Monday, March 26, 2012

Projecting Jeremy Hellickson

Last year, Jeremy Hellickson won the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Award, winning 13 games with a 2.95 ERA. At only 25, and pitching for a team that has a knack for developing pitchers as the Rays do, it would appear that his potential is limitless. But how good is Hellickson really going to be?

In 2011, he held opponents to a .210 batting average. This was built mainly upon an insanely low .223 average on balls in play. As the league average is approximately .300, Hellickson got very lucky last year. Yes, the Rays were the best fielding team in baseball least year, and should only get better now that Carlos Pena has returned, but can Hellickson really bank on that type of luck again? When looking back at the last twenty pitchers that held opponents to a batting average on balls in play of between .200 and .250, most of them had severe regression the following year. The ones that avoided this trend were Roger Clemens, Jamie Moyer, and Barry Zito. Zito actually improved his batting average on balls in play against, marking the last time he was relevant in anything other than punchlines for bad contracts.

Then there are Hellickson’s strike out and walk rates. After posting only two walks per nine innings and a strike out rate of 8.2 per nine innings in a brief trial in 2010, he walked 3.43 batters per nine last year. His strike out rate plummeted to 5.6 per nine innings. One thing Hellickson does have going for him in terms of future strike out improvement is a solid difference between his fastball and offspeed pitches – his fastball averaged 90.9 MPH last season, his curve and change were at 75.5 and 79.9 MPH respectively. However, that is an average fastball that he throws, meaning that he will need to rely more on control than the ability to throw the baseball past the opposition. Unless he cuts down on his walk rate, he will be in even more trouble next year.
According to the always entertaining comparison chart on, the following ten pitchers compare to Hellickson’s age 24 season: Doc Medich, Rich Gale, Pedro Astacio, Joey Hamilton, George Meakim, Bob Buhl, Mike Dunne, Steve Gromek, Rip Collins, and Bobby Jones. Of those ten pitchers, only three of them (Buhl, Gromek, and Jones) had an All-Star Game appearance. Even then, it was one selection each. Most of those pitchers did not even win 100 games in their career, as they were unable to sustain the luck they had in their rookie seasons going forward.

Hellickson, however, has several factors in his favor. First, Tropicana Field is one of the better pitcher’s parks in baseball. For every 100 runs scored at a neutral park, the Trop has averaged 90 over the past four years. With the large foul territory and open bullpens, it’s a pitcher’s dream. Second, as mentioned previously, he has a great defense behind him. The Rays were the best in baseball in almost every defensive metric last season, and will only get better now that Pena is back. And third, while it is a small sample size, Hellickson does not give up a lot of hard hit balls. Those weak pop ups and ground balls will help keep his ERA down, and make him look a lot better than he is.

As it stands, Hellickson appears destined for a 12 to 15 win, 4.00 ERA season. While it is a solid year, especially for a pitcher that is going to be the fourth or fifth starter, it is not ace material. Hellickson should have a decent career as a middle of the rotation starter, but do not expect much more than that.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

2012 Fantasy Baseball Busts

With every fantasy baseball season, there are players that dramatically out perform expectations. On the flip side, there are those players that fail in often spectacular fashion, to the point where they may derail a seemingly promising fantasy run. The key is to notice those players whose statistics from the previous season are not likely to be sustained, and let other people grab them much earlier than they should go. Here are our picks by position:

Catcher – Power hitting catchers that can produce a decent batting average are a scarce commodity. Catchers that hit .320 with 30 home runs are even rarer. Last year, Mike Napoli reached both of those levels with only 432 plate appearances. However, his batting average with inflated by a .344 BABip. In his career, Napoli has had one other season where his BABip was over .300, and that was 2009, when he .272. Yes, playing in Texas will help, but he is much more likely to play like an average catcher than an elite player this year.

First Base – The obvious choice here would be Ryan Howard, as his final at bat in 2011 left him crumpled upon the ground with a torn Achilles. Yet, there is a player who is considered elite at this position whose batting average has decreased in each of the last five seasons. Yes, Mark Teixeira can still hit home runs, but that is about all he can do right now. He has abandoned the concept of trying to put the ball into play to go after home runs with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. While he can provide two categories, he will absolutely kill teams in the other three.

Second Base – Take a player with dramatic home/road splits, questionable health, and a career year in most categories. Put them all together, and you have Ian Kinsler. Kinsler, for his career, hits .309 at home, and just .243 on the road. He has been injured numerous times over his career, so there is no guarantee that he can have a second consecutive year that he does not get injured. Over the past three years, he has hit 31,9, and 32 home runs. His batting average over the course of the year has fluctuated from .253 to .319. Strangely, in both his 30-30 seasons, he had the lowest two batting averages (.253 and .255) of his career. Kinsler is way too inconsistent and injury prone, and is just as likely to be a wasted pick as he is to be a valuable fantasy league producer.

Third Base – Anyone remember Kevin Maas? Or Shane Spenser? Or Sam Horn? Those players looked like elite players over their first 150 at bats in the major leagues, then faded into obscurity. Brett Lawrie may not end up with a career that was as disappointing as the players mentioned, but he is not a guarantee to be a stud either. Lawrie has a history of being a bit of a mental case, and that may derail his career more than anything else. Some publications have him ranked as highly as the third best third baseman in league, which is ridiculous. Classic over-hyped prospect.

Shortstop – Contract year? Check. One reasonably healthy year for a player with an injury history? Check. Big, guaranteed contract? Check. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jose Reyes! The newly minted Miami Marlin won a batting title and stole 39 bases last year, despite missing time with a hamstring injury. In fact, he has had injuries to both his calf and hamstring over the past three years, which does not bode well for a player who relies on his speed. Reyes is the ultimate risk-reward player at shortstop – he could be great, but he could miss most of the year as well.

Outfield – Over the past two seasons, a total of ten players have combined for 40 home runs and 70 stolen bases. Of those ten, Drew Stubbs has had the lowest batting average and fewest RBI. He has struck out in 28.9% of his plate appearances over his career, and the rate has increased each season. His walk rate, meanwhile, has been around 9%. He has an OPS+ of 96 in his career, and he simply cannot get on base. Normally, a player that has both speed and power is a player to covet, but not if those are the only two things he provides. There is also the possibility that he could gt benched if he starts slowly, since the Reds have a lot of outfield depth. Let someone else jump on the supposed break out year for this 27 year old.

Starting Pitcher – Over the past six years, Josh Beckett has been dominant in odd numbered years, yet decidedly mediocre in even numbered years. Guess what 2012 is. Add to this trend the fact that he seems to be obsessed with an alleged rat in the Boston clubhouse who ruined the ‘Chicken and Beer’ fun, and there is a forecast for disaster. Beckett also does have a bit of an injury history as well. He has been far too inconsistent over his career to expect back-to-back impressive campaigns.

Relief Pitcher – Repeat after me – do not chase saves. Do not draft a closer just because he happened to lead the major leagues in saves, especially if he did so with a below average WHiP and K/9 rate. In short, avoid Jose Valverde. Valverde went 49-49 in save opportunities last season, but how likely is he to repeat that? Valverde is 34, has had his K/9 decrease each of the last six seasons, and has seen his BB/9 climb above 4 for the last couple of seasons. as soon as he starts blowing a few games, he will be nothing more than a replacement level closer in a typical fantasy league.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers

As baseball season approaches, it is time when people start to thing of the important season ahead. And by important season, we mean the upcoming fantasy baseball season – a time when money and bragging rights are on the line. So, to help provide a bit of an edge, here is a list of sleepers – one at each position – to help you on your way.

Catcher – Yes, there are a top six, but the difference between catcher 7 and catcher 20 is not that great. So, the key is to find upside, as that can be found with Wilson Ramos. In 435 plate appearances last year, he had 15 home runs, 52 RBI, and a .267 batting average. Now that Pudge Rodriguez is no longer there to steal at bats, Ramos will have a full season of being the true main catcher in Washington. As a late round catcher, he is capable of bringing 20+ home runs, 70+ RBI, and a batting average over .280. Pretty solid production from a guy that will be considered an afterthought in most drafts.

First Base – Sometimes, a player can tear up AAA pitching, but cannot hit in the majors. However, sometimes players do not get enough of a chance to see what they are capable of. With Mat Gamel, he has never been great defensively, and he has only had 194 mostly forgettable plate appearances. This year, he has been moved from third base to first base, where his iron glove may not be as much of a factor, and will be given the opportunity to produce. He hit for power in the minors, and projects to 20+ home run hitter in his rookie year with a full season of at bats.

Second Base – Dustin Ackley may have had all of the acclaim coming up through the minors, but there was another second baseman on the same track. In fact, Jason Kipnis may be better for fantasy league purposes than Ackley. In under half the at bats, Kipnis had the same amount of home runs, and one fewer stolen base. He will likely be a 15 home run – 15 stolen base player, with upside for more. Don’t be surprised if he becomes a 20-20 player, maybe as soon as this year. A player that can fill all five categories in the middle of the draft? Jump on him.

Third Base – Patterns are amazing things, as they can show likely outcomes. With Mike Moustakas, he has traditionally struggled in his first 150 to 200 at bats, then puts everything together. True to form, he was awful for his first 200 major league at bats as he adjusted, but he began to hit for power shortly thereafter. He also has the bonus of being on the Royals, which traditionally is a two to three round penalty. Ignore the overall stats, and look at his slash line from September, when he went .352/.380/.580 with four home runs.

Shortstop -Zack Cozart was called up for a brief period of time in August, when he promptly got hurt, requiring Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow.He did manage to hit .324, albeit in 37 at bats, but he did have two home runs in that time period. In the minors, he displayed solid power, and a bit of speed, making him a potential double digit threat in both categories. Cozart is expected to be ready by Opening Day, and will fall late in drafts due to his injury and lack of playing time. Regardless, he is a potential double digit player in steals and homers, in a very shallow position.

Outfield – Colby Rasmus was considered a ‘Can’t Miss’ player going into 2011, but promptly ended up on Tony LaRussa’s bad side and was sent to Toronto. All in all, it was a miserable year for a guy that hit .276 with 23 home runs and 12 steals in 2010. This year, he is the classic buy-low player coming off a bad season. Toronto is a launching pad, and Rasmus will be allowed to be himself. The wrist injury he struggled with last season is a thing of the past, and his power stroke will return. Target him as a mid draft player; all the signs point to a huge rebound season.

Starting Pitcher – If a rookie can put together a 5:1 K/BB ratio as a starter, he is worth paying attention to. Last season, Henderson Alvarez did exactly that in his ten starts. Over 63.2 innings, he struck out 40 batters, only walked 8, and produced a 3.53 ERA. Even though he pitches in a launching pad in Toronto, those concerns are lessened given his extreme ground ball tendencies, as 53.5% of his outs came on the ground ball. Yes, he is only 22, and there will be growing pains, but he will dramatically out-perform his draft position this year. As a backup starter, he is a diamond in the rough.

Relief Pitcher – Chris Perez, the closer in Cleveland, is really not that good. His strikeouts have plummeted, and he got very lucky on his batting average on balls in play against him last year. He has also been hurt this preseason, and may not be ready in time for Opening Day. Add all these considerations together, and the signs point to Vinnie Pestano as the closer for the Indians by the end of the year. Pestano had the sixth best K/9 rate of any reliever last season, and got hitters to swing and miss against him 40% of the time. Pestano was far superior to Perez in almost every stat last year, and may have been the closer regardless. With the injury, however, this opens the door for Pestano to be a dominant closer all year.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Minnesota Twins 2012 Season Preview

Going in to 2011, the Minnesota Twins appeared ready to do what they have always done – compete for the AL Central title despite never quite appearing good enough on paper. Well, last year the wheels fell off, as the pitching was terrible and Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Denard Span were all hurt. By the end of the year, the Twins may as well have had a AAAA roster, and it showed in the results.

For the Twins to be better in 2012, the rotation needs to pitch better. One would think that, since they gave up the second most runs in the American League, that they would be better by default, right? Wrong. When 2/5 of your rotation consists of batting practice pitchers such as Nick Blackburn and Jason Marquis, you’re going to get pounded like a nerd with lunch money. While Francisco Liriano pitched a no hitter last year, it may have actually been the worst no hitter in the history of baseball. It also came against the White Sox, who couldn’t have hit the broad side of a barn last year. The Twins need him to pitch like he did in 2010, not like the imposter that was wearing his jersey in 2011. Carl Pavano makes starts, and is able to get through innings. That’s about it. On almost any other team in baseball, he’s a fifth starter. In Minnesota? Pavano is the second starter, which should tell you everything that needs to be known about this atrocity of a pitching staff. Scott Baker, if he can stay healthy, is actually a decent starter who had a 4-1 K/BB rate last year. Unfortunately, he also got hammered by the injury bug. If he can stay healthy, the Twins may be able to win 60 games. If not, there may not be a limit to how far they can sink.

As bad as the rotation is, and it’s God-Awful, the bullpen may be worse. Matt Capps is a mediocre closer at best, but at least he only cost them Wilson Ramos *sarcasm*. Glen Perkins was handed a three year deal to be the setup man, instead of the Twins using that money to actually, you know, help their team in any truly useful fashion. Brian Duensing and Anthony Swarzak was moved from the rotation to the bullpen, which speaks volumes about their effectiveness. The rest of the bullpen may as well be pitching machines or people from the stands, since they would probably be just as effective.
In the outfield, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer departed in free agency. The Twins replaced them with Ben Revere, who is a future leadoff candidate with solid speed and defense, but limited upside; and Josh Willingham. Willingham also has a history of injury problems, and really may be better as a fourth outfielder or DH. Denard Span is expected to be healthy, and will be desperately needed on a team that is going to need to manufacture runs. Expect to see a lot of Rene Tosoni this year, which is good news for his relatives and no one else.

Around the infield, it doesn’t get much better either. Danny Valencia hit 15 home runs last year, and got on base at a .294 clip. The Twins thought about sending him back to the minors last year, and may end up doing so this year. Jamey Carroll is a decent utility infielder, but is going to be the Twins starting shortstop. This is because Alexi Casilla is going to be the everyday second baseman, if he can stay healthy (notice a trend?) Casilla can run, and that’s about it. He ends up at second base because Tsuyoshi Nishioka may have been a bigger disappointment than WaterWorld. Some combination of Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer will play first base, if either are healthy. Morneau is still battling concussion symptoms from 2010, and may never get back to form.

At catcher are the aforementioned Mauer and Ryan Doumit. Doumit is expected to be the Twins DH, which should keep him from having as many trips to the DL as he typically has. This means that Drew Butera gets mentioned in this post. Do not expect analysis of Drew Butera. We are not wasting out time. Mauer may never hit 28 home runs again, but he is still one of the best catchers in baseball. If he’s healthy, he may be the only reason to watch a Twins game.

The Twins will be one of the teams ‘competing’ for the worst record in baseball this season. The worst part is, they do not have any real prospects that are close to making an impact, or veterans that could bring something back in trade. The Twins will be awful, and will be for a while.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Kansas City Royals 2012 Season Preview

According to Dayton Moore’s “Process”, the Kansas City Royals were going to have their prospects up in 2011 and 2012, have them learn how to be major league players, and try to contend for 2013. Well, a strange thing happened along the way, as the Royals had one of the better offenses in baseball in 2011. While the starting rotation needs to show dramatic improvement for the Royals to contend for a playoff spot this season, maybe it’s not as far away as once thought. In fact, the Royals have become a trendy sleeper pick for several outlets, especially since the second Wild Card has been added.

For the Royals to take the next step, they need one or two of their starters to dramatically improve. Luke Hochevar is the de facto number one starter, but he is far from an ace. In fact, the Royals not only do not have a true number one starter, but they also do not have a pitcher that could be a number two starter on a good team either. Hochevar did show signs of improvement in the second half of last year, however; as his K/9 went from 4.38 to just under 9. If he can keep that improvement in 2012, then he may just be ready. Jonathan Sanchez was acquired from the San Francisco Giants for Melky Cabrera’s career year. Sanchez strikes out a lot of hitters, but walks a lot as well. He also has some health concerns. If he could improve his control, then he could be another solid starter, but at 29, he is what he is at this point. Bruce Chen has gone from journeyman bust to a Panamanian-Korean version of Jamie Moyer. While he is not going to make a lot of people miss, he has been surprisingly effective. Felipe Paulino was picked up after being released by the Colorado Rockies, and immediately become a fairly good starter. Ignore his won-loss record and total and aggrigate ERA – he has a lot of upside and may end up being the Royals best starter this year. The fifth spot in the rotation will be taken by either Aaron Crow or Danny Duffy. Crow has two solid pitches, and desperately needs a third pitch to be an effective starter. However, his fastball-slider combo were great out of the bullpen, where he was an All-Star last year. That would leave Duffy, who looked like a younger version of Jonathan Sanchez.
The bullpen, however, is a strength for the Royals. Joakim Soria had an off year last year, partially due to injury and partially due to experimenting with a cutter in the first half. Once he scrapped the cutter, he went back to looking like the Soria of years past. Jonathan Broxton was picked up on a one year deal as a safety net if Soria either gets hurt again, or is traded. Little Timmy Collins is the primary lefty reliever, and wore down last year from overuse. Greg Holland was the Royals best reliever last year, and may end up being the closer of the future if Crow can stick in the rotation.

In the outfield, the Royals have Alex Gordon in left, Lorenzo Cain in center, and Jeff Francoeur in right. Gordon finally tapped into his limitless potential, becoming a Gold Glove outfielder and a legitimate offensive threat. Cain’s defense and speed made Melky Cabrera expendable, and he may end up taking the leadoff spot from Gordon. Francoeur had a surprisingly good season, as he finished with 20 home runs, and over 20 stolen bases. He is another solid defensive player, and furthers the Royals desire to be a run prevention team. Mitch Maier is the fourth outfielder, and can play all three positions.

Last year, the Royals had the youngest infield in baseball by the end of the year. Third baseman Mike Moustakas struggled initially in the majors, but began to hit as the season progressed. This was well in line with his minor league track record, where he needed 150 to 200 at bats to get acclimated to the talent level, then began to hit. Look for Moustakas to have a good year in 2012. Shortstop Alcides Escobar is a great defensive player, but provides little to nothing offensively. Despite that, he is extremely valuable, given his ability to take away hits and runs. Johnny Giavotella is expected to be the Opening Day second baseman, and will be better than what the Royals had there last season by default. His presence banishes Chris Getz either to the bench or to AAA. Eric Hosmer will also get a full season at first base, and is looking to build off of an impressive rookie season. Hosmer has also added an element of speed to his game over the last couple of seasons. Yuniesky Betancourt returns as a theoretical utility infielder, even though he couldn’t catch the ball if it was placed directly in front of him, and may actually be the worst player in baseball. But, it would not be the Royals if they did not make at least one head scratching move per offseason.

Salvador Perez turned a solid 148 at bat debut into a five year extension, and is locked up as the catcher of the present and future. While he swings at literally everything, he also has a surprisingly good contact rate. He is also a solid defensive catcher with a plus arm, so the Royals may have a steal with their investment. Brayan Pena is the backup catcher, and is essentially a body that can give Perez the occassional day off. Billy Butler is entrenched at the designated hitter spot, and while he may never hit a lot of home runs, is a lock for 40+ doubles and a solid batting average. All in all, the offense was good last year, and may be even better this year.

For the Royals to have a chance this year, they need their run prevention plan to work as well as they can possibly dream of. A step forward by either Hochevar or Paulino will help, but they are more likely to contend in 2013 than in 2012.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Detroit Tigers 2012 Season Preview

In 2011, the Detroit Tigers were easily the class of the American League Central, boasting a solid lineup, an absolute stud ace pitcher, and a good bullpen. This year, they have improved the lineup, and bring back the same rotation. But will the Tigers be better?
For all the buzz centered around Justin Verlander, the rest of the rotation is pretty good. Verlander, who is not only the reigning Cy Young Award winner, but also the reigning MVP, is perhaps the best starting pitcher in the game. On his own, he automatically gives the Tigers a chance to win every game he pitches. Max Scherzer has shown flashes of greatness, and has started to be more consistant in each outing. Doug Fister is a very underrated pitcher, and solidified the rotation when he came over in the midseason trade from Seattle. Rick Porcello was decent at times last year, and will regress this season (more on that in a bit). Jacob Turner is likely to win the fifth starter position, and by default will be an upgrade over the corpse of Brad Penny. But will the pitching actually look as good as they really are? Scherzer, Porcello, and Fister are all groundball pitchers, and the Tigers defense around the infield has the mobility of Christopher Reeve. They will give up a lot more runs than last year, but may actually pitch better.

The bullpen suffered a big loss with the Al Alburquerque injury, but Octovio Dotel will help to minimize the damage. Jose Valverde was a perfect 49-49 in save attempts last season, but shows some signs of wear, as his K/9 has steadily decreased over the past four seasons. Phil Coke has been moved back to the bullpen after the Tigers attempt to turn him into a starter. Coke is a dominant lefty reliever, and will help bridge the gap to Valverde. Joaquin Benoit is a solid setup man, and will hold down the eighth inning.

The outfield consists of Andy Dirks in right field, Austin Jackson in center, and Brennan Boesch in left. Boesch missed roughly a third of the season with a thumb injury, but had been improved in his second season. Jackson has a lot of speed, but is not great at tracking down fly balls. He also has a tendency to strike out a lot for a leadoff hitter, which truly limits his effectiveness. Dirks is expected to be the starting right fielder, but is far from a sure thing to start the season with the Tigers. He tore up the Dominican winter league, and is looking to use that as a springboard to success in Detroit. If he falters, Delmon Young will step in. Ryan Raburn, slated to the be starting second baseman, can also play in the outfield if needed.

With the Tigers infield, we can safely say two things – they will hit well, and they will not catch the ball whatsoever. Miguel Cabrera moves over the third base after having not played there since 2008, when it took 14 games for Jim Leyland to decide that there were not enough cigarettes in Detroit for him to deal with Cabrera’s lack of defense. Yes, Cabrera may be one of the two best hitters in the game, but he is a much better first baseman than third baseman. Next to him is Jhonny Peralta, he whose parental units did not have spell check. Peralta can hit, but is an absolute butcher in the field. Ryan Raburn is a converted outfielder who is playing second base, and is actually the best defensive player starting in the Tigers infield. With a full season of plate appearances, he could have a breakout year. Prince Fielder signed a huge contract after Victor Martinez was lost for the season, and will take over for Cabrera at first. He provides another 40+ home run bat, but is a major defensive liability. Brandon Inge, upset after being sent to the bench after hitting less than .200 last year, will still see a lot of playing time as a defensive replacement. Yes, the offense will be better, but the pitching staff will have nightmares of double play grounders becoming hits.

Alex Avila broke out in a big way last season as the Tigers starting catcher. He was helped by a .366 batting average on balls in play, which points to regression this year. On the positive side, he did display a solid batting eye and the ability to take a walk. He will also be the main starting catcher even if he struggles, as backup Gerald Laird is useless with a bat. Delmon Young is slated to be the designated hitter, but that may change if either Boesch or Dirks struggle in the outfield. If that happens, either Fielder or Cabrera wil likely become the DH, with Inge moving into the starting lineup.

On paper, the Tigers are better than they were last season. While they will likely win the AL Central , they may not be as good a team. the lack of infield defense will keep them from winning a World Series.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cleveland Indians 2012 Season Preview

At the beginning of 2011, the Cleveland Indians were essentially an afterthought when it came to teams that could content. Then the season started, and the Indians found themselves surprisingly competitive. They made moves at the trade deadline, such as acquiring Ubaldo Jimenez. While the acquisitions did not work for 2011, and the Indians found themselves under .500 yet again, they have at least given notice that they are no longer the pushovers they had been for the past few seasons.

Cleveland’s starting rotation is filled with ground ball pitchers, so the infield defense is going to be vitally important. Fronting the rotation is the aforementioned Ubaldo Jimenez, who endured the worst season of his career. While his peripheral numbers were similar to what they had always been, he lost a couple of miles per hour from his fastball. If he can regain the lost velocity, he gives the Indians a very good ace. Otherwise, he becomes a good pitcher who will provide solid innings. Justin Masterson had a breakout season, as he shaved nearly a run and a half from his ERA. His walk rate drastically improved, and he appears to finally be tapping into this potential. Veteran Derek Lowe was brought over as the third starter. Despite his age, he still induces plenty of ground balls, and fits well into their rotation. Josh Tomlin may not be able to dent a piece of bread with his fastball, but he is a surprisingly effective starter. Kevin Slowey is the best bet to round out the rotation, as he looks to bounce back from an ineffective and injury plagued season.

The ‘Bullpen Mafia’ may actually be the best relief corps in baseball. Chris Perez returns as the closer, but may actually be one of the Indians worst relief pitchers. Even though he is expected to be back from his injury by Opening Day, there is no guarantee that he holds the spot all year. Vinnie Pestano, the pitcher most likely to take over from Perez, may be one of the top three set-up men in baseball. Last season, he held right handed batters to a .118 batting average. Joe Smith and Rafael Perez are both ground ball specialists, and are excellent specialists. This is an extremely deep group, and will not cost the Indians many games over the season.

The outfield is slated to have Michael Brantley in left, Grady Sizemore in center, and Shin-Soo Choo in right. Any idea of expecting production, health, or Sizemore missing fewer than 100 games is pure insanity at this point. Expect Brantley to end up in center. He provides solid defense and good speed, but also has issues staying healthy. Choo had an abysmal year las tseason, and needs to have a bounce back campaign for the Indians to take the next step forward in their quest to contend. Aaron Cunningham, a castoff from the San Deigo Padres, or Shelley Duncan, will likely see a lot of action this season.

Around the infield, the Indians have a nice blend of veterans and youngsters. Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis will be starters for an entire season in 2012, and both are intriguing prospects. Chisenhall may never reach the gaudy numbers that he was thought to early in his minor league career, but he looks like he may be another Travis Fryman-type player. .280 with 25 home runs and solid defense would not be a surprise. Kipnis, meanwhile, may be an absolute stud. He was overlooked by most people due to Dustin Ackley being in the minors at the same time, but Kipnis was just as good. Asdrubal Cabrera put together a monster year in 2011, and will be hitting in the middle of the lineup once again. Expect some regression, but he will have another solid year. Casey Kotchman provides excellent defense, and a decent bat, at first base. Power has never really been his thing, but he will hit enough to stay in the lineup. If either Chisenhall or Kotchman falter, defensive whiz Jack Hannahan is waiting in the wings.

At catcher is Carlos Santana, who happens to be one of the best in the game. His batting average was low, but he still got on base, hit for power, and was versatile in the field. Backup Lou Marson will see more time than the typical backup catcher, since Santana plays a lot of first base as well to take some wear and tear off his knees. Travis Hafner returns as the DH, but like Sizemore, can he be expected to remain healthy all season? If he can, Hafner provides another power bat to what is a solid lineup.

If the Indians can remain healthy, and that is a big if, they could have a shot at winning the AL Central. At the very least, they will be in contention for one of the wild card slots in the American League.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Chicago White Sox 2012 Season Preview

At this time in 2011, the Chicago White Sox looked like a legitimate contender to make the playoffs. They had added a consistantly solid bat in Adam Dunn for the middle of their lineup, had a great manager in Ozzie Guillen, and only had the Detroit Tigers as a team to contend against. Fast forward one year, and the White Sox are a train wreck. Guillen is gone, replaced with a rookie manager. General Manager Kenny Williams is making moves without seeming to have a plan. This is going to be a brutal season for the entire city of Chicago (more on that when we mock preview the Cubs), but especially for the White Sox.

The starting pitching on the White Sox could have anywhere from one to four decent pitchers. Gavin Floyd returns as the defacto ace of the rotation, but is badly miscast in that role. While he has provided solid strikeout to walk ratios and a decent WHiP since he has been given a full-time role, he has also had only one season with an ERA under 4.00. Likewise, John Danks does not strike out a lot of hitters, and gives up a decent amount of baserunners. Both slot better as a third starter. Jake Peavy continues to hunt for the elusive healthy season, and will probably be injured by the All-Star Break yet again. When healthy, he is one of the best in the game, but can he be counted on for more than 20 starts? Philip Humber pitched well last season, but does anyone really expect that to continue? Jason Simontacchi also had one good year, and how did his career go? Chris Sale actually could be the best of this group. He was lights out in the bullpen, and has the pitching repetoire and skills to succeed.

The bullpen could be a disaster. Matt Thornton proved that he cannot be a closer in the most empathic way possible, short of bring out a can of petrol to the mound and lighting himself on fire like a protester at the G8. However, when he was mercifully put back into the setup role, he pitched a lot better. Sergio Santos, last year’s closer, was traded for essentially nothing, so the closer role now falls upon hard throwing rookie Addison Reed. Reed struck out 12 batters in 7.1 innings last year, so he may have the makings of a Craig Kimbrel type of season (fantasy sleeper alert!) Jesse Crain returns to the bullpen, and is a solid piece for the seventh and eighth innings. However, any thought of him opening the season as the closer while easing Reed into the role is pure insanity. Will Ohman is pegged as the lefty specialist, but he really isn’t that good. The bullpen will be a lot worse than last year.

In the outfield, the White Sox will likely have Alejandro De Aza in left, Alex Rios in center, and Dayan Viciedo in right. There are enough question marks with the outfield, that they may as well wear Riddler costumes. Can De Aza, a 27 year old career minor leaguer, hit like he did in his 57 game trial over the final two months of the season? Can Alex Rios not be one of the worst players in baseball? Can Dayan Viciedo be a decent enough glove in right field where he does not evoke memories of Jose Canseco trying to field a ball? Chances are, two of these questions will be answered with ‘NO!’ Of the three, Viciedo has the best chance to be a solid contributor the entire season. Alex Rios did pull his astonishing disappearing act in 2009 as well, when he moped his way out of Toronto. De Aza screams fluke with his .404 BABiP last year. This group could be fairly bad.

Yet, as awful as the outfield could be, the infield may be even worse. Third baseman Brett Morel was atrocious until he went on a late season tear. Can he use that burst in September as a springboard for 2012? Unlikely, but there is a glimmer of hope, albeit a rather faint one. Alexei Ramirez is what he is, a 15 home run, 15 stolen base shortstop who plays solid defense and does not really do any one thing well. However, he may be the best bat in this lineup by default. One time mega-prospect Gordon Beckham has gotten progressively worse since his rookie season, and may actually be just a bench player. Paul Konerko continued to roll along, but is 36. How long will his body hold up?

Furthering what may be one of the worst lineups this side of the American League West, Adam Dunn managed to put up what may have been the worst season in major league history. Congratulations Bill Bergen, you are no longer the biggest embarrassment to be an every day player. The surprising part of Dunn’s collapse was how remarkably consistant he was for the ten years prior to that. Was this just a fluke season, or is Dunn….well….done? Chances are that he bounces back, but it really won’t be difficult to have a better season. At catcher is A.J. Pierzynski, a player who has played at backup level (check his WAR) over most of his career, yet still somehow finds a way to get over 400 at bats per season. Backup Tyler Flowers is another former top prospect whose stock has fallen dramatically (notice a trend here?) but he does have some power potential. If he can hit to start the year, he may finally end Pierzynski’s reign of terror at the catcher position.

In the end, the White Sox will be terrible this season. They have a rookie manager, no direction, a barren minor league system, and no hope. They will struggle to not finish in the basement of the American League Central.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Toronto Blue Jays 2012 Season Preview

Over the past twenty years, the Toronto Blue Jays have been fairly easy to predict. They have won between 80 and 89 games eleven times in that span, never winning 90 or more. They have won fewer than 70 games just once in that time frame, not counting the strike year. And they have finished fourth in the American League East each of the last four seasons. They have also been a team expected to finally break through over the last couple of season. Is 2012 finally when they break through?

The starting pitchers are a solid, if relatively anonymous, group. Ricky Romero took the next step in his development last season, dropping his ERA below 3.00 (2.92), cutting down his walk rate, and holding steady with strikeouts. He did lucky with his batting average against, but it had been low the previous year as well. Hitters just do not make solid contact against him. Brandon Morrow was inconsistent last season, but he did show some flashes. Also, he improved on his rates, cutting down his walks per nine innings, and actually leading the AL in strikeouts per nine. It is not inconceivable for him to take the next step as well this season. Henderson Alvarez appears to be a very good pitcher in the making. In his brief appearance last season, he had a K/BB ratio of 5:1. He also allowed just over a hit per inning (64 hits in 63.2 innings pitched). Brett Cecil, Dustin McGowan, and Kyle Drabek will vie for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation. Cecil is a solid back of the rotation starter. Drabek was a former top prospect, who still has plenty of time to have everything come together. McGowan had not been in the major leagues since 2008 before his brief cameo last season, and will attempt to be the Blue Jays version of Ryan Vogelsong.

The bullpen had several departures, but filled in those holes nicely. Sergio Santos is a low priced closer, who is under control for three more seasons. Darren Oliver and Francisco Cordero were signed as veteran help for an already solid group. Jason Frasor returned from the White Sox, and provides even more depth. The bullpen is a solid, deep group that will be an asset for the Blue Jays.

The outfield is a very solid group, with Travis Snider, Jose Bautista, and Colby Rasmus. Bautista proved that 2010 was not a fluke, and is one of the best hitters in the game. He improved his walk rate, cut down on strikeouts, and led the American League in home runs for a second consecutive year. Rasmus, a former top prospect of the Cardinals who clashed with Tony LaRussa, should benefit from a new beginning, and may be able to finally tap into his potential. Snider was hurt for much of last season, but is a solid power hitter. Rajai Davis was brought over as the fourth outfielder, and can play all three outfield positions.

Around the infield, the Blue Jays have a lot of potential. Brett Lawrie will be the everyday third baseman, after exploding onto the scene in his major league debut. He has plenty of talent; the biggest question is whether or not he can keep himself together, as he developed a reputation as a head case in the minors. If he can, Lawrie has the chance to be a top notch third baseman for years to come. Yunel Escobar is a solid player at shortstop, providing decent power, a good batting eye, and solid defense. Kelly Johnson was acquired for Aaron Hill last season, and returns as the starting second baseman. He provides solid power, and good defense. While his batting average was terrible overall, he did hit .270 in 132 plate appearances after coming over to Toronto. He should return to form with a full season as a Blue Jay. Despite back to back mediocre seasons, Adam Lind remains at first base. He does have good power, on the rare occasions when he makes contact. His strikeout percentage did improve from 2010, but his overall statline is a far cry from 2009. This may be his final chance to prove that he can be an everyday player.

J.P. Arencibia provides great power from the catcher position, but not much else. He struck out in just over one out of every three at bats, and is mediocre at best defensively. Jeff Mathis was signed to be the late inning defensive replacement. In the minors, Travis d’Arnaud is waiting to take over should Arencibia not show any improvement. At DH, the Blue Jays have Edwin Encarnacion, who can also play third and first base if needed. While he is a butcher with the glove, he is another solid bat that the Jays can plug into their lineup.

All in all, it appears to be the same situation with the Blue Jays this year as it has been in years past. They would probably win most of the other divisions in baseball, but are stuck in the brutal AL East. Once the second wild card team is added, then they will have a better chance at the playoffs, but for now, they will remain on the outside looking in.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tampa Bay Rays 2012 Season Preview

At the beginning of 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays were written off as a team that had simply lost too many pieces to contend. Fast forward to the end of the year, and with the help of the Red Sox collapse, the Rays found themselves in the playoffs yet again.

The foundation for the Rays success begins with their formidable rotation. While they are all relatively young, Joe Maddon has proven to have delivered great results with youth. James Shields, at age 30, is the elder statesman amongst the starting rotation. While he had a career season last year, regression is to be expected, as his WHiP was far below his average mark. After a disastrous 2010, he managed to trim over two full runs from his ERA. He’s not as good as he looked in 2011, but not as bad as he was in 2010. The truth is someplace in between. Jeremy Hellickson is also a prime target for regression. Despite a fairly high walk rate and a low strikeout rate, he was helped immensely by a .223 batting average on balls in play against him. Some of the regression amongst Shields and Hellickson will be mitigated by the expected improvement from David Price and a season of Matt Moore in the rotation. Price continues to show improvement in cutting down his walk rate and has increased his strikeout rate. Moore is a phenom who tore through the minor leagues last year, and pitched well in the playoffs, as he was the surprise starter of Game One of the ALDS against Texas. Wade Davis had a solid sophomore season, and is likely to be the fifth starter, pushing Jeff Neimann either to long relief, or to the trade block.

The Rays gambled on making Kyle Farnsworth their closer last season, and it paid off. Farnsworth, who could typically be counted on to naplam any close game, put up a career season as he almost doubled his career total in saves. He returns as the closer again in 2012, but should he falter, the Rays have a plethora of options available. Jake McGee was drafted to be the Rays closer of the future, and would slide right in if needed. J.P. Howell had a disappointing 2011, but is likely to bounce back. Joel Peralta is an underrated set up man who got to an 0-2 count on 34% of batters faced last season. In that situation, he gave up only three hits all year. Fernando Rodney was also signed to a one year deal with a team option. If he can regain the form that he had previously, he may be another solid option for the seventh and eighth innings.

In the outfield are left fielder Desmond Jennings, center fielder B.J. Upton, and right fielder Matt Joyce. Upton has all the tools necessary to become great, but has a tendency to chase terrible pitches out of the strike zone and laying off fastballs down the middle of the plate. While he is a 20 home run/20 stolen base player, he may never be the elite offensive threat everyone expected. The same diagnosis can be placed on Desmond Jennings. While he was a rookie last year, he was expected to be Carl Crawford. He did end up being similar to Crawford, only it was the Carl Crawford from Boston last season. If he does not show significant improvement this season, it would not be out of the question for the Rays to try to find another option and trade Jennings. Matt Joyce can take a walk, steal the occasional base, and has a bit of power, but is more of a fourth outfielder. At this point, he probably is what he is.

At third base is Evan Longoria, who, even in a down year, had over thirty home runs. His batting average was dragged down by injuries and a .239 batting average on balls in play. Expect him to regain his form as an elite player, and the cornerstone of the lineup. Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac will likely platoon at shortstop, although neither has proven to be an asset with the bat. Rodriguez may eventually take the job full time, as he has displayed a bit of power, and Brignac has an awful .272 on base percentage in his career. Either way, both players are merely holding down the position until Hak Ju Lee is brought up. Second base is held down by the very underrated Ben Zobrist. Zobrist not only provides one of the better bats in the lineup, but he also has the capability to play wherever he is needed. Carlos Pena was brought back, and while he may not hit for a high average, he does provide another power bat in the lineup, and plays Gold Glove caliber defense.

Catcher underwent a significant change, as both John Jaso and Kelly Stoppach were allowed to depart. In their place, the Rays brought in Jose Molina. While he is essentially useless with the bat, he is one of the best defensive catchers in the game. In fact, he was brought in for his ability to frame pitches – according to PitchFX, he saved 62.8 runs from framing pitches since 2008, despite playing a total of 264 games. Anything he contributes with the bat will be a bonus. At DH, the Rays brought in Orioles cast off Luke Scott, who had a terrible year in 2011, but had three consecutive years with 20+ home runs prior to that. Scott is another low-risk, high reward type player that the Rays seem to have luck with. Expect a bounce back year.

On paper, the Rays do not appear to have enough to contend with the Red Sox, Yankees, or even the Blue Jays this season. However, the same was said at the start of 2011. Joe Maddon is able to get the most out of the pieces he is given, and the pitching staff is more than enough to keep them competitive. Expect the Rays to contend for the wild card again this year.