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Throwing Dirt on the Angels

The Worst 1st Baseman in the American League

Hey have you heard that the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim which is on the West Coast of the United States in North America are 9-15 and in last place in the AL West? Who could have seen this coming for everyone’s favorite World Series pick? Well, no sane observer of baseball would have picked the Angels to finish in last place (they won’t), but I was among the few to predict that they wouldn’t make the playoffs. So while it’s still really early, allow me a moment to gloat, and explain why things aren’t going to get any better in Orange County.

1. The Angels lineup is atrocious

Ok, Albert Pujols will likely hit a homer at some point, and he definitely won’t post a Chone Figgins-esque .547 OPS for the rest of the season. Still, there are a few reasons to believe that Pujols may never again be the same caliber player he was with the Cardinals. The first factor is his age. Pujols is listed as 32 years old — which the history of Dominican imports suggests  is a sketchy figure to begin with (my guess is he’s closer to 34) — which means that for all intents and purposes, his prime as a player is over. A normal aging curve wouldn’t have Pujols dropping off the cliff he has this year, but it wouldn’t have him getting better either. Add to that the fact that Pujols is moving to the tougher league and from a hitters park in St. Louis to a more pitcher friendly environment in Anaheim and the days of Albert Pujols, superstar may be at an end. I don’t put much stock into psychological factors, because I can’t read players’ minds, but the sniping between Pujols, his teammates, and hitting coach isn’t encouraging either.

As for the rest of the Angels lineup, it’s pretty bad. Mark Trumbo has made significant strides in his approach this year and is actually a productive hitter now, but he doesn’t have a position because he was pretty awful at third base and the Angels already have four outfielders. Kendrys Morales was once a beast, but he’s missed two full seasons after a horrific leg injury so it’s going to take some time for him to be productive again if he ever is. Howie Kendrick is an abover average second baseman, but he doesn’t take walks. Chris Ianetta is an above average offensive catcher, but I’m not sure Mike Sciosca (he of the Jeff Mathis man crush) really appreciates his skill set (drawing walks). As for the rest of the everyday players, they range from average regulars (Alberto Callaspo) to aging, below average former stars (Torii Hunter) to negative value guys who really shouldn’t be playing anymore (Vernon Wells). Calling up Mike Trout is a step in the right direction, but counting on a guy who can’t legally buy alcohol to carry your lineup isn’t a recipe for success.

2. The Angels bullpen is pretty bad too

Former GM Tony Reagins gave set-up man Scott Downs a three year contract last winter. Even though giving relievers contracts longer than two years is generally a bad idea, Downs has probably been the lone bright spot in the Angels bullpen this season. That said, his K rate is way down (very small sample) and he’s got a 100% strand rate and .200 BABIP against, so he might be due for some regression. The rest of the bullpen has been atrocious (ERA in the 5s), not Red Sox bad, but still pretty bad. And unlike the Red Sox, the Angels don’t have the offense to simply bludgeon inferior opponents into submission.

3. The Competition is stiff

Coming into the season there were six teams (Angels, Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Blue Jays)  considered legitimate contenders for the two AL wild card spots. Two of those teams will win the AL West and East. Assuming that the Rangers have the West wrapped — again it’s early, but  Texas is clearly better than Anaheim by any objective measure — the Angels still have to compete with the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, and Jays for two spots. All of those teams look better than the Angels. The Yankees rotation is a concern, but they can still thump. The Red Sox rotation actually looks pretty good now (Clay Buchholz as your worst starter is a good problem to have) and although their bullpen could be historically awful, it can really only get better, especially if Mark Melancon’s recent AAA success carries back over to the majors and Andrew Bailey returns in form, also the Sox, unlike the Angels, can score runs. Losing Evan Longoria is huge for the Rays, but they have the depth, and pitching, to survive. The Jays are due for some regression from their pitching — Henderson Alvarez is only striking out 2.5 per nine, making his 3.56 ERA a bit shaky — but their lineup is also good. Furthermore, all these teams are dealing with some serious injuries and therefore can look forward to improvements as they get players back. The Angels for all their underachieving have been the model of health, so no such luck there.

It’s not all bad for the Angels, in fact there are plenty of reasons to believe that they can be a contender. You just might want to revise those World Series prediction.

P.S. For what it’s worth, my World Series pick, the Diamondbacks, are four games out of first and look perfectly mediocre.

Finding Hope in an Another Abysmal Red Sox April

Oh, for it to be March again, back when there was unlimited potential for the baseball season. Instead it’s late April, and for the third straight year, the Boston Red Sox are off to a horrendous start. In case you’re looking for a silver lining, there doesn’t appear to be one. After the last two poor Aprils the Red Sox missed the playoffs. Still, simply noting that bad Aprils lead to missed playoffs is probably too simplistic a reading of the 2012 Red Sox. After all, the 2011 version of the Red Sox would have made the playoffs easily if not for an historically awful September. In fact, while there are plenty of reasons to be discouraged about this year’s team, there’s also plenty of reasons to see potential improvement.

Let’s start with the bad, since it’s much more apparent. First off, the Red Sox pitching has been abysmal. They’ve allowed 100 runs on the season already, nine more than the next worse pitching staff, the Minnesota Twins. It’s hard to pinpoint one problem for the Sox pitching staff that can be easily fixed since everyone has been either terrible, or at best inconsistent. There have been some calls to return set-up-man turned starter Daniel Bard to the ‘pen — and they probably got louder after Bard came in to last night’s game against the Twins and stopped the go-ahead run from scoring from third base — but for reasons I’ll explain later, that would be a mistake.

The second major problem for the Red Sox has been injuries to their outfield. Against the Twins last night, the Sox started (from Left to Right) Cody Ross, Marlon Byrd, and Ryan Sweeney. Prior to the season, Ross and Sweeney were expected to form a platoon in right field with Jacoby Ellsbury in center and Carl Crawford in left. While Sweeney has been hitting very well and Ross was Monday’s hero with two home runs to tie the game and put the Sox ahead, the current outfield is a significant downgrade — defensively if nothing else — from what Boston expected to have in the offseason. You’ll note that I haven’t listed Bobby Valentine among the Red Sox problems. That’s because with how bad the pitching has been, I don’t see how Bobby V really could have made a difference either way. It isn’t as if the Red Sox have been losing a ton of very close games.

These problems aside, there are reasons for Red Sox fans to be hopeful. First, the pitching staff won’t remain this bad. Some of the pitchers — Matt Albers comes to mind — are probably past their usefulness, however, others have been victims of bad luck and small sample sizes. Alfredo Aceves may not morph into Jonathan Papelbon, but he’s not going to carry a 24.00 ERA for the rest of the season either. At the same time, the Sox have gotten much more out of the back end of their rotation than they could have imagined. Felix Doubront is striking out 11.25 batters per nine and Daniel Bard has a 9.49 K/9 mark and a 3.25 FIP. Bard may be struggling a little with walks, but simple arithmetic shows that moving him to the bullpen would be wasteful — turning 150 or more innings at that FIP into 75 or so is dumb.

A second reason for hope is that the Sox outfield should be improved over last year’s model once Crawford and Ellsbury return in the next two months. Sweeney has a 1.051 OPS so far on the season and is mashing righties to a 1.206 OPS. Meanwhile Ross has a .973 OPS himself (1.1015 against lefties). Even with a normalization in stats, the Sox’s right field platoon should be an upgrade over what JD Drew and Josh Reddick provided in 2011.

Finally, the schedule is about to get much easier for the Red Sox. They started the season with series @ Detroit, @ Toronto, vs. Tampa, vs. Texas, and vs. New York. All of those teams should be playoff contenders in 2012 and facing them all in a row would be a tough task for anyone, let alone a team with as many outside distractions as Boston. Contrast that with the next few series that the Sox play: @ Minnesota, @ Chicago, vs. Oakland, vs. Baltimore, @ Kansas City, vs. Cleveland, vs. Seattle. With that run of cupcakes, it’s not out of the question that the Sox could be in first place by the time they face of against the Rays on May 15th. If you think that’s irrational, take a look at that schedule one more time.

So what can the Red Sox do to ensure that they’re sitting pretty in May? I have a couple suggestions:

1. Stand Pat

Bobby Valentine was probably right when he called Saturday’s loss to the Yankees “rock bottom.” It’s hard to imagine things getting much worse. I’ve already outlined the reasons why I think moving Daniel Bard to the bullpen would be a mistake, but the Red Sox do have a pitching dilemma of sorts. Veteran starter Aaron Cook has a 1.33 ERA in AAA and can opt out of his contract in May. Cook is a former all-star and losing him for nothing would hurt, but simply giving him a rotation spot isn’t without significant risk. He’s been pretty bad the last two years, and he’s currently walking more hitters than he’s striking out in the minors, which is a major red flag. Still, the Red Sox run the risk of Bard and Doubront wearing down as the season progresses, so here’s what I propose: a six-man rotation. It’s not something often seen, but given that Bard and Doubront haven’t had a full season starting in the majors yet, and that Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz haven’t exactly been durable over the courses of their careers, it makes some sense. If Cook proves ineffective, Boston could move back to the five-man rotation, or try the six-man configuration again once Daisuke Matsuzaka is healthy.

2. Trade Kevin Youkilis

Bobby Valentine made an unforced error by talking about Youkilis on the radio, but there’s a kernel of truth to his statements. I don’t know about Youk’s desire to play, but his effectiveness as both a hitter and a fielder has diminished significantly. Meanwhile, heir apparent Will Middlebrooks is slugging .757, with eight homers in AAA including a recent stretch where he went deep in four straight games. Middlebrooks would offer an immediate defensive upgrade over Youkilis and he has little left to prove in the minors. Youkilis’ value is likely at an all-time low, and there aren’t a ton of obvious trade partners, but the Sox do have the flexibility of pitching him as both a first baseman and a third baseman. Perhaps the Dodgers, with their surprising early season run and gaping holes at both third and first would be willing to take a look? The best case scenario would involve Youkilis’ bat waking up a little to make him more attractive, but it’s pretty clear that his days as the Red Sox third baseman are numbered.

This April has been a tough pill to swallow for Red Sox fans, but it’s still too early to panic, especially when there are plenty of reasons for optimism.

Uninformed Baseball Preview: 10 Predictions for the Upcoming Season

Poor wardrobe choices aside, Evan Longoria is your AL MVP

The 2012 Major League Regular Season begins tomorrow at 1:00 pm EST when the Red Sox face the Tigers. Alright, so it really began last Wednesday, but who here actually paid attention to the As and Mariners in Japan? Didn’t think so. Anyways, with the season all set to kick off, let’s hand out some awards and make some predictions, all of which will undoubtedly be wrong.

1. AL MVP: Evan Longoria, 3B, TAM (ZiPS projection (AVG/OBP/OPS) .274/.367/.881, 31 HRS)

I’ve said before that I believe that Tampa Bay is the best team in baseball and Longoria is the Rays’ best player. He’s had four good to great seasons in the league already, establishing himself as one of the two best third basemen in the game along with Adrian Beltre. Now it’s time to take the next step and collect some hardware for it. I think Longoria’s OPS will be above .900 with 35+ homers to go with his customary stellar defense.

2. NL MVP: Justin Upton RF, AZ ( ZiPS (AVG/OBP/OPS) .283/.366/.871, 28 HR, 22 SB)

There are safer picks, like Matt Kemp and Joey Votto, but Upton is already so good at 24 years of age that it’s impossible to ignore. I could see the stolen bases dropping a little while the power jumps. Whatever the case, Upton has been historically good at a very young age and players who play as well as he has this early almost always improve as they age.

3. AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez, RHP, SEA (ZiPS (ERA, K/9, BB/9, FIP) 3.00, 8.57, 2.54, 2.96)

Why not? The Mariners figure to be pretty bad this season, but Hernandez already won a Cy Young in 2010, when Seattle lost 101 games — perhaps the long awaited final nail in the coffin for pitcher wins as a relevant statistic. In any case, Hernandez, CC Sabathia, and Justin Verlander are the three best pitchers in the AL by a decent margin. Hernandez is the youngest of the three, Verlanders is due for a decent sized statistical regression, and Sabathia’s strikeout rate has been slowly declining in recent seasons.

4. NL Cy Young: Tim Lincecum, SF (ZiPS (ERA, K/9, BB/9, FIP) 2.92, 9.52, 3.17, 2.89)

Teammate Matt Cain just got the richest contract ever for a right handed pitcher — an overpay, but that’s another conversation for another day — and Lincecum should see his own big payday soon enough. The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw seems to have grabbed the mantle of NL’s best pitcher from Lincecum and Roy Halladay and there’s been some hand wringing in San Francisco about “The Freak’s” diminished velocity this spring as well as his decision to junk his slider to preserve his arm. I’m not buying the anti -Lincecum hype. The velo drop could be a concern, but I’m not convinced that it’s not just a case of a veteran pitcher saving some bullets for the regular season. As for the no slider policy, it was Lincecum’s fourth best pitch anyways, and his fastball and changeup are so good that he could probably junk his curve as well and still be above average. Lincecum is perhaps the most successful slight-statured pitcher since Pedro Martinez or Sandy Koufax and while both of those guys had injury problems later in their careers I’m not going to worry about Lincecum until someone reports he’s having a MRI on his rotator cuff.

5. AL ROY: Matt Moore, SP, TAM

With Mike Trout getting sent to the minors for the start of the season (more on that later) there are really only two choices for the award: Moore and Darvish. Given their relative age and experience differences, I could see Darvish being the more effective pitcher in 2012 — that’s not to say I don’t like Moore, I love Moore. This pick is based more on my belief that some voters simply won’t vote for Darvish given his experience in NPB (the Japanese League). I personally don’t think that professional experience overseas should put a player out of the running for Rookie of the Year honors — after all Darvish is a Major League Rookie — but no one ever won any bets by underestimating baseball writers’ capacity for ignorance or logical fallacy.

6. NL ROY: Zach Cozart, SS, CIN

In my NL Central Preview, I highlighted another Red, catcher Devin Mesoraco, who looks to be a more valuable player than Cozart in the long run. Unfortunately, Mesoraco will begin the season backing up Ryan Hanigan. The other smart-money picks for NL ROY honors: Bryce Harper and Trevor Bauer, will begin the season in the minors and when Bauer finally gets the call it might be as a reliever. So, as Rob Neyer points out, Cozart kind of wins this by default of being the guy with the most at bats. He’s got a very good defensive reputation and the offensive bar for shortstops is set so low that he should be serviceable. He’s probably not an All-Star level player, but he might be the highest probability choice at this point.

6. The Nationals will regret sending Bryce Harper to the minors, as will the Angels with Mike Trout

Harper is 19, and he clearly has some work to do in the minors, but he has to be better than current center fielder Roger Bernadina, a replacement level player. The Nationals clearly consider themselves contenders, otherwise they wouldn’t have raided the farm system for a pitcher as flawed as Gio Gonzalez, or given a one year deal to Edwin Jackson, who is apparently on a mission to play for all 30 teams. The problem is that Washington plays in a division with three other playoff contenders — Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami — and even if Harper comes up in June they’ll have spent two months getting nothing from center field, which is something that they’ll have to live with if they miss the playoffs by a game or two. Harper is far from a sure bet to be two wins better than Bernadina over two months of the season, but there’s a possibility that he is, whereas everyone knows Bernadina has no upside.

The same thing goes for the Angels and their decision to send Mike Trout to AAA. Anaheim has a great rotation, but after Albert Pujols their lineup looks awful anemic. No one knows what to expect from Kendrys Morales after two lost seasons, Mark Trumbo puts up sub .300 on base percentages, Torii Hunter is clearly on the downside of his career, and Vernon Wells remains the poster child for bad contract decisions. Trout was pretty bad in his major league debut last season, but he’s been one of the three best prospects in baseball for three years now and it’s not like the Angels have a lot to lose by playing him now. Like the Nationals, they’re going to regret the decision to not start Trout from day one if they miss the playoffs by a game or two.

7. Jason Heyward will hit more than 30 homers

Perhaps not a huge stretch given the power that Heyward showed in the minors, but his high for a season in the majors was 18 in 2010. Of course Heyward is just 22, with only two years of major league experience, which makes the rumors of his demise laughable. After a 2011 season marred by injuries and mismanagement by Fredi Gonzalez, who benched Heyward for an extended stretch, the Braves right fielder looks like a good bet for a breakout season. Remember that it was just two years ago when Heyward was drawing Griffey comparisons — the good kind. Turner Field suppresses home runs, but Heyward has special power, the ball jumps off his bat to all fields. He’s a big reason why I believe the Braves are primed to pick up one of the NL Wild Card spots.

8. Three AL East teams will make the playoffs

You may have caught this if you paid attention to the win projections in my preview columns (it’s okay, I know you didn’t). For the record, I’m not a huge fan of the new playoff structure, which places additional emphasis on the divisions. I personally feel baseball should be de-emphasizing the divisions and moving towards a more balanced schedule so the best teams in each league are in the playoffs every year rather than those who have the privilege of playing in the AL Central (revolutionary I know) — but I digress.

In any case, the AL East is stacked, as usual. I’ve already made my feelings about Tampa clear. The Yankees may have been quiet in free agency, but they made some smart moves to shore up their pitching in the offseason. I think Hiroki Kuroda was a really smart signing even if his performance drops a little as he moves to a tougher league/park. As for the Red Sox, no one should be writing them off, even if Andrew Bailey is out until July. If not for a terrible April and September, they would have had the best record in baseball. I know, I know, hypotheticals are pretty worthless in hindsight, but its hard to imagine the Sox having two historically bad months again, right? Irregardless, I don’t see how this year’s team is worse than last year’s model, and I see plenty of reasons to believe that they could be better.

As for the non- AL East wild card contenders, there aren’t any in the AL Central, unless you really want to dream on Cleveland (you don’t), and you already have my thoughts on the Angels.

9. Will Middlebrooks will be the Red Sox starting third baseman by the end of the season

Bonus Red Sox prediction, because I like to stick to what I (pretend to) know. I’m not sold on Kevin Youkilis’ ability to stand up to the rigors of a full season at third base. Youkilis is a phenomenal hitter, but he’s always had a bad body for a third baseman. My guess is that he hits the DL at some point in June and that when he comes back he splits time between third and DH. That opens the door for Middlebrooks, a guy who Red Sox fans can dream on a bit. He’s improved every year he’s been in the minors and he’s an immediate upgrade defensively over Youk. Middlebrooks’ approach needs refinement, but he’s demonstrated some pop thus far in the minors. A more likely scenario for a Youkilis injury is Mike Aviles shifting to third and Jose Iglesias getting called up to play short, but I’m not convinced that’s actually an appreciable upgrade over simply calling up Middlebrooks.

10. The Texas Ranger will lose in the World Series for the third straight year

I know I just spent a good chunk of this column talking up Tampa as the best team in baseball, and that this prediction seems a bit cruel, but deal with it okay? I just have a feeling that Texas is heading down the path to becoming the baseball version of the late 80s /early 90s Buffalo Bills, an immensely talented team whose flaws reared their head at the worst possible moments. In Texas’ case, those flaws are manager Ron Washington, and a questionable starting rotation which lacks upside outside of Yu Darvish and Neftali Feliz. Colby Lewis is the Rangers’ opening day starter. His 2011 FIP? 4.54. That’s a problem.

So who’s my World Series pick? The Arizona Diamondbacks. How’s that for bold?

$2 Billion Seems Like a Lot for the Dodgers, Just Sayin’

A group led by  Guggenheim Partners (private equity) CEO Mark Walters and featuring Los Angeles icon Magic Johnson bought the Dodgers for $2 billion this morning. You read that correctly, $2 billion. If that seems like a lot for a sports team, especially one in as dire straits as the Dodgers — whose owner is bankrupt, has been running through bridge financing like pez, and spent last summer fighting with baseball over his TV contract — it’s because it is

The price would shatter the mark for a sports franchise. Stephen Ross paid $1.1 billion for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in 2009, and in England, Malcolm Glazer and his family took over the Manchester United soccer club in 2005 in a deal then valued at $1.47 billion.

Neither of those teams is a great analogue for the sale of the Dodgers. The Dolphins, despite being the most pathetic franchise in the NFL, are still an NFL franchise, which ensures them consistent profitability. Manchester United is an international sports behemoth, a mothership — if you will allow me a stretched analogy — that sucks money from all the feeble minded people who want to seem urbane by feigning a love for soccer, but don’t want to actually watch the sport. The Dodgers are a team in LA, which means people wear their hats and show up for four innings of their games.

But wait you say, Los Angeles is a large market, and the Dodgers are still beloved by many, and inflation! that has to be part of it right? Well sure, how’s this for a comp:

The current record for a baseball franchise is the $845 million paid by the Ricketts family for the Chicago Cubs in 2009.

The Cubs and the Dodgers are pretty similar actually — big market team, bankrupt owner, recent (or longer) history of semi-competence, cash cow stadium, strong fanbase — I don’t see how two years make the Dodgers worth twice as much. In case you’re wondering, core inflation has been more or less flat since 2009 and inflation would be a weak explanation anyways. Additionally, the Dodgers don’t have a structure in place like the Red Sox and Yankees who own and operate their own regional sports networks, significantly enhancing their values considerably. In fact, the Wilpons — who own the Mets and their network SNY — should probably consider selling right away, who knows they could make $4 billion or something.

As for the aforementioned broke owner, Frank McCourt, he’s making out like a bandit.

McCourt paid $430 million in 2004 to buy the team, Dodger Stadium and 250 acres of land that includes the parking lots, from the Fox division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., a sale that left the team with about $50 million in cash at the time. The team’s debt stood at $579 million as of January, according to a court filing, so McCourt stands to make hundreds of millions of dollars even after a $131 million divorce payment to former wife Jamie, taxes, and legal and banking fees.

McCourt bought the team after failing in his bid for his hometown Red Sox (he made his bones building parking structures in Boston). What the article failed to mention was that $579MM in debt exists largely because McCourt spent much of his ownership tenure treating the Dodgers like his own personal credit card, which was fine until his wife divorced him for being insane and he had to fight a protracted court battle in an attempt to keep the team along with a good chunk of his wealth. Just goes to show you kids, that if you’re rich, you can buy yourself an expensive bauble, leverage yourself to the teeth, and generally behave like a reprehensible tool, and someone else with a lot of money will come along and make you rich again.

This whole debacle speaks to exactly how opaque the market for Major League teams is. If at the start of the bidding process for the Dodgers you set the final sale price at $2 billion you’d likely be laughed out of the room. Most reasonable commenters would have predicted something around what the Ricketts bought the Cubs for, maybe a little higher. At the same time, MLB allows people like McCourt, Jerry Reinsdorf, the Wilpons, and Jeff Loria (look them all up) to buy and sell teams, but basically forced Jeff Moorad to drop his bid for the Padres (he’s already a minority owner) by giving him the silent treatment. Moorad’s proven to be an effective manager during his years as a minority owner and CEO with Arizona and San Diego, so why wouldn’t baseball want him to be an owner? He’s a former player agent, which is way too unsavory for Bud Selig and his cronies, but I digress.

As for Dodgers fans, they should be happy. Having this type of professional investor as an owner is generally a good thing, at least if the Red Sox are to be used as an analogue. Private equity folks get a bad rap — deservedly so in some cases — but one thing that they do know is how to delegate, which is important when running a baseball team. It’s pretty safe to say that Ned Colletti’s days in Chavez ravine are numbered. In any case, after spending $2 billion to get the team, it would be pretty strange for the new owners to get stingy all of a sudden. Also, Angelenos get to have Magic Johnson as their teams’ owner.

Maybe I’m missing something, still, $2B seems like a lot to pay for the Dodgers, just sayin’.

Update: The consensus seems to be that the sale price is based on the ability to build a YES or NESN style network for the Dodgers, which is a very plausible explanation. I still believe the number is high, but it seems like the new owners really wanted the team.

Uninformed Baseball Preview: AL East

This is the sixth in a series of posts previewing the upcoming baseball season.

This will likely come as no surprise, but the AL East is stacked. Three of the four best teams in the AL, if not the entire sport, reside in the division, and the Toronto isn’t far behind the top three. There’s also Baltimore, but we won’t worry too much about them. Here’s how I see things shaking out:

1. Tampa Bay Rays (Projected 2012 Record: 96-66)

There isn’t another team in baseball that looks as good and as balanced as Tampa. The only real complaints that can be made about this roster is that they won’t get much offense at shortstop or catcher, but very few teams do. There are some other question marks, but they’re heavily outweighed by the positives.

To start, Tampa goes six deep in the rotation, with phenom Matt Moore taking over as the number five starter and Jeff Niemann — who’s been a pretty effective pitcher the last couple years — moving to the bullpen. Veterans David Price and James Shields anchor the top of the rotation. Price, a former number one overall pick, has settled in nicely as one of the best lefties in the game and could be making a Cy Young run this season. Shields may regress a bit from next year — he had a .258 BABIP against in 2011, and it’s hard to imagine him pitching 11 complete games for a second year in a row — but he’s got a long enough track record as an effective starter (he’s been worth at least 2 WAR every year since 2007) that both Rays fans shouldn’t be too worried about him. Third starter Jeremy Hellickson is coming off of a season in which he posted a 2.95 ERA. Unfortunately, his performance was greatly aided by a .223 BABIP, so some regression should be expected. Still, Tampa is a spectacular defensive team, which leads to generally lower BABIPs for their pitchers, and Hellickson’s minor league track record suggests that he should be a very good third option. Fourth starter Wade Davis has never quite lived up to the hype that he generated in the minors, but he was much more effective after he started throwing a cutter last September and he should eat enough innings to be valuable at the back of the rotation even if he posts an ERA around 4.4. The real prize here could be fifth starter Moore, a lefthander who in a cup of coffee last season showed easy velocity and quality secondary pitches. In a year, he could be the undisputed ace of this group. Niemann will likely swing back to the rotation if anyone gets hurt. The Rays don’t like to rush their prospects so it would be surprising to see another of their high-ceiling arms like Chris Archer in the majors before September.

The bullpen could be the one thing that keeps this team from reaching its full potential. Kyle Farnsworth returns as the closer, and there are some familiar, if largely unproven, names. That said, Tampa understands reliever volatility better than any other team in baseball and has built some very effective relief corps in the past, largely out of spare parts.

The Rays’ pitching strength is bolstered by their outstanding defense. Tampa is above average defensively at every position in the field, and third baseman Evan Longoria and center fielder BJ Upton are arguably the best at their respective positions with the glove. Where things are less sure for the Rays are in the offensive department. Longoria is a star, as is second baseman Ben Zobrist, but shortstop Reid Brignac was actually below replacement level last year and should probably lose his starting job to Sean Rodriguez. Left fielder Desmond Jennings earns natural comparisons to Carl Crawford, but he looks like a different type of player after hitting 10 home runs in  63 games last season. Jennings’ true power level is probably less than that, but he should be a very effective player for years to come. Upton is another question mark with the bat as while he has shown some propensity for making big plays, he also seems to lose focus in key moments. Right fielder Matt Joyce crushes left handed pitching. First baseman Carlos Pena is another question mark, he won’t hit for much average, but he still draws enough walks to get on base at an acceptable rate. If Pena can hit at least 25 homers he should be an upgrade over Casey Kotchman. With Jose Molina behind the plate, the Rays are basically punting offense at catcher.

The Rays look like the best team in baseball, not because there aren’t any question marks surrounding them, but because the questions seem less critical than those of their competitors. It may be cliched to say that teams that do the little things well win, but the Rays understand their own players better than any other team and manager Joe Maddon consistently gets as much value as possible out of his roster.

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Uninformed Baseball Preview: NL East

This is the fifth in a series of posts previewing the upcoming baseball season.

For the last half-decade, the Philadelphia Phillies have been the undisputed class of the NL East. That may change this season. Philadelphia remains the favorite, but Atlanta has been catching up for the past couple years and Miami and Washington have had busy offseasons. I’m not sure if the Mets still play baseball. Here’s how I see things shaking out:

1. Philadelphia Phillies (Projected 2012 record: 93-69)

If this doesn’t seem like a terribly bold prediction, consider that it’s a 10-win drop-off from last season. That’s how good Philadelphia was in 2011. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels still form a formidable front three in the rotation and Vance Worley was surprisingly good last season. That said, don’t be surprised if Halladay and Lee take a step back this season as they turn 35 and 34, respectively. Hamels should be ready to pick up the slack, he’s coming off a 4.9 WAR season and will be a free agent next year. It’s hard to project Worley as he was more effective in 2011 than his minor league numbers suggested he would be, but there isn’t much in the peripherals to suggest a massive correction in his traditional stats. Expect his ERA to rise a little, but he should remain a solid number 4. Joe Blanton is penciled in as the number five starter, but the Phillies are trying to shop him. If they can find a trade, then Kyle Kendrick will move into the rotation, but to be honest there isn’t much difference between the two.

The Phillies may have a wealth of pitching, but their offense is a serious concern. They may have rid themselves of Raul Ibanez’s corpse, but their other players appear to be deteriorating at a disquieting rate. Ryan Howard (more on him later) will miss the first half of the season and the Phils plan to replace him with a Ty Wigginton/John Mayberry/Jim Thome platoon, which doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that Ty Wigginton sucks, Jim Thome hasn’t played first base in over five years, and John Mayberry was slated to be the team’s left fielder. Throughout Philadelphia’s run of success, Chase Utley has been the team’s best player (he should have won the MVP Awards that went to Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins), but he has degenerative knee and hip conditions and will liekly miss a large chunk of the season. His replacements would be Michael Martinez and Kyle Frandsen, who are just as unappealing as they sound. That leave Rollins — who has been in a visible decline since 2008 — and Placido Polanco on the infield.

Philly is better in the outfield with Shane Victorino (most underrated player in baseball?) in center, Mayberry in left, and Hunter Pence (most overrated?) in right.

Realistically, this may be Philadelphia’s last year to grab that elusive second ring, largely because GM Ruben Amaro has made some pretty high profile blunders. Amaro’s big move this offseason was signing Jonathan Papelbon for 4 years and $50MM, which is way too much money and way too many years for reliever. The  Red Sox were able acquire Papelbon’s replacement, Andrew Bailey, without giving up a single top prospect, and the Cincinnati Reds signed former Phillies closer Ryan Madson for 1 year and $8.5MM. Considering that there’s a decent chance that both Bailey and Madson will be better than Papelbon in 2012, the signing looks like a major, unnecessary misstep. It wouldn’t be the first time that Amaro hastily overpaid a free agent before letting the market develop. In April 2010, Amaro gave Ryan Howard a 5-year $125MM extension, while Howard had two years left on his deal. That new contract kicks in this season, with Howard at age 32, on the DL with a torn Achilles. Sure, Amaro couldn’t have foreseen the injury, but consider that the following April, Adrian Gonzalez signed a 7-year $154MM deal with Boston. Gonzalez is three years younger than Howard, and a much better player, yet Boston will be paying him less annually than Philly will be paying Howard. If Amaro had just waited another year he probably could have saved $15MM. That’s not insignificant when you consider that both Boston and New York will be hungry for pitching this offseason, when Hamels hits the market at age 29.

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Uninformed Baseball Preview: AL Central

This is the fourth in a series of posts previewing the upcoming baseball season. I’ll be posting twice a week over the next three weeks going West to East across the divisions.

The AL Central is probably the easiest division in baseball to predict. It’s basically the Detroit Tigers and a big steaming pile of mediocrity. Here’s how I see things breaking down:

1. Detroit Tigers (Projected 2012 Record: 93-69)

The Tigers are head and shoulders the best team in the AL Central. They won the division by 15 games last season and the gap has probably widened in the offseason. Still, Detroit is a team with very obvious strengths and weaknesses. One of the Tigers’ strengths is their starting pitching. Justin Verlander is entering his age 29 season and is one of the best pitchers in the game, but a slight regression should be expected. Verlander allowed a .236 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) last season, indicating a fair amount of luck, his xFIP last season was 3.12 which is still very good, but not quite as good as his ERA of 2.40 would make him appear. While Verlander (deservedly) gets most of the attention when it comes to Tigers’ pitchers, the rest of the rotation is quietly good. Doug Fister doesn’t have a great strikeout rate — his 6.07 K/9 in 2011 was a career high — but he makes up for it by walking very few batters (1.54 BB/9 in 2011). Max Scherzer has had some trouble staying healthy in the past, but his 2011 xFIP of 3.70 marks him as a very good number 3. Rick Porcello may never reach the lofty ceiling set for him after a very successful minor league career, but it’s easy to forget that he’s just 23. Porcello gets a lot of ground balls and doesn’t walk many batters, but in order to be better than a 3 or 4 he’s going to need to manage better than 5 strikeouts per nine. Top pitching prospect Jacob Turner could probably use some more time in the minors, but the Tigers have never been shy about pushing their prospects so Turner will likely begin the season as Detroits number 5 starter with Andy Oliver waiting in AAA should anyone get hurt or prove ineffective.

Detroit’s other major strength is the core of its lineup. Even with DH Victor Martinez out for the year, the Tigers should get above average or better production at first base, shortstop, third base, and catcher. The problem is that all that hitting comes at the expense of defense. The Tigers seem intent to play Miguel Cabrera at 3rd base and Prince Fielder at 1st, while DHing Delmon Young, but the Tigers might be better off moving one of Fielder or Carbrera to DH and finding a trade for Young. Cabrera hasn’t played third since 2008 and there’s a reason that he was moved off the position. Cabrera hasn’t been particularly good at playing first either, with a career UZR/150 of -2.7. Fielder can’t play any position other than first, and with a career UZR/150 of -6.4, he’s really a DH.

The outfield is another major question for Detroit. Brennan Boesch is a pretty good hitter, but he’s another below average defender in right, which diminishes his value. Austin Jackson is a good fielder in center, but he strikes out in about a quarter of his plate appearances and a .319 OBP isn’t going to cut it from the leadoff spot, especially with Cabrera and Fielder sitting in the middle of the lineup. Still, despite their flaws, the Tigers have a higher talent level, and a more balanced roster than any of their AL Central peers.

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Uninformed Baseball Preview: NL Central

This is the third in a series of posts previewing the upcoming baseball season. I’ll be posting twice a week over the next three weeks going West to East across the divisions.

There are a lot of teams in the NL Central. Some of them are good, and some of them are bad. This is the type of analysis that allows me to earn the big bucks blogging. In all seriousness, the NL Central may have more parity than any division in baseball with the possible exception of the AL East (yes the AL East). In the past three years the Cardinals, Reds, and Brewers have all won division titles, and coincidentally (or perhaps not) those three teams are the favorites in 2012. Here’s how I see things shaking out:

1. Cincinnati Reds (Projected 2012 record: 93-69)

This is a pretty bold prediction given that the Reds finished with 79 wins last season. Call me crazy, but I think that the 2012 Reds are more like the 2010 team that finished with 91 wins. On paper the Reds look like a very balanced team. Scott Rolen is entering his age 37 season and the twilight of his career, but he’s still a plus defender at third — 14.9 career UZR/150 (career fielding scaled to 150 games), 7.4 UZR in 2011 — and can provide some value with the bat provided that he’s given regular rest to stay healthy. Shortstop Zach Cozart won’t bring much hitting to the table, but he should be adequate given his defensive reputation and the low offensive bar for his position. Second baseman Brandon Phillips remains one of the best offense-defense combinations at the keystone and first baseman Joey Votto is a perennial MVP candidate. New catcher Devin Mesoraco has been near the top of prospect lists for the last two years and should be an improvement over the departed Ramon Hernandez.

The Reds outfield could be a strength, but right now it’s a question mark. Right fielder Jay Bruce had a slow start to his major league career, but he’s quietly developed into one of the best players in the game. Bruce will turn 25 this April and is coming off a season in which he hit 32 home runs. On a normal development curve it’s not crazy to imagine Bruce joining Votto in the MVP club. Center fielder Drew Stubbs is coming off a disappointing season in which he struck out 205 times and had a paltry .686 OPS, low even for a CF. Still, Stubbs is 27 and presents an intriguing power-speed combination (45 homers and 80 SB in 2.5 seasons) so long as he can cut down a little on the strikeouts. Left fielder Chris Heisey is another solid young player, but whether he’ll get to play is another question. Heisey is ostensibly the Reds’ starting left fielder right now, but manager Dusty Baker could be quick to go to Ryan Ludwick — an inferior player, but one that managers seem to love — if Heisey struggles early.

The Reds made some smart moves to improve their pitching in the offseason. New ace Mat Latos should team with Johnny Cueto to form a good, young 1-2 punch in the rotation. That said, there are some things to watch with Latos. Most notably, he’s moving from an offensive dead zone in San Diego to a bandbox in Cincinnati. Latos gets plenty of strikeouts, is not a flyball pitcher, and will be in front of a great defense so some of these concerns may be overblown. So long as Dusty Baker can resist the temptation to grind his shoulder into dust, Latos should be an anchor in Cincy for years to come. The two wild cards here are Homer Bailey and Aroldis Chapman. Bailey has always had tremendous stuff, but he’s also always had injury issues. Last year he seemed to finally put things together before getting hurt and sliding back a little. If Bailey can stay healthy and pitch like a 3/4 starter the Reds will probably take it. Chapman, a Cuban defector, has undeniable talent as a hard throwing lefty, but he also lacks command and the good changeup necessary to start. After a tough season out of the bullpen in 2011 it looks the Reds are willing to give Chapman some time in AAA to stretch out and work on his changeup and mechanics in hopes he can take a rotation spot and that’s probably a smart move. With Ryan Madson and Sean Marshall joining the team in the offseason Cincy has plenty of help at the back end of games and if Chapman can figure it out his value as a starter would be tremendous.

A lot has to go right for the Reds to meet this prediction, but after a season in which nearly everything went wrong for them, I expect Cincinnati to bounce back strong.

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Uninformed Baseball Preview: AL West

This is the second in a series of posts previewing the upcoming baseball season. I’ll be posting twice a week over the next three weeks going West to East across the divisions.

No division in baseball saw more big-ticket off-season moves than the AL West, which is surprising considering that most of the games richest teams reside in the Central and Eastern divisions. Some teams in the AL West made acquisitions looking to preserve their status as World Series contenders (Texas) others were looking to return to contender status (Angels) while others are trying to rebuild on the fly (As, Mariners). Let’s take a look at how it all breaks down:

1. Texas Rangers (Projected 2012 record: 95-67)

Despite some big moves by the Angels, Texas remains the prohibitive favorite to win this division. Simply put, the Rangers have very few holes. The Rangers lost CJ Wilson to Anaheim, but their rotation may actually be improved heading into this season. Japanese import Yu Darvish has the potential to be just as good, if not better than Wilson and he’s six years younger than the departed ace. Japanese pitchers have struggled with transitioning to the States (see: Matsuzaka, Daisuke), but there’s reason to believe that Darvish will be different. For one, at 6’5” and 216lbs, (compare that to Dice-K: 6’0” 185lbs) Darvish is built for the rigors of the Major League game. What’s more, the stats show that Darvish is a much more dominant pitcher than Matsuzaka ever was, Yu’s career Japan League ERA is 1.99, Matsuzaka’s lowest single season ERA in Japan was 2.13.

As exciting as it will be to watch Darvish develop, the real wild card in the Rangers rotation is former closer Neftali Feliz. Feliz has filthy stuff, and it wasn’t too long ago when he was being talked of on a par with Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg as a future Cy Young winner. If Feliz can live up to that ceiling then the Rangers will have one of the best rotations in the game (along with Philadelphia and Anaheim), even if he’s a number 3, they’ll be deep in quality arms. If injuries become a problem, Texas can reach down to Triple-A for top prospect Martin Perez.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Rangers are deep and powerful. Josh Hamilton is the anchor of this lineup and while there are some makeup concerns with him, he’s been a consistent producer since arriving in Texas. What sets the Rangers apart from other high offense teams like the Yankees, is that they can also flash the leather. Every player on the infield is above average defensively, so long as Michael Young is limited to first base. The Rangers one weakness offensively is at first where Mitch Moreland is really more of a platoon player than an everyday starter, but Texas does a good job of rotating Moreland, Young and catcher/1b Mike Napoli between first and DH to mask the weakness.

The only thing that can really hold the Rangers back is manager Ron Washington. Washington does some things very well — he clearly provides a good environment for a team with players who might struggle in the wrong situation. That said, he’s an absolutely atrocious in-game manager (surprising for a guy who cut his teeth in Oakland) and may have cost the Rangers two rings already with his blundering. Don’t look for the Rangers to make a change, but Washington may be the difference between Texas being this era’s Dallas Cowboys or Buffalo Bills.

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Uninformed Baseball Preview: NL West

This is the first in a series of posts previewing the upcoming baseball season. I’ll be posting twice a week over the next three weeks going West to East across the divisions.

If you ignore the two teams based in Southern California (Dodgers and Padres) the NL West is one of the more intriguing divisions in baseball. Any one of the Rockies, Diamondbacks, or Giants are capable of winning the division and the runners up should be contenders for wild card spots. In addition to its competitiveness, the West is home to some of the best young players in the game, including Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Justin Upton, Troy Tulowitzki, and Buster Posey. It’s also home to some of the worst managers in the league like Bruce Bochy and Jim Tracy. This mix can lead to quite a bit of exciting baseball as well as a lot of hand wringing and defensiveness from fans, which are all things I love. Here’s how I see the division breaking down:

1. Arizona Diamondbacks (Predicted 2012 record: 93-69):

The Diamondbacks were a surprise division winner last year and they did it largely on the strength of their rotation. None of the names — Ian Kennedy, Joe Saunders, Daniel Hudson, Josh Collmenter — inspire Cy Young dreams, but the Diamondbacks best pitching asset last year was health, unlike other teams (*cough* Red Sox *cough*), Arizona relied on the same group of starters for most of the season with Hudson making 33 starts, Kennedy 33, Saunders 33, and Collmenter 24 (with 7 relief appearances). What’s more, all of them were good, posting sub-3.7 ERAs. Collmenter and Saunders are prime candidates for regression due to their unimpressive strikeout rates, however, the D-backs improved their pitching further during the winter by acquiring Trevor Cahill from the As. Cahill’s coming off a bit of a down year, but he’s only 24 with three years of big league experience under his belt and he’ll be moving to the easier league. What’s more, Arizona has last year’s number three overall pick, Trevor Bauer as well as top prospect Tyler Skaggs ready to step in to rotation spots if necessary. Bauer may start the season as Arizona’s number 5 starter and could be the team’s best pitcher when it’s all said and done.

On the other side of the ball, Arizona is less impressive. They feature arguably the best young player in the game: Justin Upton, and a host of complementary players. Still, they look better on paper to start this year than they did in 2011. Miguel Montero remains one of the best catchers (and most underrated players in the league) and is entering his prime as a player. Shortstop Stephen Drew’s return from injury as well as a full season of Paul Goldschmidt at first base should provide a bit more offense from the infield. The outfield features Upton in right, Chris Young in center, and defensive whiz Gerardo Parra in left. Chase Field tends to inflate offensive numbers, but the D-backs are solid enough on defense that they don’t compound the problem.

Arizona won the NL West by 8 gmaes last season and they have to be strong favorites this year and in the near future. The farm system thins out a bit after Skaggs and Bauer, but there’s plenty of young talent at the major league level to envision a potential dynasty built around Upton and superb pitching.

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