Sunday, March 25, 2012

AL East Report Card

Time to switch over to the other half of baseball. You know, the older, slower, hit-the-ball-over-the-fence-or-bust half. Known as the American League, my grades will start from the east coast and move to the Pacific once again. That means I get to start with the AL East which, even if you hate the whole Yankees-Sox thing, is a very entertaining division. Lots of marquee players, lots of former marquee players and even some up-and-comers. Here we go!

Baltimore Orioles
Lineup: B-
Rotation: D
Bullpen: C
Notes: The lineup isn’t all that bad. JJ Hardy is a slugger, Markakis is a balanced hitter, Adam Jones is a terrific athlete who has continuously improved and Matt Wieters is really coming around. The rest of the hitters are functional and the O’s will definitely score some runs. The wheels will fall off on the mound, however. Japanese lefty Wei-Yin Chen is the “ace,” while Jason Hammel, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Tsuyoshi Wada round things out. Matusz and Arrieta are former top prospects that haven’t panned out. Jim Johnson takes over as the closer. Lindstrom, Gregg and Luis Ayala are all functional, but not outstanding by any means.

Boston Red Sox
Lineup: A
Rotation: B+
Bullpen: C+
Notes: The lineup is as potent as any. Ellsbury is coming off a career year, Pedroia is incredible, Adrian Gonzalez is a stud, Youkillis is aging but still very good. The same could be said for Big Papi, resulting in a solid group of hitters that can carry the team. Lester, Beckett and Buchholz can be fantastic, but they have to stay healthy. This has been the Sox’ achilles heel in recent history. Daniel Bard is transitioning from the setup role to the rotation, which is a smart move on Boston’s part. Andrew Bailey is the new closer and he needs to prove he can make it through an entire season. Mark Melancon, Alfredo Aceves , Michael Bowden and Franklin Morales make up the rest of the pen.

New York Yankees
Lineup: A-
Rotation: A-
Bullpen: B-
Notes: Obviously, the offense mashes. I’m skeptical, however, of some players’ ability to stay healthy. Jeter, A-Rod, Swisher and Ibanez need to prove they can stay healthy in order to help Granderson, Cano and Teixeia. Sabathia anchors the rotation once again. Recent additions Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda will be critical pieces of the puzzle as the team’s success hinges on their transition to the Big Apple. Mariano Rivera is back once more, while David Robinson is a stud, too. The rest of the bullpen is pretty good, with Soriano looking to rebound and a functional lefty in Boone Logan.

Tampa Bay Rays
Lineup: B+
Rotation: A-
Bullpen: B-
Notes: The Rays will score a lot of runs, just like their counterparts in Boston and New York. Jennings and Upton will bat 1-2. Longoria is one of the best in the game at any position. Pena returns and Zobrist is one of the most valuable players in baseball, in my opinion. Shields, Price, Hellickson, Moore and Niemann are a very strong, deep rotation. They’re just as good as the Yankees and potentially a tad better. The bullpen is a little shallow, but not too bad. Veteran Kyle Farnsworth will get the save opportunities while Peralta and McGee will set him up. Fernando Rodney, Wade Davis and JP Howell are all veterans that can get quality outs.

Toronto Blue Jays
Lineup: B
Rotation: B-
Bullpen: B-
Notes: Another offensive team, the Jays are clearly led by Jose Bautista. While he’s simply incredible, Escobar, Lind, Rasmus and Lawrie will need to be solid if the Toronto is to say around in this race. Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow give the team a nice 1-2 punch. Behind them, the Jays are solid but not outstanding. Cecil, Alvarez and McGowan are all capable starters but are unfortunately going to face the Sox and Yankees often. This will result in them being simply overmatched more often than not. Sergio Santos, was acquired from Chicago, is a strikeout machine but needs to cut down on the walks. Francisco Cordero was a free agent signing and he’ll setup Santos. Veterans Casey Janssen, Darn Oliver and Jason Frasor will fill out the bullpen, one that looks pretty solid.

1. Tampa Bay Rays
2. Boston Red Sox
3. New York Yankees
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles

The balance of the Rays, mixed with their youthful ability to stay healthy and the wizardry of Joe Maddon will win this division. While all the hype is in Boston and New York, Tampa Bay is the most balanced group and they have the best manager in the big leagues. Now, don’t get me wrong, both Boston and New York are fully capable of winning this division, I’m just going with the Rays. The Red Sox need to get healthy, full bounce-back years from Youkillis, Pedroia, Buchholz, Beckett and Lester. I’m worried about Andrew Bailey’s ability to stay healthy for a full season as well, plus their bullpen isn’t all that impressive. New York will depend on Pineda and Kuroda’s ability to adjust from inconsequential games in Seattle and Los Angeles to the pressure-cooker that is New York and the AL East. The Yankees are old, too. Jeter is already dinged up (calf), A-Rod needs to stay healthy, Swisher is hurt and Ibanez’ bat is slowing down as he ages. Getting David Robertson (foot) back soon is important, too. Toronto is a quality club but they are stuck in an extremely tough division. The O’s are still trying to find their footing and won’t be a factor.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

NL West Report Card


One of my favorite divisions, the NL West has gone from embarrassingly terrible to highly competitive in just a few seasons. Now clearly a respectable division, it should be one of the most hotly contested in baseball. There are three teams that are solid that will all beat each other up all season long before one emerges victorious. Time to break this down.

Arizona Diamondbacks
Lineup: B
Rotation: B
Bullpen: B
Notes: A well-balanced squad, the DBacks have a great chance at getting back to the postseason in 2012. At the dish, they’re led by Justin Upton, Miguel Montero, Chris Young and Jason Kubel. Emerging players Paul Goldschmidt and Gerardo Parra will chip in as well. Ian Kennedy returns as the ace of a rotation that also contains Trevor Cahill, Daniel Hudson and Josh Collmenter. I fully expect Trevor Bauer to join the bunch at some point, too. Putz, Hernandez, Saito and Breslow anchor the bullpen, which is a respectable group that will be important to Arizona’s success. This team has it all, but isn't overwhelming in any particular area.

Colorado Rockies
Lineup: B+
Rotation: C
Bullpen: C
Notes: You know they can score runs, but run prevention will be a question mark. Tulo and CarGo are totally legit but they don’t have to do it all for the Rox. Cuddyer is a nice addition, Helton is still useful while Fowler and Scutaro will get on base enough to keep the offense clicking. Unfortunately, the rotation isn’t nearly as impressive. Guthrie, Chacin, Nicasio and Moscoso are all useful pitchers, but they are anything but dominant. Drew Pomeranz will make is anticipated full season debut but hasn’t been amazing this spring. The bullpen is reasonable but, yet again, is nothing to get excited about. Betancourt, Brothers and Belisle will have to carry an otherwise unimpressive staff.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Lineup: B-
Rotation: B-
Bullpen: B
Notes: Matt Kemp is a total beast, but he’s almost completely going it alone in LA. Ethier had better bounce back or Kemp will get pitched around a lot. Dee Gordon has big time speed at the top of the order but it’s yet to be seen if he can get on base with regularity. The rest of the lineup is simply uninspiring. Clayton Kershaw is every bit as good a pitcher as Kemp is a hitter, but similarly to Kemp, there isn’t much surrounding him. Billingsly, Lilly, Harrang and Capuano are all veterans that know how to pitch but lack the pure stuff to dominate. Youngsters Javy Guerra and Kenley Jansen are set to share the closing duties, while Matt Guerrier is a nice 7th inning guy to bridge the gap.

San Diego Padres
Lineup: D+
Rotation: C+
Bullpen: C
Notes: I fully expect the Padres to be anemic once again this season. Cameron Maybin, Chase Headley and rookie Yonder Alonso will have to attempt to carry the offense (“attempt” is the key word here). I think we all know how well that’s going to play out. Tim Stauffer, Clayton Richard and Edinson Volquez will have to stabilize the rotation, as Corey Luebke and Dustin Moseley round things out. It’s not the worst pitching staff, that’s for sure, but they don’t have enough dominance to keep the lackluster offense in the game. The bullpen will be functional with Houston Street and Luke Gregerson. Cashner and Thatcher offer upside, but they are a weak bunch overall.

San Francisco Giants
Lineup: B-
Rotation: A-
Bullpen: B+
Notes: If Pagan clicks, he and Cabrera could be a very nice pair of table-setters for the San Francisco offense. Another solid season from Pablo Sandoval is a must and getting Buster Posey back should only help. There’s unfortunately very little behind those four. Aubrey Huff is played out, Nate Schierholtz has never made the progress expected, Mike Fontenot is a poor hitter and Brandon Crawford is in the lineup for his glove, not his bat. The Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner trio rivals what the Phillies have on the mound. Vogelsong is a nice fourth starter and Barry Zito shouldn’t even be pitching any more. The bullpen is very good, especially if Brian Wilson can get back to form. He walked way too many batters last year. Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez are nearly as good as any bullpen in baseball.

1. Arizona Diamondbacks
2. San Francisco Giants
3. Colorado Rockies
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
5. San Diego Padres

This is a real toss-up. Both Arizona and San Francisco will be legit contenders while, if their pitching surprises, Colorado could make a run as well. I truly see this coming down to the wire between the DBacks and Giants. Arizona is more well-balanced while the Giants are all pitching and will struggle to score as they usually do. The difference may be the fact that Arizona is in a “win now” mode where they will be willing to make a deadline deal that could push them over the top. Colorado and Los Angeles will score, but they don’t have enough pitching to keep up with the top two teams. San Diego is rebuilding, as usual. Cameron Maybin has been a nice surprise and if the prospects pan out, they could be competitive, but not in playoff contention.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

NL Central Report Card

After looking at the NL East yesterday, it's time to move to the NL Central today. It's another division that will be hotly contended, although it is a top-heavy division.

Chicago Cubs
Lineup: C
Rotation: C+
Bullpen: C+
Notes: I fully expect the North Siders to struggle at the plate in 2012. Starlin Castro is a budding star, but there’s little else to get excited about. David DeJesus is not a leadoff man and Bryan LaHair is not a cleanup hitter (though they pretend to play them for Chicago). If those two facts alone don’t suggest how poor the Cubs are offensively, I don’t know what does. They’ll get what they can out of Marlon Byrd, Alfonso Soriano and Geovany Soto, but it will surely not be enough to compete on a serious level. Garza, Dempster and Maholom anchor a rotation that is respectable but not one I have high expectations of. Journeymen Randy Wells and Chris Volstad round out the pitching staff. Marmol, Samardzija and Wood are a compelling 1-2-3 out of the bullpen, but the rest of the staff is mediocre at best.

Cincinnati Reds
Lineup: B+
Rotation: C+
Bullpen: B+
Notes: The lineup will produce quality runs because of guys like Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce. They are a well-rounded bunch at the plate and they’ll hold their own throughout the season. If Zack Cozart transitions well and Drew Stubbs can get back to being more productive, they could be fantastic. Starting pitching is solid for the Reds, but not something that will carry the squad. Cueto is reliable, Latos is overrated while Arroyo, Leake and Bailey are predictable but mediocre. Madson and Marshall, plus Masset and Arredondo, make the bullpen reliable and capable. It's unclear as of now just how Aroldis Chapman will be used, as his transition to being a starter is far from complete. The Reds are solid throughout but spectacular nowhere.

Houston Astros
Lineup: D
Rotation: C+
Bullpen: D+
Notes: Perhaps the worst of the worst, the Astros will be terrible offensively in 2012. I apologize if that sounds pretentious, but it’s true. Jordan Schafer will get his chance to prove himself in the leadoff role, but Altuve, Martinez (JD), Bogusevic and Paredes are far from household names with proven track records. At least an aging, less mobile, less explosive, overpaid Carlos Lee is still around, right? The pitching will be decent and clearly the relative strength, given Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, JA Happ, Livan Hernandez and Jordan Lyles make up the rotation. Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon will anchor the bullpen, but the rest of the relief corps is underwhelming to say the least. Note: this is what rebuilding looks like.

Milwaukee Brewers
Lineup: B
Rotation: B+
Bullpen: B
Notes: Another balanced squad, Milwaukee looks to get back to their old ways after a tumultuous offseason. They saw Prince Fielder walk and Ryan Braun get suspended for 50 games for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, only to have him beat the case for the first time in MLB history. Weeks, Braun and Aramis Ramirez give them star power. Mat Gamel will need to live up to his once highly-touted prospect status in his attempt to replace Fielder at first, while Nyjer Morgan and Alex Gonzalez, plus Carlos Gomez, will play complimentary roles. Gallardo and Greinke are fantastic, while Wolf, Marcum and Narveson are all solid, capable, reliable starters. Axford and Rodriguez are fantastic relievers, but there’s little proven depth behind them.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Lineup: B-
Rotation: C-
Bullpen: B-
Notes: The Pirates have been a sexy pick to surprise people this upcoming season, but I’m not buying it. Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are the only two proven hitters. Presley, Tabata, Jones and Alvarez are promising but unproven. It’s hard to say just how they’ll produce and a lot of the Buccos’ success will depend on them. A rotation of James McDonald, Charlie Morton, Erik Bedard, Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens will hardly scare anyone. They aren’t terrible, but they’re definitely not outstanding. Hanrahan, Meek and Grilli are above average, but not by much. The rest of the bullpen is below average. The Pirates are still a ways away from being legit, in my opinion.

St. Louis Cardinals
Lineup: B
Rotation: B+
Bullpen: B
Notes: It’s yet to be seen just how the offense will react to losing Albert Pujols, but they’re still pretty potent with Holliday and Berkman anchoring things. Furcal and Beltran are legit, too, but need to stay healthy if the Cardinals want to get back to September success. David Freese needs to parlay his success in the World Series into a solid regular season. The rotation, led by Chris Carpenter, gains a stud in Adam Wainwright who returns from surgery. While Carpenter may miss the start of the season (minor injury), the rest of the rotation is solid. Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook are all steady contributors who are capable of shutting the opponent down from time to time. Motte is a capable closer who isn’t the most experienced, but has the moxy to work through the ninth. Rzepczynski, Salas and Eduardo Sanchez (not Kenny Powers’ father) round out the reliable bullpen.

Predicted Finish
1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Cincinnati Reds
3. Milwaukee Brewers
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Chicago Cubs
6. Houston Astros

This division is squarely up for grabs. The Cardinals, Reds and Brewers are all capable of taking the division by storm and winning it outright. I give the slight nod to St. Louis given their experience and I feel like they are the least risky option of the three. The Reds and Brewers will nip at their heels along the way and probably all take turns leading the division at one point or another. The Reds’ starting pitching could be problematic and Milwaukee will need to find consistency scoring runs. Make no mistake, this race could go a number of ways. I don’t see it falling in favor of the Pirates, Cubs or Astros, however. Pittsburgh has too many question marks and not enough quality starting pitching. The Cubs are going to struggle to score runs with any kind of consistency. The Astros will probably struggle in just about every aspect of the game. They may be the worst team in baseball in 2012.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

NL East Report Card

As the season draws closer to officially starting (in Japan, no less), where do the teams stand? I will be grading each team, division by division, in three categories: lineup, rotation and bullpen. After each grading session, I’ll predict the teams’ finish within their respective division. Let’s go!

National League

Let’s start with the senior circuit where things have thinned out a little. The shift of both Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols to the AL has decreased the league’s firepower to a degree. We’ll work our way from east to west, as does the sun.


Atlanta Braves
Lineup: B-
Rotation: B
Bullpen: A-
Notes: The lineup is strong when everyone’s healthy, but counting on anything more than 100-110 games from Chipper Jones is a losing proposition. Bourn is an explosive leadoff guy, but question marks such as Freddy Freeman, Jayson Heyward, whoever takes over at short (Pasternicky or Simmons) and Dan Uggla have me cautiously optimistic at best. The rotation is solid but not outstanding. Jair Jurrjens is incredibly overrated (that's why they can't trade him), Tommy Hanson is coming off of injury, Beachy is young but effective, Mike Minor is solid and the back end of Randall Delgado or Julio Teheran offers hope. The bullpen is about as good as it gets. Kimbrel and Venters are potentially the best 1-2 punch of any bullpen in baseball and Eric O’Flaherty is simply amazing. Arodys Vizcaino gives the Braves another young arm to work with. If there’s any weakness here at all, it’s a lack of overall experience.

Miami Marlins
Lineup: B+
Rotation: B
Bullpen: C
Notes: This team will score runs in bunches, rest assured. Reyes and Bonafacio at the top creates an incredibly fast pairing. Ramirez, Stanton and Morrison in the heart of the order, followed by an emergin Gaby Sanchez, make the Miami lineup one you don’t want to play around with. The question marks lie with Reyes’ ability to stay healthy and Ramirez’ return to prominence after a down year. If his spring is any indication, he’s in top form after moving to third base. Josh Johnson’s return is a welcome sign and the addition of Mark Buehrle should stabilize things. Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez are capable of doing very good things but must live up to the billing. Mark my words, Carlos Zambrano as a fifth starter will not pan out (Brad Hand, get ready). Although they added Heath Bell in the offseason, the bullpen is uninspiring. Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) is a capable set-up man, but Dunn, Webb, Choate and Mujica are not convincing.

New York Mets
Lineup: C-
Rotation: C+
Bullpen: C
Notes: If you aren’t preparing for a long season in Flushing, you should be. The lineup is impotent, David Wright is already hurt by an injury that could nag a long time (torn abdominal muscle) and there is little other firepower. Ike Davis, Jason Bay and Lucas Duda will need to do big things if this team wants to contend or simply remain competitive. Andres Torres is a boom or bust candidate in centerfield hitting in the leadoff spot. Johan Santana returns to the rotation and has been up and down this spring. RA Dickey is terrible but Jon Niese, Mike Pelfrey and Dillon Gee all have the ability to do good things, albeit inconsistently. The bullpen is a mashed up group of veterans that can be effective. They are lacking a strong matchup lefty, however.

Philadelphia Phillies
Lineup: B+
Rotation: A
Bullpen: B+
Notes: Another offensive powerhouse, the Phillies will look to do big damage in 2012. They’re a veteran bunch that is capable of putting up big numbers, but that has to come to fruition if they are going to win this division. Rollins, Polanco, Utley, Victorino and Howard (whose return isn’t set just yet, achilles injury) have to come through as they have in the past. Down years or significant injuries from these guys could put a damper on expectations very quickly. The rotation may be the best in baseball, given the 1-2-3 punch or Halladay, Lee and Hamels. Beyond them, Vance Worley can be solid while Joe Blanton is, well, Joe Blanton. Joel Pinero or Kyle Kendrick will replace him before it’s all said in done, in my estimation. The bullpen is in good hands with Papelbon, Bastardo and Qualls. Contreras and Stutes are also solid while unspectacular.

Washington Nationals
Lineup: B-
Rotation: B+
Bullpen: A-
Notes: The Nats are a feast or famine bunch at the plate. They feature several high-strikeout/low on-base types (Desmond, Espinosa, Morse, Werth, LaRoche) that can provide power but are inconsistent producers. They can score ten runs one day and none the next, making them hard to predict. A call up of Bryce Harper should be expected early on, probably pushing Jayson Werth to center and putting Roger Bernadina on the bench. Strasburg is back and looking sharp, while Gonzalez, Zimmerman, and Jackson are a solid bunch. John Lannan may be traded prior to the season, opening up the fifth spot to Ross Detwiler or Chien-Ming Wang. The bullpen features a fearsome foursome of Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Brad Lidge and Sean Burnett. This team will pitch well, but needs to score runs consistently in 2012 to meet expectations.

Predicted Finish
1. Philadelphia Phillies
2. Washington Nationals
3. Miami Marlins
4. Atlanta Braves
5. New York Mets

I like the Phillies, with their experience and pitching, to win the division, provided they stay relatively healthy. Teams 2-4 are a total crapshoot and you could actually make a case any of them to challenge the Phillies for the top spot. I like the Nationals because of their pitching and I think they can score enough to win a lot of games, especially if Jayson Werth bounces back and Zimmerman stays healthy. The Marlins will be on their heels all year and I expect them to capitalize on any mistakes made by Philadelphia or Washington. Their rotation is slightly weaker than the others, and I’m concerned about Jose Reyes’ ability to stay healthy and guide the offense. Josh Johnson’s health is another question mark, plus the bullpen is not all that good. Heath Bell is overrated, in my opinion, and will potentially struggle without Petco Park to pad his numbers. The Braves will be competitive and could surprise. They need Chipper to stay healthy, Heyward to bounce back, Freeman to continue to grow and full season of production from Uggla. They have good pitching, but can they score enough runs in a potent division? The Mets stink. That’s all I’ll say about that.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

How Freaky Should the Giants Get?

We all know Tim Lincecum is a total freak of nature, hence his nickname. The 5’11”, 163-pound righty has been dominant since his days at the University of Washington. With an unorthodox delivery that has consistently served him well, he was drafted in the first round of the 2006 draft, tenth overall, to the San Francisco Giants. He made a handful of starts that year in low-A, then high-A ball before the end of the minor league season. He skipped AA altogether and the Giants put him on the fast track by opening his 2007 season in AAA where he struck out over 13 batters per nine innings and had a microscopic ERA of 0.29. He was called up after only 62 career minor league innings and has been a true talent at the big league level ever since. In only five Major League seasons, he’s won two Cy-Young awards and been an All-Star four times, has a career 2.98 ERA, has toppled the 200-inning mark in each of his four full seasons, has a career record of 69-41 (which would be undoubtedly better if his offense would pick him up occasionally) and averages nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings.

What does this mean? He’s an ace in every sense of the word. So with Tim’s deal set to expire at the end of the 2013 season, the Giants would, unsurprisingly, like to lock him up to a contract more long-term. But how long term should the Giants and Lincecum be looking? Well, the Giants are apparently comfortable with something in the five-year neighborhood while Mr. Lincecum would like something that looks more like seven or eight years in length. Apparently, Tim and his representatives just rejected a 5-year, $100+ million deal. Should the club cave to Tim because of his effectiveness or are his demands unrealistic? There are arguments to be made for each party.

Lincecum will argue that the performance he’s mustered in his short career have been incredibly valuable to the organization. This is completely true. He’s anchored a staff that has had to be dominant just to keep the team contending due to their offensive limitations. In fact, without Tim’s fantastic 2010 postseason play, there’s no conceivable way the team would have won the World Series. He went 4-1 that postseason with a 2.43 ERA, kept his WHIP under 1.0 and struck out 10.5 batters per nine. At a time when having an ace to guide a team is most critical, Lincecum delivered. He projects as a first-ballot hall of famer, should he continue his success, stay free of disastrous injury and age gracefully. He’s routinely a top-five pitcher in the league and one of the best at his craft. Most of all, Giant fans love the guy and he puts people in the seats everywhere he pitches. His jersey sells and he’s the face of the franchise. All considered, Lincecum will make a solid, reasonable case for a 7-8 year deal.

San Francisco and Brian Sabean, on the other hand, probably aren’t too thrilled about a deal of this length. Long-term pitching contracts are often problematic. As anyone who studies baseballs knows, pitchers are a volatile bunch. They get hurt much more often than hitters and even a small drop in velocity, say as a pitcher ages, can be extremely detrimental. While it isn’t a perfect comparison, Barry Zito’s deal, signed in 2007, has been a complete and total bust. The Giants gave Zito a 7-year, $126 million deal, one which will do down as one of the worst contracts ever. Zito had won a Cy Young with Oakland and was a two-time All-Star before coming across the Bay Bridge. In his five seasons with the Giants, he’s 43-61 with a 4.55 ERA, meaning he’s barely even a legitimate fifth starter in a big league rotation. He had been 102-63 with Oakland, so the deal seemed legit, but hasn’t panned out. This has understandable made the Giants gun-shy of going down that road again. Of course, there are also deals to pitchers such as Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton, AJ Burnett, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and others to add to the “horrible contract heap,” meaning Zito isn’t simply an outlier. Then again, there are deals like CC Sabathia’s (8-years, $182 million) that appear to be panning out nicely. There isn’t, however, a bevy of 8-year pitching contracts that actually appear to be worth the money, making Sabathia nearly one-of-a-kind. Also, Sabathia (6’7”, 290lbs) and Lincecum (not even 6-foot) are different types of pitchers, which won’t help Tim and his agents if they try to use Sabathia’s contract as a comparison. The last factor on the Giants’ side is the fact that Lincecum’s velocity and strikeouts have been down over the last two seasons while his walks and hits allowed have been up slightly. This doesn’t mean he isn’t good anymore; rather, he just hasn’t been quite as elite.

So where does the middle lie? Often times, these deals work themselves out. The team offers a deal in one area and the player demands another. The answer often appears in the middle somewhere as both sides, if they truly want to stay together, will have to compromise. I absolutely do not see the Giants doing an 8-year deal, but they may have to commit more to Tim than five years if they wish to keep him. I’d argue for something in the 6-year, $128 million range, with a mutual option for a seventh year at about $23 million. This would keep The Freak in San Francisco through his early 30’s without locking the team into something they’ll regret for nearly a decade. A deal like this makes sense for everyone involved, including the fan base. While a deal before the season is unlikely, this needs to happen sooner rather than later to cement the Giants’ future success and keep their ace a happy camper.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Bounce Back or Continued Decline? David Wright Edition

Having long been one of my favorite players, David Wright is facing a year where much of his future career hangs in the balance. Like so many out there, fantasy sports were where my obsession with baseball really began. Just as I was getting competitive with my college friends about fantasy, David Wright was busting onto the scene in a big way. I couldn’t find a player who, to me, seemed a whole lot more exciting, as he hit .303, slugged 27 dingers and stole 17 bases for an electric but volatile Mets squad in 2005, his first full season. Man, that seems like so long ago after witnessing two straight seasons of decline.

Wright has a lot to prove as the only true remaining face of the franchise. GM Sandy Alderson recently asked the most important question: “Is he part of the future? I hope the answer is yes.” Well, hoping is one thing, but actually getting it done on the diamond is surely another. What will it take for Alderson to turn hoping into believing? Let’s look at David’s most recent shortcomings and identify where he can improve.

Strikeouts: perhaps the most alarming thing about Wright’s performance has been his dramatic increase in K’s. He maintained a respectable strikeout rate in his first four full seasons of about 16.5%. While that isn’t amazingly low, it’s reasonable given the pop coming off his bat. In the last three years, however, that rate has spiked to an average of about 23%, far higher than his previous work. These contact rates are hurting Wright big time.

Walks: David’s patience at the plate has waned somewhat. While the drop off isn’t nearly as staggering as his strikeout numbers, we’ve seen a steady decrease in his walk rates. He is walking 2-3% less frequently these days than he did at his peak production. This has led to a decreased on-base percentage and, when coupled with his strikeout problems, shows that he’s been pressing and not staying back, waiting for his pitch and driving it. A more patient approach can only help him.

Power: another huge surprise with Wright has been his inexplicable drop in power output. In both 2009 and 2011, David had very disappointing homerun totals. The new Citi Field doesn’t help, but it has been more than just park factors slowing him down. His line-drive percentage has dropped about 8% from its peak (26% in 2009 to 18% in 2011). He’s hitting more grounders and, given his average running speed, that isn’t helping him at all. Wright has to get back to squaring up the ball and driving it more consistently. A look at his spray chart from 2011 shows he’s still hitting to all fields, but he’s rolling over too much and grounding out to the left side of the infield too often.

Fielding: while UZR is far from a perfect science, Wright’s fielding grades have plummeted. A simple eye test proves that he’s regressed from a slightly above-average fielder to a below-average fielder in the past few seasons. This is having a very negative effect on his overall value to his team. With Rueben Tejada likely taking over at shortstop for Jose Reyes (Miami), David will have to do a better job with the glove to solidify the left side of the Mets’ infield. As an offense that will scuffle at times, run-prevention will be critical to their success.

Health/Durability: while he was incredibly durable during his first five seasons, David needs to prove he can stay on the field. Injuries have had a negative effect on his offensive production, but they appear to be slowing him down in the field and on the basepaths as well. This means one of two things. Either Wright has been significantly hampered by injuries but will be fine once he heals, or he isn’t aging as well as initially expected. This year will have a lot to say about how to answer this question.

“Let’s see how he bounces back this season.” Alderson is wondering and hoping just like the rest of us. How David Wright bounces back this season means a lot to the Mets and also the rest of his career.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Should the DBacks Ditch Young?

When the Diamondbacks acquired Jason Kubel this offseason, the conventional wisdom concluded that Gerardo Parra was about to find his way out of Arizona. Well, that isn’t the case as the DBacks just locked up Parra for this season and have made clear that he isn’t leaving. This is a good decision on the part of Towers & Co. The outfield is still crowded, however, so someone should go. That someone just might be all-star Chris Young.

Young has made progress since becoming a full time starter in 2007. His strikeouts have slightly fallen while his walks have increased, leading to an OBP that has been trending upward since he was called up. In 2007, his OBP was .295 while his average over the last two years has been significantly better at .336. He’s still far from an on-base machine, but this shows his maturity at the plate. He’s a legit 30-30 guy and came close in 2010 when he went for 27 and 28. He’s a good fielder, too, posting above-average grades in centerfield. Last but not least, he’s signed through 2013 on a relatively team-friendly deal. So why should the Diamondbacks trade him? Gerardo Parra is too good to play off the bench, that’s why.

Parra is coming off his finest season as a pro and is starting to live up to his billing as a prospect. He won his first Gold Glove last year, albeit in LF, but he’s a fantastic defensive outfielder no matter where you stick him. He doesn’t quite have the pop that Young has but he hits for a higher average and has already showed significant maturity at the plate. His OBP last year was .357 in his age 24 season, showing that he has great strikezone judgment for such a young player. His on-base skills will be more valuable to the Diamondbacks from the leadoff spot than Young’s slugging. Arizona doesn’t need another slugger with a low average and relatively high strikeouts, they need a sparkplug for the offense and they already have one in the organization. To cap it off, Parra is about 6.5 million dollars cheaper this year and at least 7 million dollars cheaper in 2013. They could save $13+ million, net a decent prospect or two in return for a trade and probably improve their offense while also finding a place to play for their Gold Glove fielder. What’s not to like about that?

Simply put, Gerardo Parra is way too good to bring off the bench as a 4th outfielder. That’s a spot that can easily be given to a cheap journeyman or an up-and-comer. Parra’s performance has made Young expendable, which is a good thing for Arizona. The Nationals and others are in the market for centerfielders and if the DBacks aren’t currently shopping Young, they should be.

Critical National: Ian Desmond

While watching MLB Network the other day, I couldn’t help but notice something that caught both my ear and my eyes. No, it wasn’t Strausburg or Harper, not the recently extended Zimmerman or the “furry” Jayson Werth. It was Ian Desmond, the starting shortstop who is about to embark on his third full season as an MLB starter. He will be the leadoff man for the Nats once again and if they are to improve and truly challenge for the NL East title as is being discussed in preseason circles, Desmond has a lot of work to do.

After watching him hack at the first pitch in each of his three at-bats, I came to a startling conclusion: Ian Desmond is not a patient hitter. Now, before you declare that you already knew this, let’s make sure I’m right. A quick look at some stats tells us that Desmond is truly impatient. First of all, he only averages about 3.5 pitches per plate appearance. While 3.5 isn't considered "terrible," that isn’t exactly considered “working the count” either. In 1302 major league at-bats, he’s walked a total of 68 times. Yeah, that’s not a typo. He barely walks 5% of the time as a leadoff hitter. Despite being a high-contact guy, he doesn’t hit for much average because of his relatively low line-drive percentage. Couple this with his aversion to walks and you have a full time leadoff man whose on-base percentage dipped below .300 last year. That’s not productive in the least.

While Desmond’s (overly) aggressive approach caught my eye, the announcers caught my ear. They were stating that Ian’s “not your typical leadoff guy,” or he’s “not your traditional number one hitter,” and the like. This was simply a really nice, glass half-full, Nationals-slanted way of saying that he’s not currently very good. This isn’t a simple case of a player being unlucky either, as is noted when gauging his BABIP. He just isn’t very efficient at the plate. While the Nats don’t have a lot of other options, giving a player like Desmond the most at-bats on the team does not look like a sure plan to take them to the next level. Perhaps this is why Washington is so aggressively shopping for a centerfielder, or maybe they just aren’t happy with the group of underachievers they currently have there. Either way, they need more productivity out of the leadoff spot and Desmond currently mans that position.

For Washington to take the next leap to being a true contender, Ian Desmond is going to have to pick it up. A lot.

Monday, March 5, 2012

AL West: the season that will be

Moving forward, into 2012, there still two teams sitting atop the division with the other squads looking up. There have definitely been some changes in the division, however, and here’s how I see it shaking out:

1. Los Angeles
2. Texas
3. Oakland
4. Seattle

Seattle will bring up the rear once again in 2012. It will also be yet another season of trying new things and seeing just what works and what doesn’t. The lineup has already been shaken up, with Eric Wedge’s decision to bat Chone Figgins in the leadoff spot and have Ichiro bat third. This will likely fail for a number of reasons, but at least the M’s aren’t standing pat. Mike Carp in LF is a question mark, especially defensively. Justin Smoak needs to improve in a very big way and Ackley will be trying to improve on his rookie season. Recent acquisition Jesus Montero will be a big piece of the puzzle as well, and his development behind the plate will be something to watch out for. Expected CF Franklin Gutierrez tore a pectoral muscle and will be out for the first few weeks of the season. Replacements could be Trayvon Robinson, Michael Saunders or Casper Wells. Here’s their projected lineup:

1. Chone Figgins (3B)
2. Dusting Ackley (2B)
3. Ichiro Suzuki (RF)
4. Mike Carp (LF)
5. Jesus Montero (DH)
6. Justin Smoak (1B)
7. Miguel Olivo (C)
8. Casper Wells (CF)
9. Brendan Ryan (SS)

On the mound, Felix will be Felix, but beyond that is anyone’s guess. Jason Vargas is a serviceable starter and a nice contrast from Hernandez, but the likes of Kevin Millwood, Hisashi Iwakuma (signed from Japan) and Hector Noesi (acquire in the Pineda/Montero swap) are anything but sure bets. How much does Millwood have left in the tank? Will Iwakuma be able to transition to American baseball and culture successfully? Is Noesi ready to be a full time starter? There are clearly more questions than answers here. The bullpen is a patchwork bunch where Brandon League will be the closer once again. His strikeout numbers dropped in 2011 and you can bet he’ll be trying to get back to being a little more dominant. Tom Wilhelmsen and Shawn Kelley, both journeyman guys, will some combination of the 7th/8th inning opportunities. George Sherrill is a veteran lefty who was added at low cost after seeing his effectiveness decline in recent seasons. Here’s how the rotation and bullpen should shake out initially, but expect some serious fluctuation as the season progresses:

1. Felix Hernandez (RHP)
2. Jason Vargas (LHP)
3. Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP)
4. Kevin Millwood (RHP)
5. Hector Noesi (RHP)

CL Brandon League (RHP)
SU Tom Wilhelmsen (RHP)
SU Shawn Kelley (RHP)
MR George Sherrill (LHP)
MR Chance Ruffin (RHP)
MR Hong-Chih Kuo (LHP)
LR Shawn Camp (RHP) or Charlie Furbush (LHP) or Blake Beavan (RHP)

This is a relatively uninspiring bunch, in the lineup, bullpen and the rotation. The real surprises will come whenever the M’s begin calling up prospects, such as James Paxton and Danny Hultzen. Until then, Seattle fans will have to just grin and bear it.

On the East Side of the Bay, the A’s have shaken things up. They let Josh Willingham, the only player from last year to hit more than 15 homeruns last season, escape via free agency. Most of us were wondering just what they’d do to replace that power and, for most of the offseason, it seemed they’d do nothing at all. Then, out of nowhere, they signed Cuban superstar Yoenis Cespedes to patrol CF, and then took a cheap flier on Manny Ramirez to play DH (after sitting out the first 50 games of the season for suspension). It’s hard to say how much better this makes them, but it certainly can’t have hurt things at all. Jemile Weeks and Coco Crisp will continue to supply speed at the top of the lineup. Josh Reddick and Seth Smith will hit in the middle of the order, with Cespedes likely batting a little further down to get comfortable with American pitching. Scott Sizemore was going to be the Opening Day 3B after he had a nice 2011, but a torn ACL ended that. Replacement candidates are unclear at this time. They won’t score a ton of runs, but once again it will be a team effort in Oakland to put runs on the board. Here’s the projected lineup:

1. Jemile Weeks (2B)
2. Coco Crisp (LF)
3. Josh Reddick (RF)
4. Seth Smith (DH)
5. Deric Barton (1B)
6. Yoenis Cespedes (CF)
7. Kurt Suzuki (C)
8. Josh Donaldson (3B)
9. Cliff Pennington (SS)

The lineup isn’t very imposing and, unfortunately, neither is the rotation. The only returner is Brandon McCarthy, who really impressed last year. He’s expected to be the ace and Opening Day starter. After McCarthy, free agent signee Bartolo Colon will take his turn. He was serviceable for the Yankees last year and is your typical Billy Beane pickup. A trio of young prospects will make up the rest of the rotation. Brad Peacock and Tom Millone, both acquired from the Nationals in exchange for Gio Gonzalez, will get a lot of starts. The fifth starter is projected to be touted Jarrod Parker, the key piece in the Cahill-to-the-Diamondbacks trade. Dallas Braden may not be ready to start the season after recovering from shoulder surgery and Brett Anderson should miss most, if not all of the season recovering from Tommy John. Brian Fuentes will remain the closer with Grant Balfour setting him up. Look out for emerging star Fautino De Los Santos. He’s young and has great stuff. Journeyman like Joey Devine and Jerry Blevins will pitch in as well. The rotation and bullpen should look something like this:

1. Brandon McCarthy (RHP)
2. Bartolo Colon (RHP)
3. Brad Peacock (RHP)
4. Tom Millone (LHP)
5. Jarrod Parker (RHP)

CL Brian Fuentes (LHP)
SU Grant Balfour (RHP)
SU Fautino De Los Santos (RHP)
MR Joey Devine (RHP)
MR Ryan Cook (RHP)
MR Jerry Blevins (LHP)
LR Graham Godfrey (RHP) or Tyson Ross (RHP)

The Texas Rangers will be a powerhouse yet again. They look like legitimate contenders for a date with the postseason, and for good reason. Their truest strength lies at the plate, where the Rangers simply mash. Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, Mike Napoli, Michael Young and Nelson Cruz help create a lineup that you do not want to mess with. I fully expect Ian Kinsler to lead off once again, followed by an emerging Elvis Andrus. Kinsler is a functional 2B in the field and an excellent hitter with great power for the position. Hamilton and Beltre make a nasty middle of the lineup tandem for opposing pitchers. Mike Napoli will try to reproduce the magical 2011 he had and it doesn’t get any easier when Michael Young comes to the plate. This is possibly the most powerful lineup in the big leagues. David Murphy and Mitch Moreland round things out. I’m a little confused with where to put Young, but the lineup should look similar to this:

1. Ian Kinsler 2B
2. Elvis Andrus SS
3. Josh Hamilton CF
4. Adrian Beltre 3B
5. Michael Young DH
6. Mike Napoli C
7. Nelson Cruz RF
8. Mitch Moreland 1B
9. David Murphy LF

On the mound, the team is a little less imposing. Ace CJ Wilson did not re-sign with the team this offseason, so the Ranger had to look elsewhere for rotation help. Lucky for them, they won the bidding for Japanese sensation Yu Darvish. While he’s yet to throw a major league pitch yet, projections for Darvish are quite impressive and he was massively successful in Japan. The other pieces of the rotation consist of homegrown talent such as Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland. Perhaps a major question mark for Texas exists with closer-turned-starter Neftali Feliz. While being one of baseball’s better closers in the last few seasons, he’s attempting to transition to the rotation for the Rangers. How successful that transition goes will determine a lot for the Texas. In the bullpen, replacing Feliz, is veteran reliever Joe Nathan. He’s set up by one of the best in Mike Adams. Koji Uehara and Alexi Ogando will also play pivotal roles. Here are my projected rotation and bullpen for the Rangers:

1. Colby Lewis (RHP)
2. Derek Holland (LHP)
3. Yu Darvish (RHP)
4. Matt Harrison (LHP)
5. Neftali Feliz (RHP)

CL Joe Nathan (RHP)
SU Mike Adams (RHP)
SU Alexi Ogando (RHP)
MR Koji Uehara (RHP)
MR Mark Lowe (RHP)
MR Yoshinori Tateyama (RHP)
LR Scott Feldman

Once again, the Rangers will score a ton of runs and hope to hold their opponents to a reasonably small total. Don’t expect them to shut other teams out very often, but with an offense like theirs, they should be all right.

The new head of the division should be the Los Angeles Angels of Aneheim. They made the biggest of big splashes by signing Albert Pujols this offseason, then stole from their rivals, the Rangers, by getting ahold of CJ Wilson in free agency. At the plate, the Angels disappointed in 2011. They’ll likely be better in 2012 (adding Pujols will do that for you) but won’t be as strong as the Rangers. Erick Aybar had a good 2011 and will try to keep it up after signing an extension in the offseason. Aging on-base machine Bobby Abreu will try to rebound, as will Torii Hunter. Howie Kendrick had a fantastic season and also got himself extended this winter. Vernon Wells has been a huge disappointment, which I can’t say is surprising, ever since he came to LA from Toronto in a surprising move last year. A trade with Colorado netted the Angels Chris Ianetta, a good pickup, and emerging outfielder Peter Bourjos is expected to continue to grow in centerfield. Here’s the projected lineup:

1. Erick Aybar SS
2. Bobby Abreau DH
3. Albert Pujols 1B
4. Torii Hunter RF
5. Howie Kendrick 2B
6. Alberto Callaspo 3B
7. Vernon Wells LF
8. Chris Iannetta C
9. Peter Bourjos CF

The rotation should be fantastic and it’s where the true strength of the Angels resides. Jered Weaver will be the Opening Day starter, but there are two others that are capable of pitching at the same level. Dan Haren is an underrated stud on the mound, perhaps statistically better than Weaver even. The newly-acquired Wilson will take the ball third after a career year in 2011. Ervin Santana is a terrific choice for a fourth starter and journeyman Jerome Williams rounds things out. Jordan Walden will attempt to improve on a successful rookie year as the team’s closer. Veteran relievers Scott Downs and LaTroy Hawkins will set up Walden, and the Angel’s bullpen will continue to benefit from their presence. A nice, low-cost pickup was the signing of Jason Isringhausen. Just how much he has left in the tank is questionable, but he’s another potential veteran that can stabilize the ‘pen. Things should look like this:

1. Jered Weaver RHP
2. Dan Haren RHP
3. CJ Wilson LHP
4. Ervin Santan RHP
5. Jerome Williams RHP

CL Jordan Walden (RHP)
SU Scott Downs (LHP)
SU LaTroy Hawkins (RHP)
MR Hisanori Takahashi (LHP)
MR Jason Isringhausen (RHP)
MR Rich Thompson (RHP)
LR Bobby Cassevah (RHP)

I fully expect the Angels and Rangers to battle for the division all year long, but I give the slightest of edges to the Angels, based upon their pitching. I feel they are a more balance ball club overall. They will both make Seattle and Oakland miserable.