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.

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

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