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March 31, 2011

Prospectus Perspective

Five Bold Predictions for the 2011 Season

by Kevin Goldstein, Steven Goldman, Ben Lindbergh, R.J. Anderson and Jay Jaffe

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Jesus Montero Will Hit Well In The Big Leagues…
…He just won't be doing it for the Yankees. The Yankees can talk all they want about how much Montero has improved defensively, but if he could really catch in the big leagues, he'd be doing it in New York instead of what's left of Russell Martin. The fact is, he's just not very good back there, and his only other options are first base, where Mark Teixeira is signed through the end of the world, and designated hitter, a position which (a) presently belongs to Jorge Posada and (b) one teams hate assigning to young players. The Yankees have holes, especially in the rotation, and when the big names become available, Montero will be the best prospect trading chip in the game. New York will put that chip on the table.—Kevin Goldstein

The Twins, the Little Team That Could, Can’t
Minnesota has made the playoffs in six of the last ten seasons despite traditionally low payrolls and a predilection for gloves over bats and pitch-to-contact soft-tossers over strikeout pitchers, so it is easy to assume that we can just pencil them for 85 to 90 wins regardless of the quality of the team.  This year, though, they have packed the club with a few too many mediocrities, while two of their key players, first baseman Justin Morneau and closer Joe Nathan, are question marks due to the serious injuries they suffered last year; both were miserable in spring training. Add in questionable offense from the rest of the infield, light production from the outfield corners on both sides of the ball, and a rotation that, aside from Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker, will depend on the ball taking just the right bounces, and you have a recipe for failure. PECOTA sees the Twins going 82-80, which if true might almost be enough to make things interesting in the AL Central. Yet, it doesn’t take too much in the way of bad hops or Jason Kubel-style hitting to turn an 82-80 into an 80-82 and a Target Field that stands empty in October.  —Steven Goldman

Despite Stacking the Staff with a Deck's Worth of Aces, the Phillies Will Head Home Early
Judging by the fanfare surrounding their formidable four-ace rotation, the Phillies could have started printing World Series tickets with little risk of wasting paper shortly after re-acquiring Cliff Lee last December. However, while their roster retains much of the talent that has ushered them into two of the last three fall classics, a deeper look reveals chinks in the armor that could leave them open to an upset by some of the NL's up-and-coming teams.

Despite pursuing the majors' most effective get-young-quick scheme by shedding Jamie Moyer over the winter, the Phillies are poised to repeat as the senior circuit's oldest club. With age comes both declining performance and increasing susceptibility to injury, and the team has already exhibited signs of the latter this spring. The departure of Jayson Werth left the graying Phillies' lineup depleted, and Chase Utley's ongoing battle with patellar tendinitis supplies further cause for concern about the team's clout, since the drop-off from the star second baseman to the likes of Wilson Valdez is steep. Domonic Brown, the organization's lone little-doubt prospect, saw his regular-season debut delayed by a fractured hamate bone, and incumbent closer Brad Lidge will miss at least a month with a rotator cuff strain. None of the Phillies' top four starters is particularly injury-prone, but each has at least a passing acquaintance with the DL, and counting on veteran workhorses not to spit the bit is always a risky proposition.

With a talented and maturing team in Atlanta prepared to trade up from a Wild Card berth to a division title and three competitive teams fighting over a single playoff spot in the Central, it's not impossible to envision an October without the Phillies, even if their road to early elimination is paved with some stellar pitching performances. Unfortunately for Philly, things won't get any easier in 2012.—Ben Lindbergh

Only one American League East team will make the playoffs
The AL East is considered the toughest division in baseball and for good reason, as it division has yielded two playoff participants in four consecutive seasons and seven of the last eight. The Yankees and Red Sox are fiscal juggernauts, the Rays and Jays are brazen whiz kids, and the Orioles retooled their squad over the winter, but only one of those teams will play beyond game 162.

BP’s projection system, PECOTA, uses player performance and playing time projections to formulate postseason odds after running daily simulations on the upcoming season. Currently, the Red Sox hold baseball’s best odds of making the postseason at 82 percent. Boston is unlikely to encounter a wave of injuries like last season’s, so for the sake of argument, assume they will win the division. The Yankees’ hold the third best playoff odds, making the tournament about 71 percent of the time. Questions about the Bronx Bombers’ rotation outside of CC Sabathia and a lineup that features three players over the age of 35 could test the Yankees’ depth, which is dependent on unreliable options like Bartolo Colon and Eric Chavez. The surest aspect for the Yankees’ could be their late inning tandem of Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano. The opposite is true for the Rays, who will test Joe Maddon’s aptitude and foresight on a nightly basis as he attempts to mix and match to close out games while also trying to keep Manny Ramirez hearty and hale.

Unlike other divisions, the top teams in the East have no weak link to bully, so the win totals across the board will be deflated. A team like Oakland could find itself winning the Wild Card thanks to an improved lineup, deep bullpen, pitcher-friendly ballpark, and weak divisional schedule outside of Texas.—R.J. Anderson

The Dodgers will seize a playoff spot.
Despite the ongoing circus created by the McCourts' divorce proceedings and the low-OBP hackers which Ned Colletti signed this winter, this is a very talented team, one which PECOTA projects to be the league's stingiest in terms of run prevention. The rotation features both a Cy Young contender (Clayton Kershaw) and a combination of depth and upside to rival any NL team save for the Phillies and Giants, while the bullpen offers the most potentially dominant trio in the league in Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo and Kenley Jansen, who combined to strike out 11.3 per nine even with Broxton's hiccups. New manager Don Mattingly and his staff—particularly prodigal son Davey Lopes, back in the fold as first base coach—are more capable than the ancient Joe Torre of reaching this team's key youngsters such as Matt Kemp, and Mattingly's willingness to do things such as find at-bats for lefty-masher Marcus Thames at first base while James Loney (.261/.321/.381 against southpaws career) sits will help around the margins. Left field—where Thames, Jay Gibbons, Tony Gwynn, Jr. and Xavier Paul need to be sifted through—remains a muddle, but it's not as though Colletti hasn't come up with a big-bat solution for that spot in midseason before, and it's possible that prospect Jerry Sands could help in the second half.—Jay Jaffe


 

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here
Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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