March 8, 2012
The Lineup Card
10 Choices for 2012 Declines
1. James Shields
Baseball announcers love the cliché, “Well, things tend to even out.” In the parlance of our time, when you come off a great season, we call that a regression. That’s likely to be the case with the Rays' James Shields. Last year, Shields posted a top-three Cy Young finish, throwing more innings than any other pitcher in baseball not named Justin Verlander, and completing 11 games, the most by a starter since Scott Erickson in 1998.
In a lot of ways, last year was Shields own “evening it out.” While he induced more ground balls last season than in a miserable 2010 (5.18 ERA, led AL in hits, earned runs, and homers allowed) his K/9 rate, BB/9 rate, and even his HR/FB rates were all in line with that train wreck. The truth should lie somewhere in the middle on Shields. Barring injury, he is a mortal lock for 200 innings, something he’s done in each of the last five years. The 30 year old will likely give up a few more hits and see his ERA settle around 3.50, three-quarters of a run higher than last season, but still a well above-average starter on a well above-average starting staff. —Mike Ferrin
2. Josh Collmenter
It's easy to pick on rookies to hit a sophomore slump, and in cases like Collmenter's, it seems inevitable given an outstanding opening sonata. This Diamondbacks righty dominated in his debut season, working 154 1/3 innings while allowing just 137 hits, 28 walks, and one homer per nine innings, good for a 3.38 ERA, but also a less shiny 3.77 FIP. The 26-year-old has a deceptive delivery and fantastic control that will help keep opponents off-balance, but he doesn't have dominating stuff.
What's more concerning is Collmenter's fly-ball rate; he recorded only 33.3 percent of his outs on the ground last year, but his home ballpark is the notoriously hitter-friendly Chase Field. The northpaw also had some unsustainably good luck with a .255 BABIP. Unless Collmenter can strike out a lot more batters—he whiffed just 5.8 per nine last year—and collect more grounders, he's due to take some bullets in 2012. —Stephani Bee
3. Jose Reyes
This probably isn't fair, but when I look at Jose Reyes and his shiny new contract, I am reminded of Carl Crawford. Less superficially, my concerns with Reyes are that a) he is coming off a career year that saw him hit at levels not reached during his first eight seasons, and b) injuries have caused him to miss nearly 40 percent of his team's games over the past three seasons. It is possible that Reyes could sustain his unprecedented offensive performance of 2011 and stay healthy for the first time since 2008, but as he heads toward his 30s while playing a demanding defensive position and relying on speed as a large part of his game, I wouldn't want to bet millions of dollars on it. —Geoff Young
4. Paul Konerko
For the last two years, I’ve watched a Paul Konerko get on top of just about every pitch thrown his way, or at least it’s often seemed that way. When I first started going to White Sox games on a regular basis before the 2010 season, Konerko was supposed to be in decline. He homered in each of the first two games that season and hasn’t really slowed down since. His last two seasons have, in fact, been his best two offensive performances. That sets him apart; 22 players have put up a better combined OPS for age-34 and 35 seasons than Konerko’s 941 mark the last two years seasons. If there was any visible sign that Konerko was about to regress, I certainly didn’t see it last season, but it’s got to happen, right?
Yet you can only rob from Father Time for so long, and it seems very unlikely that Konerko can post a third straight career season at this stage of his playing days. Of those aforementioned 22 players, 10 of them OPS’d at 900 or better at age 36. Those players were a mix of surefire Hall of Famers and products of an offense-inflated era: Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Barry Bonds, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Chipper Jones, Manny Ramirez, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Edgar Martinez. Does Konerko fit in that group? I’m guessing no. Konerko will still be the White Sox’ best hitter, a dangerous man with the bat in his hands and an admirable clubhouse spokesman. I just don’t think he can pull off a three-peat with these mid-30s career campaigns. If that happens, his overall value takes a serious hit because he’s a statue at first base and quite probably the slowest big-league baserunner I’ve seen in the last five years. —Bradford Doolittle
5. Ryan Vogelsong
Pitchers who haven't been in the majors since 2006 aren't supposed to suddenly come back and win 13 games with an ERA under 3.00, but this is exactly what Ryan Vogelsong accomplished with the Giants in 2011. As this year's annual notes, Vogelsong's return to the majors was not a steady, predictable climb, which means that, as happened to some degree with Jose Bautista at the end of the 2010 season, whether he can sustain his success is debatable. Also worth noting is the high strand rate; no pitcher can forever be able to strand runners unless it's via not letting them reach base in the first place, and the low BABIP while in the majors last season. Vogelsong is a few years older than Bautista, so unless he's got some Tim Wakefield/Jamie Moyer magic in him (baseball has seen stranger things), age is not on his side. This isn't to say Vogelsong will suddenly fall apart next season, but a repeat of his 2011 success would seem almost as unlikely as last season's success in the first place. —Rebecca Glass
6. Josh Beckett
Despite the September collapse of the 2011 Boston Red Sox and his role in the infamous clubhouse drinking/general aloofness scandal, Josh Beckett had a fantastic season. He made 30 starts with a 2.89 ERA (147 ERA+), 1.03 WHIP, and a 3.37 K/BB ratio. What stood out was how much better his 2011 campaign was compared to his injury-riddled and generally ineffective 2010 season.
Although he is coming off of a stellar campaign, there is a good chance Beckett performs closer to the league average in 2012. He has consistently struggled with blister problems and other sorts of nagging injuries, and suffered an ankle injury that limited him in September. These health problems are especially concerning for a pitcher who must repeat his 2011 performance because of Boston’s lack of starting pitching depth.
Beckett’s FIP last year (3.61) was much closer to his career average of 3.68 than his ERA was, so even if he puts up similar peripherals, he might have a worse season judging by ERA anyway. Beckett’s strand rate in 2011 was 80 percent, while the league average is usually in the low 70s, and his batting average against was .032 better than his career average due to a BABIP against that was .045 better than his career average of .290. By all indications, if Beckett stays healthy he should have a very good season in 2012. However, going by Beckett’s injury history, that is a big “if,” and it is one of the main reasons I would bet against him coming close to repeating the numbers he put up last year. —Sam Tydings
7. Michael Pineda
Penciled in as the number-two starter for the New York Yankees, Michael Pineda is my pick to regress this summer in the Bronx. Pitching as a rookie for the Seattle Mariners in 2011, Pineda posted a 9-10 record with a 3.74 ERA, 173 Ks in 171 IP and, most importantly, a 3.1 WARP. Those numbers alone should be enough to put him on a breakout watch list. Unfortunately for Pineda, he won’t be pitching in the AL West in 2012. In January, Pineda went from the forgotten Pacific Northwest to the bright lights of the Bronx, the House that Jeter Built, the mound of Yankee Stadium in the AL East. For any pitcher, the transition to the Bronx is a tough task to master; for a 23-year-old, that task is even greater, and it's largely my initial reasoning for predicting that Pineda will regress this season to the tune of another sub-.500 record, an ERA over 4.00, a strikeout ratio under 1 per inning, and a WARP that will drop below 2.0.
To further complicate Pineda’s future and enhance my gut’s prediction is the apparent drop in velocity he has suffered from the 93-96 mph he hit on the radar on 7 March 2011 to the 88-91 mph that he hit on the radar on 5 March 2012 during his Yankees spring training debut. Some will argue that there is nothing to worry about since this was only Pineda’s first outing of the spring and that he was working on his secondary pitches. However, given that I chose him as my pick the day before his spring debut, I take this velocity issue as supporting evidence to advance that my pick is correct. —Adam Tower
8. Nyjer Morgan
Nyjer Morgan has played with a chip on his shoulder from the day he made his professional debut with Williamsport in the short-season New York-Penn League nine years ago, after the Pirates selected him in the 33rd round from noted baseball powerhouse Walla Walla Community College. Playing with that "I'm going to show you" attitude served Morgan well. Though he was never considered a top prospect and had major shoulder surgery along the way, he got the major leagues in 2007 and is now established as the Brewers' regular center fielder. Yet I worry about Morgan, one of my personal favorites. The chip has only gotten bigger with the more notoriety he has gotten, and I wonder at what point it's going to be a detriment. I really hope I'm wrong, but I have a feeling Brewers manager Ron Roenicke is going to get tired of Morgan's act this season and you're going to see a lot more of Carlos Gomez or Japanese free agent Norichika Aoki in center field as the season goes on. —John Perrotto
9. Melky Cabrera
When the Royals signed Melky Cabrera in December 2010, we all had a good chuckle. At 26, the Melkman had just been non-tendered by the Braves following a season in which he slipped below replacement level (-0.2 WARP) thanks to subpar defense and an anemic .255/.317/.354 line; it figured he would wind up in a place where so many big-league careers have gone to die. Instead, Cabrera responded by hitting a robust .305/.339/.470, good for a .287 True Average (32 points above his career mark) and 2.7 WARP. The Royals sold high, sending him to San Francisco in November in a deal for Jonathan Sanchez.
The move does not bode well. It's not that Cabrera reaped the full benefit of Kauffman Stadium; he hit .289/.323/.418 at home, compared to .321/.354/.518 on the road. Of the six stadiums where he put up OPSes above 1000 in small-sample performances, five of them were in the AL. Now he'll be playing half his games in pitcher-friendly AT&T Park, with a significant share at other hitters' graveyards such as Petco Park, Dodger Stadium and—for interleague play, Safeco Field, Angel Stadium, and the Oakland Coliseum. Meanwhile, Coors Field, the lone NL park where he thrived, remains on his docket. Between that particular menu of ballparks and the general distance he was above his career performance, he's due for a regression. —Jay Jaffe
10. Curtis Granderson
Curtis Granderson set a career high of 41 homers last season. The difference between last season and every other season in his major-league career was that he miraculously learned how to hit left-handed pitchers. It probably isn't fair to call hard work and good coaching "miraculous," but when so many players have the same affliction and are unable to cure it the way Granderson did (with an assist from hitting coach Kevin Long), it sure seems that way. If this is a new skill and Granderson is a new player, then I'm wrong and he won't regress. But, at least for the purposes of this article, I'm betting that the Granderson who hit 20 homers against lefties over six seasons is still in there, wearing a hockey mask, holding some serrated utensil, lurking behind the kitchen door, waiting for the new Granderson, the one who hit 16 homers versus lefties last year, to saunter down for a 3 a.m. sandwich in his PJs. —Matthew Kory