsburgh at +1800. Admittedly it was a long shot to begin with, but now it seems practically impossible.

March 3, 2012 Posted by | A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh Pirates | 1 Comment

Talking Futures – 2012 Over/Under Total Wins

Our pals at BetOnline have released some over/under values for total wins for the upcoming 2012 season. We’ll go through the divisions.

AL EAST

Yankees: Over 93 wins = -115; Under 93 wins = -115
Red Sox: Over 88 wins = -135; Under 88 wins = +105
Rays: Over 87.5 wins = -122; Under 87.5 wins = -108
Blue Jays: Over 80.5 wins = -135; Under 80.5 wins = +105
Orioles: Over 71 wins = -105; Under 71 wins = -125

The Yankees win 97 games last year and essentially stood pat besides trading Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda. That’s obviously a rotation upgrade assuming Pineda stays healthy & it seems like New York’s rotation should be a bit better than last season’s. You are sort of betting on their offense to keep going forward despite dealing with massive age issues. I think the gains for a guy like Curtis Granderson is real and not luck derived. Mark Teixeira is motivated and so is Alex Rodriguez from what I can understand. Nick Swisher is in a contract year and Robinson Cano is one of the best hitters in the game. You aren’t getting crazy value for the over-93 at -115, but if you had to bet on the Yankees, how can you not see them winning 94 games?

Boston won 90-games last season and the O/U here is 88. I could go either way on the Red Sox. On the surface they look tremendous, but you have to wonder what the effects will be in year one without both Theo Epstein & Terry Francona leading the franchise. BetOnline obviously likes them a lot at over-88 wins, but I don’t think getting to 87 wins would be that far off. Because of this I’d probably stay away from Boston all together because I wouldn’t be surprised if they went 85-77, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if they went 97-65. If I had to go one way I’d go under-88 at +105 only because the value is there.

Tampa Bay is an easy play. You take the over 87.5 wins at -122. Tampa won 91 games last season and I don’t see them falling off. They get Matt Moore this year and the rotation is a year older. Hopefully Evan Longoria can play a full season and I think the offense will get a pretty big boost by having a full season of Desmond Jennings. The Rays need another thumper in my opinion in the lineup, but they are hoping Carlos Pena can be that guy and avoid an Adam Dunn-esque fall in 2012. Still, the pitching staff here has the potential to be utterly dominant from start to finish.

Take the under-71 wins for the Orioles even if it is at -125. Baltimore is playing in the most difficult division in baseball. They get 72 games against their divisional rivals, all of whom could probably be considered among the top-10 teams in all of baseball. Four of the top-6 teams in the AL reside in the AL East meaning the Orioles are in for a horrific season. Last year Baltimore went 69-93. If they avoid 100 losses this year it should be considered a successful season. There is simply no way this team flirts with 72-73 victories.

Clearly BetOnline likes Toronto to be a +.500 team. I was really hoping that the Blue Jays would offer some type of under the radar value, but I don’t see it. At -135 for over 80.5 wins, you almost feel as if you have to take it because Toronto is going to be that good. Last year the Blue Jays went 81-81, and they are better this season. Something would have to go remarkably wrong with the Jays to fall under .500. Ricky Romero is an ace and Brandon Morrow is completely dominant in games. I think Brett Cecil will be good this season, the bullpen is solid and this team can score runs. The back end of the rotation is a little thin, but if Toronto can stabilize the pitching they are going to win a lot of ball games. I’ll mention this below with the NL East, but it’s highly likely every team in the East sans Baltimore will win 85 games. The last time it happened was as recent as 2010!

AL CENTRAL

Tigers: Over 94 wins = -120; Under 94 wins = -120
Royals: Over 78.5 wins = -120; Under 78.5 wins = -110
Indians: Over 76.5 wins = -122; Under 76.5 wins = -108
Twins: Over 74 wins = -115; Under 74 wins = -115
White Sox: Over 77 wins = -110; Under 77 wins = -120

As we’ve seen before, the difference between Detroit and the rest of the Central is astonishing. The Tigers won 95 games last season so Vegas is expecting more of the same from the boys in Motown. The scary part about Detroit is that they could get better. Guys like Austin Jackson & Brenna Boesch get a year older so hopefully they can take a step forward. The same goes for guys like Rick Porcello & Max Scherzer. Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball. They added Prince Fielder to the offense. There is no real value either way with the O/U being at -120 and 94 wins is a huge amount, but how can you not go for the over if you are looking at Detroit? The other teams in the Central are terrible and the Tigers will have 44.4% of their games played against their division rivals!

The rest of the Central is a mess. Kansas City won 71 games and if you look at the above odds you see that BetOnline believes the Royals to be the 2nd best team in the Central! Wow! I guess I could see it. The hitting could be pretty darn good. Eric Hosmer is a star in the making. Mike Moustakas has an incredible track record in the minors. Billy Butler is solid. If Alex Gordon & Jeff Francouer can keep up with what they did in 2011 then Kansas City should score some runs. I’m not completely sold on the pitching, but if guys like Mike Montgomery, Chris Duffy & Aaron Crow can turn in solid years, the Royals might not be that bad.

I think the Indians are intriguing especially with Carlos Santana & Asrubal Cabrera emerging offensively. The team gets Shin-Soo Choo back this season, but Grady Sizemore is already hurt again. The pitching is intriguing with Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Kevin Slowey & Derek Lowe, but like Kansas City, there are so many question marks. It would be great if Lonnie Chisenhall would start raking at the major league level.

The Twins are another team that could be OK, but the entire team is one big injury prone conglomerate and if Joe Mauer & Justin Morneau can’t turn in completely healthy seasons, then Minnesota is in the tank. I don’t think you can build an offense around Denard Span, Josh Willingham and Danny Valencia. I think the Twins really need healthy years from both Francisco Liriano & Scott Baker as well. If they can’t get those types of years out of those 4 building blocks, then Minnesota is going to suffer another year like the one produced in 2011.

The White Sox could be the most intriguing for a couple of reasons. The first is that the starting pitching could be pretty darn good. I know you can’t expect Jake Peavy to be healthy at this point, but at least right now it looks as if Peavy is going to be 100%. Last year looked rough with a 4.92 ERA in 18 starts, but his FIP was a smallish 3.21! Peavy’s peripheral stats were solid too with a 7.7K/9, 1.9BB/9 & 0.8HR/9! Over a full season with decent run support & defense you are looking at a 16-17 game winner. Chris Sale is another “unknown”. Sale was dominant as a reliever last year & will transition into the rotation. He’s got filthy stuff & will struggle with control, but he’s one of those guys that at any time could throw a no-hitter. John Danks & Gavin Floyd are solid starters who were better than their ERAs suggested last season. Offensively Chicago has some work to do but maybe Gordon Beckham will be better & Adam Dunn can’t possibly be that bad again can he? The White Sox did win 79 games last year and oddly enough the value here is -110 at over-77 wins. That’s not a bad bet.

Overall the Central isn’t the best division in the game, but it could easily be one of the most if not the most intriguing. I don’t think anyone touches Detroit unless the Tigers fall apart completely, but Kansas City, Cleveland, Minnesota & Chicago aren’t all that different regarding where they are as teams. From the above lines you can see that all are in that mid-70s win range which will make for interesting baseball in the Central if only because the teams are evenly matched & it’s worthwhile to see which teams are progressing and which teams aren’t.

AL WEST

Angels: Over 89.5 wins = -135; Under 89.5 wins = +105
Rangers: Over 93.5 wins = -110; Under 93.5 wins = -120
Mariners: Over 72.5 wins = -105; Under 72.5 wins = -125
Athletics: Over 73 wins = -105; Under 73 wins = -125

The Angels won 86 games last year and add in Albert Pujols & CJ Wilson. They’ll win 90 games this year easily. The -135 isn’t giving you an value, but the bet is obvious that Vegas thinks LA is going to win at least 90 games. I’ve said before I think LA could have problems offensively because some of their “name” players are aging while Mike Trout isn’t quite yet ready to hit the big time, but having Dan Haren, Jered Weaver, CJ Wilson and Ervin Santana as your 4-man rotation is going to buy a tremendous amount of wins. This team is a nightmare in a short series meaning they are one of a handful of teams nobody wants to see in the postseason.

There really isn’t any value play on the Rangers either, but I think they wind up down a bit this season. They don’t look to lose pace offensively especially if Josh Hamilton sticks around, but I think the pitching loses CJ Wilson this year. A year ago it lost Cliff Lee. They hope Neftali Feliz & Yu Darvish can come in and really boost the rotation after Derek Holland and Scott Feldman, but I don’t know. I don’t think you can take two unknown quantities and throw them up against the Angels and expect another AL West title. There isn’t much value going with them at -120 for the under-93.5 wins, but there is no way I’d take them for 94-95 victories this year.

Seattle was 61-101 a year ago so to take the over-72.5 wins you’d have to think they’ll improve by 12 games with basically doing nothing and losing their 2nd best starter. There isn’t any value at -125 for going under 72.5 wins so really there isn’t any reason to bet Seattle unless you are convinced they are going for 90 losses easily which seems inevitable to me.

I feel like Oakland is in the same boat as Seattle. This is a team with virtually no hitting combined with little to no starting pitching outside of Brandon McCarthy. Vegas seems to think Oakland is another 90-loss team out West which makes sense. The distinction between the haves (Texas & Anaheim) and the have nots (Seattle & Oakland) is striking. The value in Oakland would be taking the over 73 wins at -105, but how do they scrape together 74 victories?

NL EAST

Phillies: Over 95.5 wins = -105; Under 95.5 wins = -125
Braves: Over 85.5 wins = -125; Under 85.5 wins = -105
Marlins: Over 82.5 wins = -150; Under 82.5 wins = +120
Nationals: Over 82 wins = -135; Under 82 wins = +105
Mets: Over 74.5 wins = +105; Under 74.5 wins = -135

New York’s plight isn’t quite as bad in the NL East as Baltimore’s is in the AL East, but you see a similar setup. The Mets essentially don’t have anybody & will have to rely on some significant pitching prowess, which they pretty much don’t have, to try and just smell contention. David Wright hasn’t been a superstar since 2008. Jason Bay isn’t any good. Carlos Beltran is gone. Jose Reyes is gone. Ike Davis has some promise, but who else can the Mets throw out there in a star studded division? The Mets won 77 games last season, but I don’t see how they improve on that number in 2012. Maybe they can get to 75-87, but I don’t see it. The line says New York is awful and I don’t think you take take the -135 even if you believe they’ll lose 100 games.

I’d stay away from Philadelphia. It would be tempting to take them at -105 at over 95.5 wins, but the NL East is going to be pretty darn good and I could see 93-94 wins getting the division title simply from a competitive standpoint. I don’t think missing Ryan Howard is going to be a factor all that much to be honest as long as guys like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley & Hunter Pence can remain healthy. I think the -105 at over-95.5 is fool’s gold, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Papelbon struggle as closer there.

BetOnline seems to think Atlanta is a shoe-in for 86 wins, but here is where it gets a little intriguing. If Atlanta’s under 85.5 wins was +105 instead of -105 I’d grab it up in a second. We don’t know if Tommy Hanson is going to be 100% for a full season. If he is then Hanson along with guys like Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor & Brandon Beachy combine to give Atlanta a formidable lineup. The problem I have with the Braves is their offense. If Jason Heyward doesn’t turn his 2011 around and if Chipper Jones struggles with injury (when doesn’t he?) then where is the offense coming from? If you were picking value bets then taking the under 85.5 at -105 would be the pick for Atlanta because you can easily envision a scenario where they fall completely off the map.

The Marlins should be steered clear of at all costs. The team is ENTIRELY too good to lose half their games. The easy bet here is going over 82.5 wins at -150, but because the bet is -15o you should probably stay away from it. On the other side, betting they’ll lose 82 games is ridiculous.

The Nationals are simliar to Miami but to a lesser degree. The team is simply too good to lose half their games. While -135 isn’t as bad as -150, there is almost no chance the Nationals turn in a 80-82 season. The hitting could be pretty scary too with Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Morse and Danny Espinosa. If guys like Jayson Werth & Adam LaRoche can have bounce back years then Washington rotation of Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez & Edwin Jackson is too good to keep them under .500.

For the most part the NL East should be a blood bath. Both of baseball’s East divisions are brutal on top with a struggling team at the very bottom. While it might seem obviously that the NY Yankees & Philadelphia Phillies are the favorites, I don’t think it would be entirely shocking to see any one of the top-4 teams in the division wind up on top at the conclusion of the 2012 season.

NL CENTRAL

Reds: Over 87 wins = -115; Under 87 wins = -115
Brewers: Over 84.5 wins = -120; Under 84.5 wins = -110
Cardinals: Over 87 wins = +105; Under 87 wins = -135
Pirates: Over 73 wins = -135; Under 73 wins = +105
Cubs: Over 73.5 wins = -115; Under 73.5 wins = -115
Astros: Over 62.5 wins = +100; Under 62.5 wins = -130

Vegas seems to be in agreement that Cincinnati is the team to beat in the NL Central this season. The Reds only won 79 games last year, but the division winning Brewers won 96 games. That doesn’t mean that 96 wins is automatic for the Central champion, but if 90 wins is the benchmark then Cincy has at least an 11-game improvement in store just to get to 90 wins & assume it is enough. The Reds did at Mat Latos and that’s a huge addition to the rotation. I think a lot of things have to go right to get a big win total. I can see Detroit flirting with 100 wins because their division is so bad. The same can be said for the Angels or Rangers due to the AL West bottom feeders being awful. I don’t think teams like the Yankees & Phillies can win 100 games because the divisions are so tough. I think the same here with Cincinnati. The Reds might be the best team in the Central, but the Pirates are coming along and it’s not like the Cardinals & Brewers are going away. We all know Chicago isn’t to be great, but a 3-game weekend series against Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza & Paul Maholm isn’t exactly cupcake city either. Where does that put Cincinnati? I think it makes them the Central favorites, but I’m not sure by how many victories. I think 88 wins could win the division. You can be 100% sure that 95 wins gets it done, but maybe 86 wins it too. With the O/U being both at -115, you might as well stay away from the Reds.

The total for Milwaukee seems absurdly low. Just 84.5 wins? You almost have to take the over 84.5 wins and here is why. Ryan Braun is back for a full season. Braun’s numbers might not be as good as they were last year’s because there is no more Prince Fielder in the lineup, but the Brewers have a pretty darn good stable of hitters. They added Aramis Ramirez to play 3B while Alex Gonzalez brings some pop as well. Nyjer Morgan is underrated while Corey Hart & Rickie Weeks are more than solid bats. Milwaukee is going to score runs. Remember too that Zack Greinke, Randy Wolf & Shaun Marcum are essentially in contract years. Wolf has a club option for 2013, but if the Brewers don’t exercise that option then he’s a goner and will be playing for another contract. Greinke & Marcum will be looking for huge deals so you are going to see a pitching staff with a ton to prove every night out. Keep in mind that the Brewers won 96 games last year. Can they fall of by 13 games by losing Fielder alone? Think about this. The Brewers 1B last year provided 5.5 WAR (wins above replacement). The Brewers 3B provided 0.1 WAR and their SS provided 1.0 WAR. Last year for the Cubs Ramirez provided 3.6 WAR. Which would give Milwaukee a +3.5 gain at that position. Last year for Atlanta, Gonzalez provided 1.1 WAR which is basically the same but +0.1. That’s a total improvement of +3.6 wins above replacement. Taking the 5.5 WAR that Fielder provided last season away you get a 1.9 WAR deficit the Brewers are going to have to replace with who plays 1B. So the pitching staff is going to be hungry. They’ve been there before & the loss of Fielder won’t be devastating. Even at -120 the evidence suggests Milwaukee is a shoe in for at least 85 victories!

The Cardinals are EASY! You easily take the +105 for over-87 victories! It’s not even an issue. Sure they lose Pujols, but I think guys like Carlos Beltran, John Jay, Allen Craig & Lance Berkman can make up for it. If Adam Wainwright & Chris Carpenter are healthy this team will be more than fine. Can they win a World Series? It’s highly doubtful, but they can win 88 games.

Pittsburgh is going to be interesting this year not for any type of expectations regarding championships but because it’ll be interesting to see how good they can get. They won 72 games last year so betting the over-73 wins is an easy take, but at -135 you probably should stay away. The best bets for the Pirates concern their odds of winning the division or getting to the World Series. Those odds are long, but if AJ Burnett & Erik Bedard catch lightning in a bottle, the Pirates could surprise. There is no value here.

There is no value for the Cubbies either. Give Theo Epstein some time. The Cubs have absolutely no offense, but their pitching staff could be pretty decent. The Cubbies won 71 games last season which was behind Pittsburgh even and it won’t be pretty again this year. The O/U is -115 both ways so who really knows, but I’d stay away. They’ll be around 73 victories and if I had to guess I’d peg them for the under, but my confidence is more in the fact they’ll finish in 5th place rather than what their win total will be while residing there.

Forget Houston. They are stone freaking awful. Last year the Astros went 56-106. Do they really have a 6-game improvement in them? Hardly. The Astros are the worst team in baseball by such an extreme margin that we might be talking about comparisons to the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks who went 51-111! Obviously you’d take the under-62.5. I’m almost to a point where the -130 for taking the under seems like a bargain!

NL WEST

Diamondbacks: Over 85 wins = -135; Under 85 wins = +105
Giants: Over 87.5 wins = -110; Under 87.5 wins = -120
Dodgers: Over 81.5 wins = -110; Under 81.5 wins = -120
Rockies: Over 82.5 wins = -110; Under 82.5 wins = -120
Padres: Over 71 wins = -130; Under 71 wins = +100

It’s interesting how the Giants won the World Series in 2010 and then immediately became the 2nd best team in the division! Ian Kennedy isn’t going 21-4 again, but let’s not forget that the strides both he & Daniel Hudson made were supported by their periphery numbers. Getting Trevor Cahill from Oakland was a sweet move & now the Snakes have a pretty decent rotation. It’s not nearly as good as what San Francisco can throw out there, but San Francisco has absolutely no chance to match offensive production with Arizona. The lines for Arizona are ridiculous. I don’t know if you can go -135 on the over-85 wins, but I also don’t see how Arizona avoids going 86-76 at a bare minimum.

The Giants won 86 games in their title defense. BetOnline suggests the Giants will once again be under 88 wins and that seems feasible given the current state of San Francisco’s offense. I don’t think you can take the line on either the over or the under for SF. The pitching is nasty so they can be in any game they play, but offensively they are going to struggle unless Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval & Aubrey Huff go off! That doesn’t seem likely meaning the Giants are going to have a hard time outlasting Arizona.

The Dodgers, like St. Louis, give us an easy target. The obvious play here is taking the over 81.5 wins at -110. Sure it’s still -110 but I can’t see how LA doesn’t at least finish 82-80. The pitching is solid with Kershaw, Billingsley & Lilly up front. I think Aaron Harang & Chris Capuano could be bigger additions than people think and for the first time in awhile, the Dodgers come to camp with a bullpen pretty much figured out and ready to play a significant role in the team’s success. Los Angeles won 82 games a year ago & I think they get a little better. Like the Giants, the Dodgers will struggle a little at the plate, but getting full seasons out of Juan Rivera & Dee Gordon should help. It’s probably too much to ask Matt Kemp to replicate his incredible 2011 season, but Andre Ethier can still get better I think. It’s tough to see LA winning the West, but winning 83 games won’t be tough at all.

The Rox won 73 games last season and I simply don’t see it. The team’s #1 starter is now Jeremy Guthrie who was the #1 starter in Baltimore. That’s not improving your pitching staff in the least. The betting lines almost insinuate that the Rockies should be better than the Dodgers which is unbelievable for me. The easy play here is taking the under for -120. It means Colorado would have, at a minimum, to go 82-80 which seems next to impossible! That would be a 9-game jump, and the team didn’t get better. While you are once again putting up $120 to win $100, I can’t see how Colorado plays over .500 baseball.

San Diego is tough to judge either way. In 2010 they were regarded as the worst team heading into the season among the 5 NL West teams, but wound up winning 90-games, just 2 behind the eventual World Champion Giants. Last year they fell to 71 wins. San Diego lost their pitcher in Mat Latos this past offseason in a trade with Cincinnati. While the Padres are oftentimes difficult to predict, the West is going to be fairly competitive and I’m not sure the Padres have the horses to keep pace. Under 71 wins would make them 70-92 and that makes some sense with the loss of Latos. The line at -130 for over-71 wins seems to make San Diego an obvious candidate for victories, but I can’t see it. I’d go +100 for under 71 wins.

MY BEST OVERALL PLAYS

Tampa Bay: Over 87.5 wins at -122
Milwaukee: Over 84.5 wins at -120
Toronto: Over 80.5 wins at -135
Baltimore: Under 71 wins at -125
Chicago White Sox: Over 77 wins at -110
Anaheim: Over 89.5 wins at -135
Atlanta: Under 85.5 wins at -105
St. Louis: Over 87 wins at +105
Houston: Under 62.5 wins at -130
Los Angeles: Over 81.5 wins at -110
Miami: Over 82.5 wins at -150
Washington: Over 82 wins at -135

I’m pretty darn confident about the Blue Jays, Brewers, Rays, Orioles, Angels, Astros & Dodgers. I think the plays on the White Sox, Braves, & Cardinals are simply good odds to bet on. The rest of the bets don’t have lines that seemingly give good odds or I don’t have a really good feel for how the team’s season will turn out.

The Marlins & Nationals bets are ones with significant risk because of the line. Essentially I’m banking on a couple of things here. The first is that the Braves have to falter which I think they do by betting the under on 85.5 wins. The 2nd is that Philadelphia doesn’t run away from the division and the 4 top teams in the division essentially boil down to a brutal battle of wills with some evenly matched squads. If you believe in Atlanta then you are banking on 4 teams with at least 83 wins in the same division that has only 5 teams. The last time that happened in the NL was the 2005 NL East with Atlanta (90-72), Philadelphia (88-74), Florida (83-79) & New York (83-79). The only other time it has happened in a 3-division NL was in 2003 with the East again. I’d be willing to bet that it has a good chance at happening again in 2012.

March 1, 2012 Posted by | Futures | Leave a comment

Talking Baseball Futures – 2012 Division Winners

Once again going back to BetUS’s odds on who will win their respective divisions. In my first post I looked at BetUS’s odds of winning the World Series. By looking at the division odds we can get a clearer picture of what Vegas thinks will happen during the 2012 regular season. Let’s take a look.

AL EAST

Yankees -200
Red Sox +325
Rays +650
Blue Jays +800
Orioles +7500

It must absolutely suck being an Orioles fan. They don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the AL East. This is actually an interesting forecast really. The Rays look to be closer to the Blue Jays than they do the Red Sox or Yankees which I think is patently false. I’m a big believer in starting pitching and when you look at what Tampa Bay brings to the table, you simply can’t discount their front 5. Jeff Niemann is their worst starter going into this season and he’s 36-21 in his 3-years as a full time starter. I think it’s interesting too that New York is the clear cut favorite to win the division. I’m a Yankees homer, but that rotation looks shaky after Sabathia and all the hitters are a year older. Boston is getting older too and battled a lot of injuries last season. They need their pitchers to really step it up too in a year in which Theo Epstein left the building as did Terry Francona who managed the Bosox to 2 championships. There really isn’t a bad bet in the division unless you really think Baltimore has a shot. To me Tampa Bay & Toronto give you the most value, but Boston at +325 isn’t bad either. The worst bet here is New York at -200, but the Yankees probably do have the best chance at winning the division. This will be by far the best division in baseball. The top-4 teams are capable of winning any other division in baseball.

AL CENTRAL

Tigers -1800
Indians +1800
White Sox +1800
Twins +1800
Royals +2000

The most lopsided division in baseball. It’s not even funny how far ahead Detroit is compared to their division rivals. I don’t think at -1800 you can bet on Detroit. It seems ridiculous to bet $1800 to win $100 which goes to show you just how dominant Detroit looks in the Central. If there is one team out there in the Central that could surprise, it’s Minnesota. The Twins were downright awful last season losing 99 games which was their worst season since 1982 when the Twins went 60-102 under the managerial prowess of Billy Gardner! The Twins do have some things going for them. They were hit with massive injuries last season which hurt them in all areas. Their pitching staff really isn’t that bad. Scott Baker is horribly underrated if he can stay healthy for 33-34 starts. Francisco Liriano is yet another year removed from injury and he still can strike batters out. Carl Pavano isn’t going to blow anyone away but he won’t beat himself by allowing homers and walks. The offense took some hits by losing Michael Cuddyer & Jason Kubel, but the Twins picked up Josh Willingham & Ryan Doumit. If Denard Span gets better while Joe Mauer & Justin Morneau can give the Twins full seasons, the offense should be pretty good. The Twins are behind Detroit no question, but if you had to pick a team in the Central to wager on this season, I’d go Minnesota for potential. By the way, I’d be insulted if I was Kansas City. How does Cleveland, Minnesota & Chicago all get +1800 odds yet the Royals get +2000?

AL WEST

Angels -165
Rangers +125
A’s +3000
Mariners +3000

This is a 2-team race. I have my doubts about LA’s offense over the course of a full season because I think Pujols is on the decline and the Angels will have to protect him with hitters like Torii Hunger, Vernon Wells and Mark Trumbo. Color me unimpressed. On the other hand, you get the Halos in a short series in October and it might be all over with Dan Haren, Jered Weaver, CJ Wilson & Ervin Santana staring at you. The Angels’s front-4 is simply incredible and Jordan Walden proved last year he can close out games. The Rangers tried to counter the Angels assault on pitching by bringing in Japanese sensation Yu Darvish and moving Neftali Feliz into the rotation from the closer’s role. While not as good on paper as the Angels front end, Texas’s trio of Scott Feldman, Derek Holland & Matt Harrison isn’t too shabby. Plus I think Texas’s offense will be quite a bit better than LA’s. This division is basically a toss up & I can’t see how anyone could make a decent bet on Oakland or Seattle. I like the potential of Oakland being a solid pitching squad that plays good defense, but within the parameters of the division, the Rangers & Angels are simply too good to compete with. If I had to bet I’d go with the Angels at -165 only because I have a hard time believing Texas can get back to the playoffs for the 3rd straight season.

NL EAST

Phillies -800
Braves +1000
Marlins +1000
Nationals +1200
Mets +5000

The NL East isn’t quite as bad as the AL Central, but it’s fairly close. This is a one horse division with the Phillies filthy starting rotation anchoring the belief that Philadelphia will return to the fall classic. I don’t think there is necessarily a bad bet among the top-4 teams, much the same way there isn’t a bad bet amongst the top-4 teams in the AL East. The Phillies give you the least value at -800, but that’s how good the rotation is. I think the Marlins are a very interesting propostion. When Josh Johnson is on, he’s as unhittable as any pitcher in the major leagues. Ricky Nolasco has nasty stuff at time. Anibal Sanchez has thrown a no-hitter. Bringing in veteran Mark Buehrle was a solid move and the Marlins have Carlos Zambrano as their #5 starter which isn’t too shabby. The Marlins need Hanley Ramirez to be Hanley Ramirez again, but if he is then you’ll be putting him with Mike Stanton, Jose Reyes, Logan Morrison & Gaby Sanchez. The Marlins were 72-90 last year so that’s a lot of ground to cover in one offseason, but they look pretty good. I think Washington is a year and a starter away. The Mets are terrible. I’m a little perplexed by Atlanta, but I think their hitters can’t hold up. I think the best bet in the East giving the most value is Miami at +1000.

NL CENTRAL

Reds +125
Cardinals +225
Brewers +250
Cubs +1600
Pirates +1800
Astros +10000

Good grief Houston! How bad is Houston? Here is a little comparison. The Orioles are only at +7500 to win the AL East. If you put the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays or Rays in the NL Central, those teams are favored to win the division. I think the top-4 teams in the AL East are better than any team in the Central, yet Houston is still a worse bet at +10000 in the Central than Baltimore is in the AL East! The Astros aren’t only the worst team in baseball, it’s laughable just how bad they really are! Moving along, the Central is a 3-team race between Cincinnati, St. Louis & Milwaukee. The more I think about the Central the more I really like the defending World Series champions. If Adam Wainwright & Chris Carpenter can stay healthy, the Cardinals will have a formidable rotation. I also think getting Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, John Jay & Allen Craig for full seasons could offset the loss of Albert Pujols. The Brewers are going to have a harder time replacing Prince Fielder, but their rotation is scary good with a lot of those guys in contract years. Marcum, Gallardo & Greinke are all capable of winning a Cy Young award. The addition of Mat Latos does the Reds rotation good. I’m no fan of Dusty Baker, but I love the Reds and it seems like everything could be coming together at the right time for them. The rest of the division shouldn’t play much of a factor, but if you are betting long shots then Pittsburgh isn’t a bad one to go for. They brought in Erik Bedard on an incentive laden contract & then traded for AJ Burnett. Those two guys come with enough caution to think neither will work out in the Steel City, but if fate throws the Bucs a bone, Pittsburgh could potentially have enough offense to scare some teams with a rotation anchored by Bedard, Burnett, Kevin Corriea & James McDonald. I don’t think any of the Central bets are bad except for Chicago & Houston. Those teams have no chance at winning.

NL WEST

Giants +150
Diamondbacks +150
Dodgers +325
Rockies +1200
Padres +1800

A really interesting 3-team race out West. The team that jumps out at me is Los Angeles at +325. The Dodgers had some problems last season, but I think they’ll have a rock solid bullpen to go along with a very good front-3 of Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley & Ted Lilly. Kershaw is arguably the best pitcher in the NL and the defending NL Cy Young champion. The Dodgers are taking some chances with Aaron Harang & Chris Capuano at the backend of their rotation, but the home ballpark should help both hurlers. Offensively LA is a little thin, but if Matt Kemp can keep posting MVP type numbers, LA has a chance to make some legitimate noise if they can avoid injuries. The Giants & Snakes are deadeven here although I’d give Arizona a slight advantage due to the fact that Arizona will probably be a better hitting team. Still, it’s difficult to not like the Giants specially if Ryan Vogelsong can continue in 2012 what he started in 2011. You don’t get much better than Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain & Madison Bumgarner. The Giants really need healthy productive years from both Buster Posey & Pablo Sandoval. Getting Brandon Belt to find his power stroke wouldn’t hurt either. Arizona would be the odds on favorites I think but Vegas is probably having some trouble about the odds that guys like Ian Kennedy, Josh Collmenter and Joe Saunders can repeat their 2011 performances. The Snakes traded for Trevor Cahill of the A’s which was a solid addition and I think Arizona is going to hit, but the Giants have a little bit of an advantage if Arizona’s pitchers can’t show some consistency. The rest of the division is a nonentity. Colorado & San Diego simply don’t have the pitching to win the division. I think the Dodgers at +325 give you the best value, but getting SF or Arizona at +150 isn’t awful either.

OVERALL

I really think the Rays at +650 is the best bet in the divisional races. There are some other value bets like St. Louis at +225, Boston at +325, Miami at +1000, Toronto at +800, Pittsburgh at +1800 and the LA Dodgers at +325, but I think the Rays clearly give the most value at +650.

February 28, 2012 Posted by | Futures | 2 Comments

Talking Baseball Futures – 2012 World Series Champions

BetUS has released their baseball futures and this being my first entry, I figured let’s go over some betting! I’ll break things down into 3 tiers as this makes the most sense with 30 teams in baseball although the tiers are 9-10-11. I felt like this was a more natural breakdown as Tier 3 is +6000 and worse. We are going over World Series champions today so let’s take a look.

TIER 1

Philadelphia Phillies +475
New York Yankees +550
Los Angeles Angels +550
Detroit Tigers +800
Texas Rangers +800
Boston Red Sox +900
Miami Marlins +1200
Arizona Diamondbacks +1600
San Francisco Giants +1600

One team that really sticks out here is Miami. They are the 8th most likely team to win the World Series according to Vegas? Whew! The Marlins did add Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes & Carlos Zambrano which does make them rather formidable. If guys like Mike Stanton, Gaby Sanchez, and Logan Morrison keep getting better then the Marlins are going to be a difficult out in the National League & will certainly give the Phillies a run for their money. The one problem I have with them is their new manager Ozzie Guillen. I simply don’t trust the guy to win a championship even with the knowledge that he has a World Series title with the White Sox back in 2005. I don’t know if there are any value picks here given that these are the teams with the best chance to win, but Boston looks pretty good at +900. If the rotation can stay healthy & the team can avoid injuries, Boston can hang with anyone. I think the Angels are being paid too much credit for simply signing Albert Pujols. That offense is terrible and a declining Pujols isn’t going to off set that trend. Texas isn’t getting back. San Francisco doesn’t have enough offense. Watch out for the Tigers. I thought Detroit had the best chance to win the World Series when we got to the championship round, but came up short against Texas. Verlander won’t repeat his 2011 in 2012, but if Scherzer & Porcello can take steps forward, then the addition of Prince Fielder gives Detroit more than enough offense to crush the AL Central. I probably should say something about the Yankees & Phillies. The Yankees have to hope their pitching staff after Sabathia comes together. I think the offense can stave off Father Time for another year, but they need starting pitching to cash in. Philly is probably in the opposite situation. They need their hitters to come through while the pitching staff keeps on pitching like they have in the past. A quick note here on Arizona. The Diamondbacks are getting some love here at +1600 and they deserve it after the season they had last year, but I can’t see them getting to the World Series. If I had to pick a winner to come out of the West it would be Arizona only because San Francisco can’t hit at all, but once you get into the playoffs it’s all about a short series and I don’t see Arizona topping Philadelphia in that regard.

Best Bets: Detroit Tigers +800; Boston Red Sox +900
Worst Bets: Los Angeles Angels +550; Miami Marlins +1200

TIER 2

Tampa Bay Rays +1800
Atlanta Braves +2000
Cincinnati Reds +2000
Washington Nationals +2000
St. Louis Cardinals +2500
Milwaukee Brewers +2500
Toronto Blue Jays +2500
Los Angeles Dodgers +2500
Colorado Rockies +4000
Chicago Cubs +4000

A lot more interesting here. Tampa Bay is an exceptional play here at +1800. Matt Moore is a star and let’s not forget that Jeremy Hellickson was thought by most to be a #1 starter in training. Along with James Shields & David Price, the Rays in my opinion have the potential to have the very best rotation in all of baseball. They need Evan Longoria to step up his production and Carlos Pena to be the hitter he was in Tampa the last time he was there, but a full season of Desmond Jennings is going to help tremendously as well. The Reds are a very interesting pick at +2000. The NL Central isn’t that good and Mat Latos is a legitimate #1 starter if he puts it all together. The Reds have more than enough offense to win games so if the pitching is there, Cincinnati can run away with the Central. Remember that the Cardinals are losing Albert Pujols, Dave Duncan & Tony LaRussa. Milwaukee lost Prince Fielder. Houston, Chicago & Pittsburgh aren’t very good. The other really interesting team here is Toronto. They have a mountain to climb playing in the AL East, but if the Blue Jays were in any other division, you’d give them a legitimate shot at winning a division title. The Jays should have no problems scoring runs so it’ll be up to Henderson Alvarez & Kyle Drabeck to come through as backend starters. They should be good enough to beat anyone on any give night. So what about the worst odds on the list? The Nationals at +2000 is too high. Washington could be pretty good, but Bryce Harper isn’t there yet and their backend rotation is a mess behind Zimmerman & Strasburg. The Rockies & Cubs aren’t exactly projected to be contenders, but even at +4000 seems odd. The Cubs have absolutely no chance with an offense that horrific. The Rockies #1 starter was pitching for the Orioles last year if that gives you any indication of how bad Colorado might be. I don’t know how Atlanta translates offensively & that will keep them from beating Philadelphia and likely Miami. The Brewers & Cardinals are losing dynamite players. Milwaukee has the potential to be a huge threat if the starting pitching goes wild, but Gamel isn’t replacing Fielder’s production. The last really interesting team on this list is the Dodgers. The ballpark will help out Aaron Harang who should be a #4/#5 starter behind Kershaw, Billingsley & Lilly. The NL West isn’t crazy good and if LA’s offense can get going behind Matt Kemp, they certainly have a rotation/bullpen good enough to win quite a few games.

Best Bets: Tampa Bay Rays +1800, Cincinnati Reds + 2000, Toronto Blue Jays +2500, Los Angeles Dodgers +2500
Worst Bets: Atlanta Braves +2000, Washington Nationals +2000, Chicago Cubs +4000

TIER 3

Chicago White Sox +6000
Cleveland Indians +6000
Minnesota Twins +6000
Pittsburgh Pirates +6000
New York Mets +7500
Oakland A’s +7500
Kansas City Royals +7500
Seattle Mariners +7500
San Diego Padres +8000
Baltimore Orioles +15000
Houston Astros +20000

Obviously these are huge long shots to win a World Series title in 2012. At this point I think you need to look for favorable divisions for lesser known quantities to exploit. The obvious choice here to start is in Pittsburgh. The Pirates aren’t awful really offensively with a budding superstar in Andrew McCutchen. Throw in guys like Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones, Jose Tabata, Nate McClouth and Casey McGehee and it starts looking like it’s possible for Pittsburgh to score some runs. It’s also interesting that Pittsburgh brought in Erik Bedard on an incentive laden deal and traded for AJ Burnett. Burnett has been healthy the last 4 seasons and he’ll be going to a much easier division than pitching in the AL East. Bedard has electric stuff if he’s healthy which is a HUGE IF. I really like James McDonals’s stuff and Kevin Correia isn’t horrible. There are a lot worse plays at +6000 than Pittsburgh and you can envision that the NL Central could implode. Dusty ruins a few arms in Cincinnati. The Brewers & Cardinals can’t get past the loss of their sluggers. The other team with opportunity here is Oakland. At +7500 the A’s have a ridiculously tough hill to climb with both the Angels & Rangers in front of them, but maybe the pitching can sustain itself and Texas & LA disappoint a bit. The rest of the teams simply have no chance. The White Sox, Twins, Royals & Indians are so far behind Detroit that it’s a foregone conclusion that the Tigers win that division. The Mets are behind 4 other NL East teams any of which wouldn’t surprise me if they made the playoffs. Forget Baltimore. They have absolutely no pitching in a division where they aren’t going to outscore anyone. Houston is so bad it’s frightening.

Best Plays: Pittsburgh Pirates +6000, Oakland A’s +7500
Worst Plays: Baltimore Orioles +15000, New York Mets +7500

February 27, 2012 Posted by | Futures, World Series | Leave a comment

   

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