The Baseball Savant

where sabermetrics & betting collide with our national pasttime

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.

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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