February 20, 2012
AL East 2012 Preseason Preview
1) How will Dan Duquette's offseason moves affect the Orioles this season?
RA: Excited might be the wrong word. I think there is more intrigue now than before. The rotation is going to be a unit worth watching—for better or worse—because of what Duquette did this winter.
JC: They've added more arms to the staff, but it was a lot of quantity and little quality. The best move they made was the internal promotion of Jim Johnson to the closer role and the cheap addition of Wilson Betemit.
RA: Sometimes quantity is a stand-in for depth. Duquette seemingly improved the roster in that sense. Not to the extent where you think of Baltimore as being a deep team, but they’re deeper than before. Nothing the Orioles could have done this offseason would have catapulted them into contention, so taking it slow and being realistic about the next two-to-three years makes sense. I can see the logic in adding stopgap veterans like Endy Chavez, Luis Ayala, and Betemit too.
JC: While it was not a terribly necessary move given their roster construction at the time, it is hard to go wrong given the cost.
RA: It beats paying a more famous player to provide equal production, that’s for sure.
JC: They've lost 90-plus games each of the past six seasons; I give them a six percent chance of ending that streak.
RA: This division isn’t kind to Baltimore. Their rotation could be a mess in that ballpark, and their offense is unlikely to topple some of the other monsters in the East. Saying their chances of losing 90 or more is 94 percent seems hasty, although I can see this club dropping 90-plus for the seventh-straight season.
2) Is there any chance the O's rotation avoids being one of the five worst in the league?
JC: I like Zach Britton's ceiling, but his consistency is still not there, and the rest of that mix is a bunch of potential number fours and fives.
RA: There isn’t much just below the surface either. Maybe Brian Matusz comes back strong or Chris Tillman takes that next step, but otherwise the O’s are going to have to turn to the likes of Brad Bergesen and Dana Eveland. If you can get legitimate number-four pitching from those two, then you must be doing something right.
JC: To their credit, they appear to have cornered the market on left-handed pitching as they could roll out as many as four lefties in their rotation depending on who wins the spots in camp. That said, the offense is going to have to carry this team because this staff is going to take its lumps.
RA: Same old, same old.
3) How many plate appearances will Brian Roberts get, and if it's fewer than 500, who takes his place?
RA: I would take the under too.
JC: I still like Robert Andino to pick up the slack; he has shown some small skills growth in improving his walk rate and cutting down on his strikeouts. He is never going to hit for any power, but he has the defensive chops to handle the position without the contact issues Ryan Adams has shown in Triple-A and the majors.
RA: The foil to your Andino suggestion is if he has to play shortstop in J.J. Hardy’s absence. Because of that, I would guess Ryan Flaherty will get the first crack at replacing Roberts, lest Matt Antonelli force Flaherty off the roster by spring’s end. Both are good stories— a former top prospect and a Rule 5 pick, respectively—so here’s hoping one of them can make the most of an opportunity.
4) Is this the year that Chris Davis hits in the majors?
RA: Davis eclipsed the 1,000 major-league plate appearances mark last season and turns 26 by opening day. At some point, you have to call a spade a spade.
JC: He is a two-and-half true outcome player, as he will hit a home run, strike out, or swing at a pitch that eventually hits him.
RA: The hope is that Davis is the new Carlos Pena and it takes him longer to click, but Pena had two above-average offensive seasons by the time he turned 26. Davis has posted one, and that came three full seasons ago with rare hints that he can get back to that level consistently.
JC: Right, pitchers have no problem finding the many holes in his swing, which is why they have no fear challenging him despite his tremendous power.
RA: If Davis is ever going to break out, it needs to happen soon.
5) Will Baltimore avoid 100 losses?
RA: Me too.
JC: This team has more offense than past 90-plus loss teams. If Matt Wieters can improve against right-handed pitching, if J.J. Hardy can repeat his success, if Betemit does what he does, and if Nolan Reimold embraces more plate appearances, this offense will be no pushover. That said, unless they are producing four or more runs a game, they are not going to be in too many contests with the lack of quality pitching on this staff.
RA: There aren’t many teams I would pencil in for 100 losses at this point in the year. It takes a bad team and some unfortunate circumstances to be that bad. The Orioles have been playing in this division with three or four legitimately good teams since 2008, and their most recent 100-loss season came in 1988. I would guess they’ll avoid 100 but fall within the 90-to-99-loss range.
1) The Red Sox are going to win a lot of games this year, aren’t they?
RA: Yes. Peter Gammons tweeted during the offseason that the Red Sox won 90 games despite having the second-fewest quality starts in the majors. Meanwhile, Patrick Sullivan tweeted that the Red Sox went 9-3 in games that Andrew Miller started. There isn’t a pitching metric on Miller’s player page that begins with a number lower than five for his 2011 season. Even with the Crawford risk, this Boston offense is incredible, and the pitching staff can’t get much worse.
JC: True. This is still a team that won 90 games last year despite an epic collapse, and they either retained or replaced key parts while increasing their depth on the bench as well as the bullpen.
2) Can Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey appease a fan base that grew accustomed to Jonathan Papelbon’s excellence?
JC: Flash back to this time last year, and there were rumblings from some groups of their fan base that were tired of Papelbon. It is amazing what a career season can do for a guy. I love the move of taking the dollars Papelbon would have consumed with his new contract and spreading the risk to help the overall depth of the bullpen.
RA: To be fair, they weren’t spending only on Papelbon. They signed Bobby Jenks last offseason—a good idea interrupted by health issues. But back to Melancon and Bailey.
JC: Melancon and Bailey are a nice pairing. Both miss bats, and there may be times when Melancon's groundball style will fit the late inning situation better than Bailey's heavy flyball approach.
RA: I think both will be fine. Ideally, you want strikeouts and groundballs, but Bailey’s flyball dependency doesn’t differ much from Papelbon’s—at least on a rate basis; perhaps the quality of those flies differs. Yes, Bailey won’t have Oakland’s ballpark to help him anymore, but it’s hard for me to see him melting down unless it’s due to injury.
3) Will Carl Crawford bounce back?
RA: The wrist surgery concerns me as well. Beyond that, though, I haven’t seen much reason to think Crawford lost that much skill so quickly. His reputation with the Rays was always that of a hard worker.
JC: Yes, his lack of production is not from a lack of effort. There’s no doubt he is a hard-working player, but when you go from a laissez-faire fan base to one as intense as Red Sox nation, there is bound to be pressure to adjust to.
RA: Supposedly, there were concerns about how he would handle a large media market, but I wonder how much of that is retrofitting narratives to his poor performance.
Because of his track record, I’m going to say he’ll bounce back. He might not return to 2010 levels, but I don’t think Boston fans will hate him after this season. Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more confident in that prediction before the wrist news came out.
JC: From a fantasy perspective, I was planning on being on all-in on Crawford before the injury news. Now, I've returned to a more pessimistic mindset.
4) Is Daniel Bard going to be an effective starter?
JC: Sure, but for how long? He threw 143 innings over the past two seasons and now could be asked to throw 180+ innings this season. You look at a guy like C.J. Wilson as someone who had no problem making that transition, but Wilson is also a fitness freak who was a bit older and started making that physical transition as soon as the regular season ended. As a reliever, Bard never had to worry about pacing or adding and subtracting from his stuff but now has to transition to the mindset of a starter rather than a bulldog reliever.
5) Compared to last year’s club, is this Red Sox group deeper?
JC: Indeed, and that leads to increased flexibility around the diamond.
RA: The easy solution for Cherington this offseason was to sign a star pitcher—a C.J. Wilson type—then throw his hands up if the same problems arose and blame it on Theo Epstein’s foundation. Instead, he went out and acquired players like Kelly Shoppach, Nick Punto, and Ryan Sweeney to buttress the foundation.
JC: They can play Punto and 2011 mid-season acquisition Mike Aviles all over the place.
RA: Cherington also added a considerable amount of veteran pitchers on minor-league deals—how many teams could run out a Triple-A rotation with as much major-league experience as the Red Sox can with Brandon Duckworth, Ross Ohlendorf, Vicente Padilla, Carlos Silva, and Andrew Miller? That isn’t to say those guys are necessarily good major leaguers; they can be serviceable, and they seem to beat resorting to Tim Wakefield and Kyle Weiland in a playoff chase.
JC: The team appears to have more durable players this year, as well. And if your stars stay healthy, it lets your role players stay in that kind of role. Adrian Gonzalez is a full year removed from his shoulder surgery, for example, which is bad news for American League pitchers; A-Gon could have a bigger power year in 2012.
1) Will the Yankees’ revamped rotation be the best group in the division?
RA: And you can’t forget about CC Sabathia, who I’m legally obligated to describe him as a horse. Add in some of the pitchers on the farm, and the Yankees have a bit of depth beyond their starting five or six as well. The expectations about the Yankees’ rotation did a 180 within a year, and you have to give Brian Cashman credit for not overpaying for mediocrity or rushing one of the young guns up just to save face.
JC: Talent wise, I think the Rays five are still the best, but the Yankees have significantly narrowed that gap and are nipping at the heels rather than eating the Rays' dust.
RA: The Yankees should be in the conversation for the best rotation in the division if Nova can sustain his surface stats and one of the others doesn’t suffer collapse.
2) How important is Alex Rodriguez’s health to this team’s success?
RA: The concern here is that the Yankees didn’t do much to upgrade their offense this offseason. They didn’t lose any players—although some regression may be in order for Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson… and Mark Teixeira, for that matter—but this is mostly the same lineup, just a year older.
JC: Yes, it is the same offense as last year, and it is tough to see a player stepping up and having the kind of surprise season Granderson had last year to offset Rodriguez's missing time. Rodriguez needs to be there for 130-plus games this season in order for the Yankees to repeat their success.
RA: Prefacing this by saying I have no idea what Rodriguez’s health is at the moment, nor what his medical files indicate, I don’t think 130-plus games is an unattainable goal for A-Rod. Further, we talked about the lineup being the same, but you don’t win or lose games solely based on your lineup. They improved the rotation, and that counts. Whether they win 97 games this year or not does not rely as much upon Rodriguez as people who love to grill Rodriguez for the Yankees’ every fault want you to believe.
3) Can Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson sustain their power outbursts from last season?
RA: Cano’s power increase is more gradual, and thereby it feels more legitimate. Granderson had hit 30 home runs before, of course, but he also hit 16 homers versus lefties in 2012. That’s notable when you realize Granderson had 20 home runs against lefties for his entire career entering the season. All the talk about Granderson’s work with Kevin Long paying off will be tested heading forward.
JC: I'm pessimistic on Granderson, who had been a 13 percent HR/FB guy until he put up a 21 percent HR/FB last year. The duo combined hit 69 home runs in 2011, but I think it will be a challenge for them to top 60 in 2012.
RA: Maybe, but these two did combine to hit 55 home runs in 2009 and 53 in 2010, so while 60 may not be likely, it isn’t implausible.
4) Does Phil Hughes wind up in the bullpen?
RA: Back and shoulder issues hampered Hughes last season, but he pitched better as the season progressed and his injuries receded. His second half OPS-against (738) compares more favorably to his 2010 tally (702) than anything he did in the first half of 2011. If Hughes gets hurt again, or if the Yankees have reason to believe he will get hurt again, then sure, pull the cord on his starting career. Otherwise, his performance down the stretch is enough for me to give him another go.
JC: Even without him, the back end of the ‘pen with Soriano/Robertson/Rivera can shorten a game like few bullpens in baseball, let alone the AL East, when all are on top of their games.
5) Is this the year Mariano Rivera resembles a human being and declines?
RA: I think it does matter if Rivera takes a significant step back. Betting against him and being right gives you some bragging rights. Betting against him and being wrong makes you just like all those goes who have betted against him over the past five years. I don’t want to be one of those guys, and honestly, I don’t want Rivera’s dominance to end just yet. His mystique makes the game more fun and the rallies against him more meaningful.
1) Is this the best rotation in the American League?
RA: Yes, David Price could finish top-three in Cy Young voting and nobody would blink, but after him there are some question marks. James Shields will probably take a step back, Jeremy Hellickson needs to improve or continue to outpitch his component measures, and Matt Moore has to live up to lofty expectations.
JC: Regression from Shields and Hellickson can be tempered somewhat by the Rays’ positioning tricks on the diamond, which has allowed them to lead the league in team BABIP for four straight seasons. You rarely see the kind of sky high expectations that surround Matt Moore for someone that is going to be working in the back part of the rotation in 2011, though.
RA: From there, Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis needs to stay healthy and productive, neither being a sure bet to do either. The nice part about the Rays’ rotation is the talented youth that sits just a level away. Not too many teams have the quality of an Alex Cobb, Alex Torres, and Chris Archer trio at Triple-A.
JC: The organization legitimately has eight guys that could pitch in just about any rotation in baseball right now.
RA: Are the Rays the best in the league? Maybe, maybe not, but they belong in the conversation.
JC: While they may or may not have the best overall staff, it is easily the deepest in the league.
2) Last season, shortstop was a black hole offensively, and catching was an all-around mess. Did the Rays do enough to address those situations heading into 2012?
JC: The catching situation is a concern for me because there is no experience behind Jose Molina, and Molina has never played more than 81 games in a season. The catching spot for the franchise has been a sore spot nearly every season outside of Dioner Navarro's 2008, but as you hinted at, the defense should be the best the team has seen, assuming Molina gets 60 percent of the playing time.
RA: At shortstop, it looks like Sean Rodriguez’s job to lose, although losing it is a distinct possibility with Tim Beckham and Hak-Ju Lee slated to start the year at Triple- and Double-A, respectively.
JC: Rodriguez just needs to figure out how to handle right-handed pitching, and he showed the potential to do that in the final two months of last season.
RA: It’s hard to be as poor at the plate as Reid Brignac and Elliot Johnson were last season, so you have to figure the Rays will get at least a marginal upgrade there too; it’s just a matter of how Rodriguez fares with the glove.
JC: Right. As low as the bar was left last season by the groups that manned these positions, improvement is practically inevitable. It was rather painful to watch the other two shortstops at the plate in 2011; both looked overmatched all year long, and both will be in play again this year because Tim Beckham will remain at Triple-A. The former number-one pick had some short free-swinging success in Durham last season but had a terrible walk-to-strikeout rate.
3) Matt Joyce has seen very little playing time against lefties while Sean Rodriguez has rode the pine against righties. Is this the year Maddon gives both a full-time role?
JC: Both Maddon and Friedman have mentioned giving guys with platoon splits more of a chance, though, singling out Joyce and Rodriguez specifically. You’re right that Pena belongs in that conversation too given his issues with lefties, so it bears watching how much time Maddon gives the trio in March and early in the season.
RA: Rodriguez may be more likely to see full-time at-bats than Joyce given how last season turned out, when the Rays were willing to give him stretches of full-time play before Reid Brignac came back up. I’m not certain Brignac will be on this Rays’ club, and that means Rodriguez could be asked to play daily.
JC: I agree; it’s tough to envision a role for Brignac on the 25-man roster to start the season given the team’s other options. The position player portion of the roster appears to be as settled as it has ever been in recent years.
4) Did the front office do enough this off-season to help the team be more consistent with their run production, which has had its issues in Tropicana Field?
JC: Over the past three seasons, the park seems to be on its way to becoming the East Coast Petco. More consistent run production is something the pitching staff, management, and the fan base would all embrace.
RA: The Rays added Luke Scott and Carlos Pena this offseason, and it’s hard to look at who they replace and think of them as anything less than upgrades.
JC: Scott and Pena can certainly change the outcome of a game with one swing of the bat far more than Damon and Kotchman could last season. Those signings plus a full season from Desmond Jennings and a healthy Longoria should help turn the downward trend around.
RA: Right. Whether that leads to more stable run production is anyone’s guess, but it should lead to more run production, period, and that’s the thing you should worry about.
5) Which was the more important off-season move: locking up Matt Moore or retaining Andrew Friedman?
JC: Right. It is not a one-man show in Tampa Bay, and having a successful safety net like Hunsicker would have softened the blow of losing Friedman. The signing of Moore gives the team the financial freedom to attempt to do the same with David Price, who has been vocalizing his desire to get something done on Twitter, and his friendly settlement before arbitration may hint at something being possible. If anything, Moore's deal eliminates the headaches we see the Giants going through with Tim Lincecum should Moore become the pitcher most pundits are predicting he will be.
1) The Jays' offseason efforts were focused on revamping a bullpen that struggled in the later innings and tied for the AL lead in blown saves last season. How much better does the pilfering of Sergio Santos, along with the additions of Darren Oliver and Francisco Cordero, make this Jays team?
JC: I believe it was Dustin Parkes on Twitter that mentioned that Santos's contract was done up so well that it was almost as if Alex Anthopolous wrote it up with Kenny Williams before he made the trade to acquire him.
RA: While Oliver and Cordero are good, I do feel like last year had a similar build-up. Adding Jon Rauch, Frank Francisco, and Octavio Dotel looked good, and yet, as the question states, they blew the most saves. Outside of Santos, I’m not sure any of those guys are locks to pitch well.
JC: I feel they trimmed the fat from the pen and added more quality options this off-season rather than the quantity additions of last season. Last season's group had more severe splits issues than this group.
2) Jose Bautista has right field locked down, but the Jays enter 2012 with unsettled situations in left and center field. Eric Thames, Travis Snider, Colby Rasmus, Rajai Davis, and Ben Francisco—how does that playing time shake out?
JC: I could see a Thames/Francisco platoon being rather productive, but I struggle to see how Snider fits into the picture if that platoon were to exist.
RA: The Jays need to find out what they have, if anything, in Rasmus and Snider, so I’d give them as many repetitions as possible. For Snider in particular, it’s sink or swim time.
JC: For me, it all hinges on Colby Rasmus. He is only 25, and I believe he is more of the 2010 player than the hot mess he was last season. That’s no slam dunk, though, so I feel Rajai Davis has to stick around until this Rasmus enigma works itself out. Snider does have an option left, so he appears to be predestined to return to Triple-A unless he outperforms Thames during Spring Training.
3) Last season, Brett Lawrie came up, excited fans, and made a major impact before being injured. This season, Travis d'Arnaud could be on a similar path to the majors. How does the situation behind the plate work out once J.P. Arencibia and d'Arnaud are both on the 25-man roster?
JC: Is Jeff Mathis the penalty the Jays had to pay for pushing the albatross of Vernon Wells’s contract off onto the Angels? I hope this is just a case of a placeholder until d'Arnaud gets past the new Super Two date and can come up. If the Jays are hoping to compete for the post-season this year, they can't give Mathis significant playing time. An Arencibia/d'Arnaud situation would be an odd platoon in that both are right-handed and both hit righties for more power (d'Arnaud hit 20 of his 21 homers vs. righties in Triple-A), so I am with RJ in that Arencibia's days in Toronto are likely numbered.
4) A one-two punch of Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow has the potential to be one of the nastier combinations in the American League. However, the three, four, and five spots in the rotation look rather uncertain. How will they play out?
JC: I don't see Cecil sticking in the rotation. His splits just are not very good; righties are way too comfortable against him and have punished him compared to what lefties do.
RA: I think Henderson Alvarez gets a spot too.
JC: I agree with you there. I am keeping my eye on Alvarez. If he missed more bats, I would like him even more, but the strong walk and groundball rates are great skills to have in this division. The home run rate was high, but you have to hope that his 16 percent HR/FB rate comes down. For a guy that skipped Triple-A, I thought he did rather well.
JC: McGowan is a great human interest story, but he is a complete wildcard after throwing just 21 innings over the past three seasons.
RA: If worse comes to worst, they could throw Carlos Villanueva into the rotation while figuring out the next step. I’m a bit surprised that someone like Jon Garland didn’t land there. Whether you plan to contend or not, having a random innings eater one call away can’t hurt, and I think the quality of performance you would get there tops what the Jays’ non-prospect options can provide.
JC: In the end, this is the area that is going to hold them back from taking that next step when you compare their front five to the other bigwigs in this division.
5) Adam Lind had a red hot first half and was ice cold in the second half while Edwin Encarnacion was the exact opposite. What can be expected of these two middle-of-the-order hitters in 2012?
RA: I wouldn’t read much into the splits by half. The part about Lind that concerns me isn’t that he faded down the stretch but rather that his power numbers—at least his percentage of hits that went for extra bases—dipped after strong offerings in 2009 and 2010. If that’s indicative of the quality of his batted balls, then I’d like to know what prompted the change—maybe the back spasms?
JC: The team has talked about playing Encarnacion in different spots in the field, and he has been working out more with his glove this off-season, and even his biggest fans (raises hand) realize that there is work to be done in that area. He only saw two months of more than 100 plate appearances last season, but the Jays appear to be dedicated to getting his bat in the lineup more often in 2012 by giving him the opportunity to fit into other roles than DH. It would make sense to put him at first in place of Lind against tough left-handers, but the talk of spending time in left field seems odd.
RA: That Encarnacion managed to cut his strikeout rate and up his walk rate while still pummeling the baseball is exciting.
JC: Given the team's uncertainties in the rotation, I think the performance of these two hitters will be crucial if the Jays are to be contenders.
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @r_j_anderson