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2012 MLB Predictions

American League East

1. Yankees
The Yankees opened the offseason with a very questionable starting rotation after CC Sabathia, but have since transformed it into a strength. After re-upping with Freddy Garcia early on, they traded for young right-hander Michael Pineda and signed former Dodger Hiroki Kuroda. With one of the league’s most potent offenses and a shutdown bullpen, the Yankees seem to be the best team in the East.

2. Rays
Like the Red Sox, the Rays’ season came down to the very last game. The Rays are all about run prevention, running out an excellent rotation and a shutdown bullpen that Joe Maddon manages very well. The reunion with Carlos Pena will add some pop to a lineup that desperately needs it, and a full season of Desmond Jennings should help as well.

3. Red Sox
The Red Sox undoubtedly have a ton of talent, and had they won one more game last year, their whole season could have turned out drastically different. They’ve replaced Jonathan Papelbon with some new bullpen arms after moving Daniel Bard to the rotation, and still possess arguably the league’s best offense. Unfortunately, they have two teams ahead of them in the division to jump.

4. Orioles
There’s some hope for the future here, but I think they’re still a season away from contending. The bats are there and Baltimore will certainly hit for some power with bats like Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds. The bullpen should be a strength but it’s the starting pitching that needs to improve for the O’s to climb out of the bottom of the division.

5. Blue Jays
The Blue Jays are an improving team that has a lot of potential, but fulfilling that potential will be challenging, especially in this division. Jose Bautista is probably at his peak performance and while guys like Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus have room for improvement, it’s not a given that they’ll translate their tools into production. After Ricky Romero, the starting rotation doesn’t have an arm that you can count on.

American League Central

1. Tigers
Detroit ran away with the division last season and went ahead and got better. They already had the best hitter (Miguel Cabrera) in the division and the best pitcher (MVP & Cy Young Justin Verlander) but decided that Prince Fielder would be an adequate replacement for Victor Martinez. If you asked me which team was most likely to win their division by 15+ games, I wouldn’t hesitate picking the Tigers.

2. White Sox
Thought long and hard about the rest of this division, and it’s pretty close who finishes in spots 2-5. Chicago has some intriguing arms in their rotation, mainly Jake Peavy (health) and Chris Sale (transition to rotation) and should have enough offense to stick around .500 for most of the season.

3. Royals
Their farm system is once again churning out very nice players, and this time they’re locking them up long-term early to try and stabilize some costs. Losing closer Joakim Soria hurt the back end of the bullpen, but if Jonathan Broxton can provide some stability at the end of the game, KC has a chance to put a nice little season together. Offensively, they’re probably the best of the bunch not named the Tigers. But the starting pitching is still an area in need of improvement.

4. Indians
They definitely over-achieved last season, and the offense still is not good. There are far too many regular at bats for guys that are well below league average. The Indians are going to need guys to stay healthy (already a problem) and play above their heads if they want to make any noise in a very weak division.

5. Twins
It’s a shame Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau have fought injuries and ineffectiveness the past few seasons. The new ballpark should have been an exciting time for the Twins, but they’ve just kind of wallowed around the past few years. That Carl Pavano is starting Opening Day says a lot about the amount of work their rotation needs.

American League West

1. Rangers
They’re still the cream of the crop out here, with a potent offense, and a ton of pitching depth. Yu Darvish looks to replace the production of the departed CJ Wilson and even if Neftali Feliz doesn’t work out as a starter, they have guys like Alexi Ogando and Matt Harrison waiting fill in. After consecutive AL pennants, the Rangers are still the team to beat.

2. Angels
But if anyone’s going to give the Rangers a run for their money, it will be the Angels and their new big name free agent splashes. Joining the team are Albert Pujols who gives them the middle-of-the-order bat that they desperately needed and CJ Wilson who fills out the starting rotation and make the Angels front four one of the best in the game.

3. Athletics
Their big offseason acquisition was Yoenis Cespedes, who put together a fancy highlight video of himself, but still has zero MLB games under his belt. He could be a middle-of-the-lineup game changer or he could wind up hitting a buck-fifty on June 1 for a last place team. The A’s have a ton of young pitching and if those arms pitch up to their potential, they could hang around and make a run for that second wild card spot.

4. Mariners
Even with Jesus Montero, who has managed to stay among baseball’s top prospects despite not having a defined position, Seattle will struggle to score runs. Running the league’s worst offense out in the league’s most pitcher-friendly park is not any way to contend for division titles.

National League East

1. Phillies
Even with the flashy offseason moves by the rest of the division, Philadelphia is still the team to beat. They may not have Four Aces anymore, but the three they do have are still damn good. Halladay, Hamels and Lee will lead the way for a pitching staff that will have a little less to work with while Ryan Howard and Chase Utley recuperate from injuries.

2. Nationals
While the Marlins made most of the big name moves, I think Washington’s young talent taking a step forward does more good in the end. Reliable starting pitching has been Washington’s Achilles Heel the past few seasons, and bringing in veterans Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to go with homegrown studs Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann should give them some semblance of consistency on the mound. The offense should get a bump from a more typical Jayson Werth season and a return of a healthy Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman.

3. Braves
Like the Red Sox, the Braves were just a game away from extending their season past 162 games. But I think they over achieved a little and then didn’t do a whole lot to improve over the offseason. A full season from Michael Bourn will help, but if Jason Heyward and Martin Prado don’t rebound and Chipper Jones spends an extended period of time on the DL, the Braves could find themselves slipping further down the NL East standings than they are used to.

4. Marlins
A chic World Series pick, I just don’t see it. The rotation must have everyone stay healthy and effective, and that’s certainly not a lock given the injury history of Josh Johnson and the Jekyll and Hyde routine of Ricky Nolasco and Carlos Zambrano. The offense should be decent enough, but Jose Reyes isn’t a picture of perfect health and I still need to see more consistent effort and production from Hanley Ramirez. Regardless, they shouldn’t expect to be the worst team wearing orange in the NL East this season.

5. Mets
This is a troubled team with no real strength anywhere on the team. The team’s highest paid players are very injury prone and their performances have suffered because of it. The team moved the fences in and lowered them in hopes of jump-starting some of their key players, but more than likely it will hurt their pitchers more than benefit their hitters.

National League Central

1. Reds
The Reds lost their biggest free agent acquisition of the offseason when Ryan Madson went down with Tommy John surgery before ever throwing a regular season pitch for Cincinnati. But with Sean Marshall, acquired in a trade with the Cubs, and Aroldis Chapman, the back end of the bullpen should still be very strong. After Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, the starting rotation lacks dependable depth and other than Joey Votto, the lineup isn’t all that menacing. However, if there is a division where a team can overlook it’s shortcomings, it’s the NL Central.

2. Cardinals
They’ll never replace Pujols’ production or the impact that he had on a game just by being in the stadium. But this is still the defending champion and they’re welcoming Adam Wainwright back into the rotation. Even if he’s not the same guy that finished in the top 3 in the Cy Young balloting in 2009 and 2010, he’ll improve the Cardinals rotation. They picked up Beltran on a very team-friendly deal to help fill the Pujols hole (hah!) but what they really need is for Lance Berkman to repeat his 2011 season and for David Freese to take another step forward and become a threat in the middle of the lineup.

3. Brewers
Ryan Braun should expect a hard time of it this season, with the positive drug test hanging over him and Prince Fielder no longer looming behind him in the lineup. Aramis Ramirez just isn’t the same guy that Fielder is. With Zack Grienke and Yovani Gallardo, the Brewers have the same deal as the Reds, two very good starters but not much after that. And unlike Cincinnati, Milwaukee doesn’t have the strong bullpen to back the rotation.

4. Cubs
Here by the sole virtue that they are not quite as bad as the Pirates and Astros. Apart from Starlin Castro, they don’t have a lot of enviable young talent, and the rotation is a mess behind Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster. With a new front office in place, the Cubs should start returning to relevancy, but not this year and not next year. But hey, $18 million outfielder Alfonso Soriano only has three years left on his contract!

5. Pirates
There are only a handful of teams in baseball that could lose AJ Burnett to an injury and have it be a bad thing. But Pittsburgh is one of them. Behind Burnett, the Pirates have a motley crew of reclamation projects (Erik Bedard) and guys that would be more at home in a Triple-A rotation (Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton) than a major league one.

6. Astros
The only reason I’d say they’ll be better than they were last season is because the 106 losses Houston suffered through in 2012 were the most in baseball since the Diamondbacks lost 111 games in 2004. To celebrate their continued disaster, Houston will move to the American League in 2013 where life certainly won’t be any easier.

National League West

1. Giants
The Giants will once again run out an impressive pitching staff and once again struggle to provide adequate run support. Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan will be counted upon to contribute power and speed to a lineup that desperately lacks both and Buster Posey will look to return healthy and productive from an unfortunate and severe ankle injury. They won’t score a whole lot, but with their pitching staff and their home ballpark, they won’t have to in order to win the division.

2. Dodgers
With Frank McCourt finally out of the picture, one of the games premiere franchises can get back on the right track. They have a Cy Young winning pitcher and an MVP caliber center-fielder to build around in Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp. The new ownership has to decide if Andre Ethier is worth building around, and if not, see what they can get for him in a July trade.

3. Diamondbacks
The NL West is considerably easier to pitch in than the American League, and Trever Cahill should find that out as Ian Kennedy did last year. Jason Kubel will help fill out the lineup, but I just don’t see them carrying their 2011 overachievements into 2012.

4. Rockies
Colorado is working San Francisco’s plan in reverse—the Rockies have more than enough offense to go around, but is counting on 49-year old Jamie Moyer, AL East washout Jeremy Guthrie and rookie Drew Pomeranz to flush out their starting rotation. Even with the humidor, there could be a lot of home runs flying over the wall at Coors Field—for both teams.

5. Padres
Other than the fact that the first names of San Diego’s first five hitter form a complete sentence—CAMERON WILL CHASE JESUS YONDER— I can’t think of a single thing that excites me about the Padres. Cory Luebke looked very good in limited time late last season and Yonder Alonso will finally get extended playing time after being blocked by MVP Joey Votto in Cincinnati for so long.

PLAYOFFS
AL East: Yankees
AL Central: Tigers
AL West: Rangers
AL Wild Card 1: Rays
AL Wild Card 2: Angels

NL East: Phillies
NL Central: Reds
NL West: Giants
NL Wild Card 1: Cardinals
NL Wild Card 2: Nationals

The Justin Verlander Award Discussion

Justin Verlander failed to win his 25th game of the season the other day, but regardless of that he’s had a superb season. He has gone 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and a 250/57 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 251 innings and has MLB award voters touting him as a runaway Cy Young winner and a possible MVP winner.

Justin Verlander 24-5, 2.40

But delving deeper into his season might show otherwise. Undoubtedly, traditional stats like wins, ERA and strikeouts confirm that Verlander is the clear Cy Young winner. He will win the pitching triple crown this season by leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA. While not as rare as the hitting triple crown (average, HRs and RBIs) the last dozen pitchers that have won the triple crown have also won the Cy Young award.

However, more extensive statistics show that Verlander might not be the clear-cut best pitcher in the American League. His WAR of 7.0 is tied with CC Sabathia for the best in the American League, but of qualified starters, Justin Verlander ranks just fourth in FIP and second in xFIP. FIP stands for Fielding Independent Pitching and eliminates things that pitchers have no control over, such as defense. His FIP is actually the highest it has been since 2008, while his ERA this year is a career-low.

CC Sabathia has a lower FIP and xFIP than Verlander, and the 0.60 edge Verlander has in ERA is due entirely to Sabathia’s unusually high BABIP (batting average of balls in play) of .318 this season. Verlander’s 2.40 ERA is due mostly to an abnormally low BABIP and an abnormally high LOB% (left on base percentage). Both of these statistics are based mainly on “luck” and if these numbers were more in line with Verlander’s career numbers his season may have a different look. His career BABIP is .285 which is a very normal number, but in 2011 it is .238—much lower than the league average.

Another aspect of Verlander’s season that must be taken into account is the competition he has faced. Pitching in the American League Central division, Verlander will have made 10 starts against teams with a winning record this season, and just three such starts since July. CC Sabathia on the other hand has made 19 starts against winning teams, 11 since June.

Traditional statistics point to Justin Verlander as a clear-cut Cy Young favorite, but advanced metrics show that CC Sabathia has been the American League’s best pitcher in 2011. Cases can be made for either man to win the award, and I wouldn’t be all that upset if either pitcher received the award.

But, I can see no case whatsoever where anyone can make a case that Justin Verlander is the Most Valuable Player.

First of all, anyone that says the Tigers would have missed the playoffs without Verlander is insane. Detroit will end up winning the division by at least 14 games, probably more. The Tigers also outscored every team in their division by anywhere from 40 to 160 runs. Hitters like Miguel Cabrera have a much better case for MVP than Verlander. Cabrera is somewhat overlooked because he is this good every season. Verlander is having a career year, but Cabrera has a career year every year. The Tigers would have made the playoffs if I replaced him in the starting rotation.

Secondly, pitchers have had much better seasons than Verlander is having this year. If Pedro Martinez didn’t win the MVP for his 1999 season, Verlander shouldn’t finish top 10. That season, Pedro struck out 63 more batters than Verlander did this year, despite facing 134 less batters. Never mind Pedro did it in the midst of the Steroid Age and Verlander’s doing his thing in an offensive decline.

Every day skill players like Jose Bautista, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson and Miguel Cabrera are more valuable to their team than Justin Verlander. I believe that in baseball, the best player is the most valuable player. During a short playoff series, one starting pitcher can most definitely be the most valuable player, but over the course of a 162 game season, an everyday player provides a team the most value.

Justin Verlander is having an incredible season, but it is far from the historically good year that would force me admit that he is as a runaway Cy Young winner or a serious MVP candidate.

Yankees Acquire Curtis Granderson

In a three team trade this afternoon, the defending champions traded CF Austin Jackson, SP Ian Kennedy and RP Phil Coke for centerfielder Curtis Granderson.

This trade basically came down to did the Yankees feel that Austin Jackson would eventually be as good as Curtis Granderson is now? Since they made the trade, I assume they believe that Jackson will not reach that level.

While losing Ian Kennedy and Phil Coke will be sad, they are completely expendable trade pieces to a team like the Yankees. Phil Coke is a decent left-handed relief option, but will probably be remembered first for allowing two home runs in one World Series inning. Coke proved to be very home run prone in the major leagues, which is a trait that nearly always spells trouble for a pitcher. Losing him is of no import as the Yankees have several arms that can step in and do just as good a job as Phil Coke, beginning with Mike Dunn and Zach Kroenke.

Ian Kennedy was starting pitching depth and not much more. He used to be a highly-rated prospect for the Yankees, but has had performance and injury problems. He has four pitches and decent command, but doesn’t project to be a huge asset in the AL East. In the NL West though, he’ll be a serviceable back-of-the-rotation arm for the Diamondbacks. The Yankees have some starting pitching depth and can choose to replace Kennedy with a similar player when they choose first in the Rule 5 draft later this week.

So Austin Jackson is the only player dealt by the Yankees in this deal that they foresaw playing a large role for them moving forward. While he was the second-best position player in the Yankees system behind catcher Jesus Montero, Jackson has never projected to be a superstar player, but rather a solid contributing regular.

Granderson has poor platoon splits against lefties, but I’ll gamble on him if all I have to give up is an Austin Jackson and a couple of spare parts. This is a trade where the Yankees are trading something that could be for something that is. Jackson has had modest success in the minor leagues. Granderson has had that same success, but at the major league level. Granderson is a fine centerfielder and I’ll trust my hitting coach to work with Granderson on his lefty struggles.

As a Yankee fan, I’m all for this trade. The chances that Austin Jackson develops into the player that Curtis Granderson is are moderate at best. The same can be said for the chances of Phil Coke and Ian Kennedy playing major roles for the Yankees in the next few years. Brian Cashman’s approach for the bullpen in the past few years has been to collect a ton of options and find the most successful ones. If he feels that he’s got better arms than Phil Coke, then I agree.

Granderson is under contract for reasonable money until 2013, not that money is ever really an issue for the Yankees. From all reports he’s a great personality that will fit in well with the attitude and persona that the Yankees have started to build the past few years. His drop in production in 2009 is similar to Nick Swisher’s drop in 2008 – a lower BABIP and a higher fly ball rate. A simple market correction in his BABIP will help his numbers bounce back and moving from a pitcher friendly park to one that seems to play well for left-handed batters will undoubtedly help Granderson.

Obtaining Granderson is probably only the beginning of the Yankees offseason moves. They still have some issues in their starting rotation, and will probably start to address that with Andy Pettitte here in the next few weeks and then maybe add another veteran arm – Ben Sheets, Joel Piniero or someone similar. They still have to make a decision regarding Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, but those are less pressing needs now with Granderson on board.

This trade makes the Yankees significantly better moving forward, and shouldn’t that be the most important factor when making a trade?

MLB Trade Deadline

Some people may say that the 2009 trade deadline was relatively calm in comparison to past years, but I disagree. It’s not every year that the defending World Series champs trade for a reigning Cy Young award winner, and that’s not the only Cy Young winner that changes teams.

Both the Tigers and the White Sox made big moves to take a run at the up-for-grabs AL Central. The Tigers picked up Jarrod Washburn from Seattle for a pair of prospects while Chicago shipped a package of minor-league talent off to San Diego for Jake Peavy (second times a charm, eh?)

The nosiest team at the deadline was Cleveland, who traded away nearly every major talent except for Grady Sizemore. Ryan Garko to San Francisco, Cliff Lee to Philadelphia and Victor Martinez to Boston. Let’s take a look at how some of the major moves affect the teams involved.

CLEVELAND INDIANS: A very disappointing season left them in the unenviable position of having to call it quits this year. They moved a lot of major pieces, and surprisingly didn’t get a whole lot of top talent in return. Cliff Lee brought back some nice pieces from Philadelphia, but the Phillies managed to hold onto their best pitching prospect and their best position prospect.

Single-A starter Jason Knapp is the headliner of the deal for Cleveland, a tall righty that has been called by some as a “Roy Halladay clone”. If he ends up with a Roy Halladay type career, then Cleveland wins this deal easily. More likely however, is that Knapp eventually becomes a back-end rotation guy. Triple-A right hander Carlos Carrasco, shortstop Jason Donald and catcher Lou Marson round out the deal, which also sent outfielder Ben Francisco to Philadelphia.

None of the last three have superstar potential, but all three could eventually become serviceable major leaguers. But all three are young and cost-controlled which is just what the Indians need as they rebuild a broken team.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES: Already the class of the NL East, they became the favorite in the entire league by beefing up their rotation with Lee, in addition to adding a solid reserve outfielder. With not much serious contention from within their own division, this is a move that addresses not only their August and September needs, but their October ones as well.

Lee gives the Phillies a one-two punch at the front of their rotation that matches up well against any other NL team. Offense has never been a problem for the homer-happy Phillies, and now they have a rotation to let that offense relax a little. The move allows the Phillies a chance at repeating as champions without mortgaging the future. They held on to their best prospects and improved their current standing.

Kyle Drabek and the freshly promoted Dominic Brown both remain in Philadelphia’s impressive farm system and they’ve added Cliff Lee to their major league roster. He’s not Roy Halladay, who they were in on for several weeks, but in the end, he’s still Cliff Lee and that’s pretty darn good.

BOSTON RED SOX: The Sox were certainly busy the past few weeks, starting by dealing for Pittsburgh’s Adam LaRoche (the Pirates seem to be the AAAA-affiliate for both the Red Sox and the Yankees the past two or three years). Only a few days after getting LaRoche, they decided he wasn’t what they were looking for and spun him off to Atlanta for Casey Kotchman.

In between, they grabbed the best bat available in Victor Martinez. The Red Sox needed offensive help sure, but trading for Kotchman and Martinez doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Kotchman can only play first base and Martinez is a first baseman who can somewhat masquerade as a catcher. With David Ortiz, Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis on the roster, there’s going to be a crunch in everybody’s at bats.

Unless the Red Sox plan on drastically cutting Jason Varitek’s time, who, while slipping offensively is still an above-average defensive catcher, Mike Lowell will probably see the most bench time. While the additions of Kotchman and Martinez allows Francona flexibility in allowing his players to rest, is it smart?

While it’s hard to quantify a catcher’s defensive contributions, statisticians and scouts continuously rate Victor Martinez as well below average defensively. Is the upgrade his bat provides worth whatever they’ll lose on the other side of the ball. Every Boston fan tells me how great Jason Varitek is calling games and guiding pitchers through no-hitter after no-hitter.

And is Martinez really the answer to Boston’s offensive woes? He’s hitting reasonably well for the season, but most of his numbers are due to a torrid start. He’s batting .211 since the calendar hit June and only .175 in July. He has a decent track record but he’s also a catcher on the wrong side of 30 and they don’t age particularly gracefully.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX: General Manager Kenny Williams traded for Peavy several months ago only to have Jake Peavy nix the deal. But persistent devil that he is, he tried again this week and Peavy approved. They gave up pretty much the same package they initially offered, headlined by Aaron Poreda and Clayton Richard.

With Peavy, the White Sox suddenly have a deep and dangerous rotation but they also have the financial obligation of Peavy’s contract. While it seemed like a bargain a few years ago, in the current economic climate it’s a lot for any team not the Red Sox and Yankees to take on.

But the thing is, Jake Peavy’s hurt. He’s currently rehabbing an ankle problem and it’s the type of injury that could become a recurring problem. Peavy’s a Cy Young caliber pitcher when healthy, but he’s had problems staying that way. The White Sox may have shipped off a boatload of young talent for a chronically injured star.

DETROIT TIGERS: The emergence of Edwin Jackson (epic trade fail by Tampa Bay, btw) in addition to Justin Verlander rediscovering his ace stuff gave the Tigers a pretty devastating 1-2 rotation punch. But after them the rotation was a little patchwork.

Trading for Jarrod Washburn was a smart move. Sure he’s having a career year, getting a little lucky and had Seattle’s insanely good outfield defense backing up his flyball tendencies, but he’s a solid buy for Detroit. He’s moving to a similar situation in Detroit (spacious outfield, decent outfield defense) and gives the Detroit the legitimate third starter they can run out in the playoffs.

Luke French, a decent but not blue-chip prospect went the other way in the deal, along with a relief prospect. About the best the Mariners could expect for a two month rental of Washburn.

SAN DIEGO PADRES: Jake Peavy was a San Diego icon, but his contract was holding the organization back from any real improvement. Getting low-cost prospects back from Chicago was just a bonus to getting out from under the albatross of a contract.

The Padres still won’t be any good for awhile, but at least now they have a little more financial flexibility to construct a team, and not just stick a group of players around one guy.