February 28, 2012
AL Central 2012 Preseason Preview, Part One
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 30.9
Team TAv: 0.262
Runs Scored: 689
Runs Allowed: 720
Team FRAA: -0.7
1) Kenny Williams seemed to have a case of split personality this offseason. Is he rebuilding, planning to contend, just resting, what?
Ben Lindbergh: A few weeks ago, Bradford Doolittle wrote a nifty little article (well, little for Brad—it was about 3500 words long) about the divergent directions of the White Sox and Cubs. In addition to the usual impressive rhetoric from Theo Epstein, it included a choice Williams quote from this winter:
“Hopefully it’s enough to remain competitive”—as Brad asked, how’s that sound as the basis of a marketing campaign? It’s almost as if Williams woke up one day without a farm system or a competitive team, and he’s not quite sure where to go from there. I’m not sure I’d know where to go from there either, so it would be hard to blame him if he weren't the one who got the Sox into this mess in the first place. Right now, both rebuilding and competing seem pretty hopeless, and continuing to play out the string is the path of least resistance. Williams is doing a few things here and there that could qualify as rebuilding without quite going whole hog, and that might only lengthen the inevitable lean years.
Steven Goldman: Having had this gig for a number of years, there are a few aphorisms I tend to fall back on, including “If you do not choose when to rebuild, God will decide for you.” I coined this myself, but from now on I’m going to credit it to Benjamin Franklin to give it an extra air of authenticity. The White Sox remind me of the story of the angel who, confronted by Lucifer’s rebellion, could not decide whether to side with Heaven or Hell and therefore was condemned to spend all eternity walking between. I believe he’s now a greeter at a Wal-Mart in suburban Michigan. Williams is in an odd spot, Ben. He’s got few assets on the major league roster that can bring much in trade except for pitching and not a whole lot on the farm with which to fill the resultant holes. “Stuck” is not an acceptable mode for a GM, but it seems like that is where Williams is right now. It will be interesting to see how aggressive he is as we head towards the trading deadline.
BL: Almost half the team’s payroll last season went to Jake Peavy, Adam Dunn, and Alex Rios. As halves of payrolls go, that’s not an especially productive one. Nor is it one that can easily be tacked onto another team. Williams started his offseason efforts by trading Sergio Santos, who seems like the sort of player a rebuilding team usually tries to acquire, not unload. It’s almost as if Williams vowed to trade someone, then discovered that other GMs only had eyes for the players he wanted to keep. If only Kenny Williams were around to take Rios off Kenny Williams' hands.
SG: Just when Williams goes and wins a championship to wash off the licking he took in Moneyball, a Rios comes along to remind you that maybe there was something to all the smirking after all.
BL: If there’s one thing PECOTA has proven over the years, it’s that we don’t know where the White Sox will finish, except when we do. So take all of this either as gospel or with a grain of salt.
2) Could this be the worst offense in baseball?
SG: It won’t be, not as long as there are teams like the Mariners and Astros around, but it won’t be good either. I know there’s some hope being placed in Dayan Viciedo to provide some spark, but this is a kid who has now taken 11 walks in 219 major-league plate appearances and hasn’t been all that selective in the minors either. You have to do a whole lot of hitting for average and power to make up for that. You can hope for consistency from Paul Konerko at 36, and perhaps a comeback from Adam Dunn (more on him directly), but the rest involves a lot of wishcasting, including Gordon Beckham remembering why he was a top prospect, Rios just remembering, Brent Morel hitting like a major-league third baseman... Most or all of those things will simply not happen. Number of players in the Sox lineup that PECOTA predicts to have an OPB of .330 or higher: two. That screams, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
BL: I vaguely recall saying something last spring about how Morel couldn’t be worse than Mark Teahen was in 2010. I suppose I was right, though given how poorly Morel hit, that’s not a prediction I’m proud of. This won’t be the worst offense in baseball, but the only way to defend it is to do what you did, Steve, and count off the ones that will be worse. After park adjustments, the A’s and Mariners might give the Sox a run for their money (which is more than Rios gave them for their money last season). According to PECOTA, the Sox might not even score the fewest runs in the division—that projected honor goes to the Royals—but aside from the difference in parks, there’s a big difference in upside in those two lineups, which we’ll get into later. Most of Chicago’s lineup is composed of players whose offensive potential is tough to pin down: Rios, Viciedo, Tyler Flowers, Beckham, Alejando De Aza, Brent Lillibridge, and the 300-pound donkey in the dugout, Adam Dunn. Which takes us to our next question...
3) Will Adam Dunn be making a comeback?
BL: I don’t know. (That’s going to be a running theme here.) We’ve all seen the statistical cases suggesting that Dunn’s 2011 was one of the worst offensive seasons in history. Many of those cases were made in August or September, before the body was cold (though by that time, the bat had been cold for several months). So, I fall back on the line I usually take whenever a player does something surprisingly awful or excellent: he’s not likely to do that again, and he’ll probably look a bit more like the player he was before. Sometimes that makes me look smart, and sometimes it makes me look stupid, like when Jose Bautista breaks out and follows that up by making his breakout look bad. We might not have expected Dunn to age well, but we definitely didn’t expect him to dissolve into his component parts at age 31—there were some warning signs, perhaps, but none that portended disaster on that scale. I don’t expect Dunn to hit 120 homers over his next three seasons, as he did from 2006-2008 (and 2005-2007), but I don’t expect him to hit .159 again, either. That’s the compromise that history tells me to make. Then again, I’m not sure how helpful history is when a player does something truly unprecedented. Is that wishy-washy enough for you?
SG: You want wishy-washy? Ben, I’m pretty sure you are the only person in the world who will understand fully what I’m about to tell you. I was reading “The All-Music Guide Loves 1986” earlier today, and one of their critics suggested that Paul McCartney’s “Press” was one of the best songs of the year. I remembered it as being the best song on a bad album, but not a best-of anything. I listened to it again today. It has been stuck in my head for close to 15 hours now—and it’s not any better than I remembered it being, if not worse. In addition, I read further down the list, and another critic included Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts,” which was quite literally the song that made me switch off Top 40 radio and never return. Twenty-six years ago, I became a man, and...
...Oh, Adam Dunn. As you can see, I don’t have a lot to say, for the same reasons that you didn’t. His collapse was unprecedented, and so his comeback, if he is to make one, is going to be unprecedented as well. I don’t mean this at all flippantly: unless we’re looking at a Lou Gehrig scenario here, and there is no reason to think that we are, Dunn might have had the worst (by which I also mean greatest) fluke season in history. If he got himself into it, or some combination of whatever-was-bothering-him, from the change of leagues to jock itch to bad luck got him into it, there is no reason he can’t get out of it. Should we make book on his being the Herculean home run hitter of the recent past? No. But do I expect him to be as hopeless as he was last year? Also no... Or I could be wrong and he will be the first hitter to retire from Steve Blass Disease/Hitter’s Version.
BL: I have nothing else to add about Dunn, but “Press” is probably the best song about a Beatle exploring an erogenous zone that 1986 had to offer. It also failed to chart in the Top 20, which probably wasn’t a coincidence.
4) Will Chris Sale make a successful conversion to the starting rotation?
SG: The difference between being a successful starter and a career reliever is often the invention of a third pitch, and Sale seems to have gotten there last year when he saw the slider grip diagrammed on the back of a kids’ placemat at IHOP. The results talked Sale into the rotation. In his short career, he has actually been more effective against right-handed hitters than left (and how—.177/.271/.333—that .333 represents seven of the eight home runs he has allowed, the only negative), so he doesn’t have the extreme splits often associated with southpaw relievers. The stuff is clearly there, the arsenal too, so for me the only question is if endurance will be an issue for a pitcher who is 6’5” but not particularly bulky—his official weight is 175. Have I ever told you, Ben, how much I dislike guys who are four inches taller than I am but much, much lighter?
BL: He’s only 22, so there’s still time for him to fill out and make you feel better when you step on the scale. We sabermetric types always raise a stink when a good starting prospect gets shunted to the bullpen to stay, so we should be pleased when the detour doesn’t prove permanent. We know Sale can be great in short bursts, but he hasn’t started as a professional, so there’s some uncertainty here. For all the reasons you cited, though, Sale seems like starter material, and it makes a lot of sense, at the very least, to allow him to fail in that role instead of lowering his ceiling for him. If there’s one thing the White Sox system can offer—and there really might be only one thing—it’s a capable young closer, Addison Reed. Between Sale and Reed, the Sox might have the top of the rotation and the end of the bullpen covered. Now they just need, well, the rest.
SG: Addison Reed puts me in mind of either the architect who popularized Spanish Colonial Revival style buildings in Florida or the acerbic critic played by George Sanders in All About Eve. Of the two, I know which I prefer. More seriously, though, you raise a point I meant to bring up as well, which is that Pitcher Determinism seems to be dying a slow death as teams realize that premium arms that could be used either in starting or relief work bring more value in the rotation (I think I blame the Yankees and Dave Righetti c. 1984, but I could be wrong), and also that you can rethink these labels once you’ve made them. Pitchers have been shifting roles for a hundred years (and some have even excelled, Firpo Marberry style, swinging both ways so to speak) and the only true hazard seems to arise when you act like the Yankees did with Joba Chamberlain and have the young hurler doing the pitching staff hokey-pokey. If you want to understand how this works, take a glass, fill it with boiling water, empty it, and then immediately fill it with cold water (warning: closed driving course. Do not attempt).
5) Which player on the current roster will not be on the team at the trading deadline?
BL: I’ll say Matt Thornton. For one thing, Thornton has been rumored to be on the block before, and sometimes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. (At other times, there’s a bogus trade rumor.) The departures of Santos and Jason Frasor left the Sox pen a little thin, and trading Thornton would only expose it further. As we’ve mentioned, though, the team already has its closer of the future. Thornton is 35, and he’s both expensive enough that the Sox would be happy to remove him from the payroll and reasonably priced enough that a contender wouldn’t balk at bringing him on at the deadline. He’s also under team control through 2014, so he might bring back a bit more in trade than the typical late-inning reliever. The best strategy for the Sox might be to let him rack up some saves* in the first half (hoping that he summons a closer mentality from somewhere and doesn’t self-destruct), then trade him when his value is at its peak and replace him with Reed.
*Speaking of which, the headline on the official White Sox site right now is “Thornton hoping to ‘close’ the deal for White Sox.” Come on, MLB.com. That pun is such a stretch it could work just as well without the quotation marks.
SG: How can I compete with this asterisks stuff? You kids and your crazy asterisks. Thornton is a good choice, as is Mr. Danks, who had some rumors of his own this offseason. Were I an opposing GM, though, I the White Sock that I would look at as closest to a season-changing player would be shortstop Alexei Ramirez. He’s a good defender and, by the standards of his position these days, not a bad hitter. Say you’re the Giants and you don’t have anything like a shortstop hanging around, and you’re a game up or a game down in July? He should be on the short list of targets. Now, Ramirez is 30 and signed until he’s 34 for a total of $32.5 million, so the White Sox haven’t planned on his going anywhere, but he might be their most attractive position player in real baseball terms.
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 33.8
Team TAv: 0.269
Runs Scored: 734
Runs Allowed: 721
Team FRAA: -11.7
1) The Indians have an odd combination of groundballing staff and a soft defense. Is this combination going to work?
SG: Yeah, no. The Indians were about league average in basic defensive efficiency last year, but when you look at the actual component parts around the infield, you hardly see Joe Gordon, Omar Vizquel, and Ken Keltner; these cats are all average gloves at best. The Indians have struggled to field strikeout pitchers since CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee left town (not, as has been rumored, Sudden Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant), and even if Ubaldo Jimenez finds the Superman suit he left in a derelict Colorado phone booth, even if Justin Masterson repeats his fine showing of last year, there are going to be too many baseballs flying in the direction of Kipnis, Chisenhall, et al. The only team that needs fastballs worse than the Indians is the Twins, and they’re eschewing them out of a cult-like masochism rather than the simple inability to draft and develop the dudes with lightning in their arms. It’s the Curse of Bob Feller—maybe you only get one like that per franchise turn on the Wheel of Existence.
BL: All else being equal, you’d rather have a guy who gets ground balls—ground balls turn into extra-base hits less often than fly balls, and it takes a combination of a speedy runner and an outfielder who takes terrible routes to turn them into homers. Of course, all else isn’t equal in most cases. If you want to get a groundballer, you’ll probably have to sacrifice in the strikeout department. But grounders probably come cheaper than K’s, so in theory, building a staff around a group of guys who keep the ball on the ground isn’t a bad idea.
You’re right, the Indians’ infielders’ aren’t the most rangy or sure-handed bunch, but they aren’t the Tigers’ infielders, either. Rick Porcello would surrender his firstborn to play in front of the Indians’ defense. Earlier this offseason, once Cleveland’s League of Extraordinary Wormburners began to take shape, Jonah Keri noted that Cleveland allowed a .242 batting average on ground balls last season, which ranked among the 10 best marks in the majors. Granted, some of that was Jack Hannahan’s doing in his surprise early-season role as a starter, but Hannahan is still on the bench, waiting to be deployed in select spots. (Ditto Brandon Inge in Detroit.)
So, is it going to work as well as it would with a bunch of
SG: “Grounders probably come cheaper than K’s.” You’re not suggesting that grounders are... the new market inefficiency are you?
BL: The Indians’ executives are a smart bunch of ex-bloggers, so I might have thought they believed that after they traded for Lowe. Then they traded for Kevin Slowey, so we know they’re not married to any particular means of getting outs, or even getting outs at all.
SG: That ex-blogger comment reminds me I should tell you about the time that I once had lunch with both Keith Woolner, now of the Indians’ front office, and Nate Silver. I kept expecting them to look at me like Roddy McDowell looks at Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes. I’ll say this about Slowey: he’s been terrible and he’s had every injury known to man except beriberi, but it would be great to see him get back to what he was in 2007-2008, when he walked 35 and struck out 170 in 227 innings (albeit with 38 home runs allowed). I’m not counting on this Slowey renaissance by any means, but I do like seeing him get the chance.
You raise a good point about the benefits of grounders, although, and admittedly this is a high bar, my favorite pitchers are the ones who can get both, the Tommy John, Brandon Webb, Greg Maddux types. I realize I just named a near-Hall of Famer, a guy who was halfway to the Hall of Fame when his arm fell off, and the greatest pitcher of all time, but I am nothing if not ambitious for the Indians. Masterson may belong in the family photo somewhere, and I hope he can keep it up. The question I would raise about the Jonah Number you cited is if that is something that carries over season-to-season or if there is a randomness to it.
...And as long as we’re talking about the pitching staff, the bullpen reminds me of the Zombies classic, “She’s Not There.”
BL: True, you can’t trust anything Jonah says. He’s convinced himself there was once a baseball team that played in Montreal, and now he’s writing a book about it. It’s just sad, really.
Hey, I’m sure the Indians wouldn’t have turned Roy Halladay away because he started striking out too many batters last season, but you take what you can get. And for what it’s worth, I’m not all that anti-Slowey, either—I was going for some easy snark. If Ubaldo Jimenez doesn’t regain his 2010 form, the race to the lowest walk rate between Slowey and Josh Tomlin might be one of the most exciting aspects of the Indians rotation. Speaking of Ubaldo Jimenez... (flawless segue alert).
2) Will the real Ubaldo Jimenez please stand up?
BL: I wrote up a reaction to the Indians’ trade for Ubaldo in July, and my last line ended, “...if their shiny new ace doesn’t earn them a playoff spot this season or age well thereafter, this deal could look a whole lot worse for them down the road.” Almost immediately after I hit “publish,” I regretted not condemning the deal more decisively. When I look at Ubaldo, my inner Han Solo starts saying he has a bad feeling about this. Jimenez was excellent in 2010, also known as two years ago. Two years isn’t that long, and it’s not out of the question that he’ll turn back into the pitcher the Indians hoped they were getting when they gave up every pitching prospect in their system whose door wasn’t marked with lamb’s blood for him at the deadline.
There are reasons to think he might rebound—his FIP wasn’t much higher than it had been in the few seasons previous, and he had an extremely low strand rate. But it scares me that he’s not quite the elite groundballer that he was at one time. It scares me that his average fastball velocity fell by 2 ½ miles per hour last year and didn’t recover significantly as the season went on. And maybe most of all, it scares me that the Rockies traded him when he was still young and eminently affordable, no matter how strong the prospect package they received in return. The good news is that he won’t get expensive under his current contract, so it’s not like there’s albatross potential here. I’m just not sure he’s the ace he looked like in the first half of 2010, not that anyone is for long.
SG: I just want to warn you that if I can find a way to invoke “The Jonah Number” in the rest of these answers, I’m going to do so. I’m also going to warn you that I’m kind of equivocal on this one. Ubaldo’s peripherals have been very consistent over the last three seasons, but sometimes we just have to look at what’s there on the plate in front of us. If we ignore results in favor of what we think the results should be, at best you have something like a version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” set in a sushi restaurant in which his majesty eats a dessicated goldfish snatched from the sewer while all his courtiers pretend it's fresh-caught bluefin tuna, or at worst a pitcher evaluation that’s like getting a scouting report on the Vietnam War from General Wiliam Westmoreland. The pitcher’s strikeout and walk numbers may still look good, but the fact is that he hasn’t been the same cat since halfway through the 2010 season. There is every reason to think he should turn it around, but that doesn’t mean that he will turn it around. Having said that, there is no pitcher in baseball trying to rebound from an off year that I would rather invest in than this guy...
...And that’s true even if his Jonah Number is a negative indicator, which I’m sure it is.
BL: So what you’re saying is, I should have stuck to my original, indecisive guns. They always tell you you shouldn’t change your original answer, whether you’re taking the SAT or running for president. Still, though—since the 2010 All-Star break, he has a 4.39 ERA in 283 innings without the kind of crazy-high BABIP that makes you bet your life savings on a return to form. And yeah, arbitrary endpoints, and yeah, he’s also struck out almost a batter per inning over the span (while walking one almost every other inning). I just wonder whether that early-season string of nearly flawless starts cemented him in our minds as a perennial Cy Young contender when he was already at his peak and about to hit the downslope.
You know what, though? PECOTA predicts pretty darn good things. I should stop trying to pretend I’m a better projection system.
SG: You probably don’t toast bread as evenly as PECOTA does either, but PECOTA only knows those same stats we’ve been talking about. If there is something that doesn’t meet the eye here that explains that this gifted U-man (rhymes with Vincent Youmans, thank you, Cole Porter) is no longer a Cy candidate but a sigh candidate—or even just a very good hurler from hereon, PECOTA is going to be as misguided and delphic as we are.
3) Should we just give up hope for Grady Sizemore at this point?
SG: Remember The Natural, where Roy Hobbs starts off as a Walter Johnson, gets shot, and comes back as Babe Ruth? I’m beginning to wonder if Sizemore has had so many injuries that a similar fate awaits him, except he starts off as Tris Speaker and finishes as Steve Balboni. The constant injuries bother me less than the fact that in trying to come back from them, he seems to have seen his skills erode. This is apparent not only in the actual results, which have been poor, but in the weakening of his eye—his walk rate the last two seasons was less than half what it was in his best years, and his pitches seen per plate appearance has declined in four straight seasons. He hasn’t quite passed Robinson Cano yet, but he’s getting there. That’s in only 435 PAs, but it’s still troubling that he has had 27 walks and 120 Ks in those PAs, and the stolen bases are just gone. Sizemore is 29 now, and nothing will ever take away the wonderfulness of 2005-2008, but I’m really starting to get worried that those years will be his equivalent of Bogie and Bergman’s “We’ll always have Paris.”
BL: Here’s a short list of players with higher True Averages than Grady Sizemore over the past two seasons, min. 400 PA: John McDonald, Omar Vizquel, Corey Patterson, and Jason Bartlett. Sizemore was one of those fast starters whose early-career performance placed him in elite company and prompted us to make lists of other players who’d accomplished similar feats by the same precocious age. Usually, those lists hold a lot of Hall of Famers, but they always have one or two guys who looked just as good early on but failed to make good on that potential. Sometimes, those guys stop getting better at an age when you’d still expect them to improve. Other times, injuries strike. Injuries have struck Sizemore, and now it seems more likely that he’ll become one of those unfulfilled promise people than it does that he’ll return to his initial trajectory.
You’re right, Steve, Sizemore hasn’t looked like the same guy when he has been on the field, but it’s hard to say whether he was ever completely healthy in those seasons—it’s easy to assume that someone’s at full strength just because he’s off the DL, but sometimes there’s still an issue that isn’t serious enough to sideline him but is annoying enough to hamper his performance. We don’t know whether that was the case with Sizemore, and it might be academic, since even if it was, he might never be free of those nagging issues even if he sidesteps more serious ones. But his DNA does match that of the player who was great as recently as 2008 and above-average as recently as 2009, and he still hasn’t hit 30. So, yes, we can still hold out some hope, however slim.
4) How about Matt LaPorta?
BL: Somehow LaPorta has become inextricably tied to Travis Snider in my mind, probably because they’re both corner outfield prospects who haven’t panned out and I don’t know what to make of either of them. That comparison isn’t fair to Snider, though, since LaPorta is a full three years older and still hasn’t had any sustained success. He was a genuine blue-chipper, but at some point, that ceases to matter—people thought Lindisfarne would be the next Beatles until it became clear that they wouldn’t. (Lindisfarne were still better than Matt LaPorta.) That point probably arrived last season, when LaPorta failed to post a .300 OBP in almost 400 plate appearances at age 26. Anything we could say about that would only be piling on, since the Indians already made the most emphatic dismissal possible by signing Casey Kotchman to start at first base.
SG: How about him? Yeesh, who thought of these questions? Whoever he is, he should probably find more suitable employment immediately. The Indians have moved on and so should we. Former seventh-overall pick or not, it is clear that despite what the Spanish say, LaPorta is not the door. At 27, he’s no longer young and has not yet proved he can hit major-league pitching. And all that it cost the Indians to find out was CC Sabathia. This is, by the way, why trading a star for prospects almost always fails to work out: stars are rare items, prospects are just the promise of a rare item, and all too often that promise does not come true.
Somehow, that analogy puts me in mind of that cube-thing in Diablo II, but let’s press on.
5) So can the Indians win the Central this year, or what?
SG: The PECOTA toaster (also available as a single-serve coffeemaker) sees them as little better than a .500 team, but let us consider that they are in the Unserious Division. The Royals aren’t ready, the Twins will never be ready, and the White Sox, like Bartleby the Scrivener, would prefer not to. That leaves the Tigers. The Leylandmen are clearly superior (The toaster sees them as allowing a few more runs, which is why a robot will never be president), but not by so much that if they are struck by the odd injury or their defensive ramblings don’t work out the Indians couldn’t sneak up close enough to pinch Leyland’s cheekbone (he doesn’t have cheeks). IF Jimenez reemerges as an ace, IF Masterson is consistent with last year, IF Derek Lowe has one more solid season in him, IF the kids step forward and hit... Well, then, if things break right, I think the Indians might surprise... But then I think of that bullpen, and I get skeptical again.
BL: In between my last answer and this one, I went to get some green tea—my “m” key kept sticking when I tried to type “team,” and eventually I succumbed to the power of suggestion. Now I’m clutching my cup like Joe Torre and trying to type at the same time. I’m equally susceptible to the power of projection, but I’d like to think that PECOTA and I would have come to a similar conclusion independently. Let me put it this way: if the Indians have a 47-42 first half again, I’ll be far more inclined to believe it could continue than I was last year. When your true talent puts you around the .500 mark and you’re in a weak division, you always have a chance.
That said, I don’t think the odds are in the Indians’ favor this year, and while I think their immediate future is fairly bright, I wonder whether there’s a championship core here. Can the Indians use the payroll room they might have when Travis Hafner finally comes off the books at the end of the season to lock up Shin-Soo Choo? Is Carlos Santana their only young major leaguer with true star potential, and if so, what will the roster look like when Francisco Lindor arrives? Will this latest collection of talent lead to sustained success, or another false start like 2005 or 2007, followed by more lean years? And most importantly, how about Matt LaPorta?
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.