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March 25, 2013

Prospectus Preview

These Questions Three: The Favorites

by R.J. Anderson and Nick J. Faleris

In the week leading up to Opening Day, we're asking and answering three questions about each team in a five-part series ordered by descending Playoff Pct from the Playoff Odds Report. Today, we get things started with a look at the six teams with the highest odds of winning at least a Wild Card. As a reminder, you can find links to our preview podcasts for each team here.

CINCINNATI REDS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Playoff Pct: 78.6 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 92-70
Team WARP: 45.7
Team TAv.264
Runs Scored: 796
Runs Allowed: 681
Team FRAA: 8.3

1. Who will be the Reds' best starting pitcher this season?

Nick J. Faleris: I think this comes down to Johnny Cueto vs. Mat Latos, now that it has formally been announced that Aroldis Chapman is to remain in the pen. Neither Homer Bailey or Bronson Arroyo matches up with the aforementioned duo, and Leake tops out as a dependable back-end guy. Latos saw a slight increase in his HR/9 moving from Petco to Great American Ball Park, but was largely the same dominant force he was in San Diego. Cueto does a better job of keeping the ball in the park, but for me Latos’ stuff grades out a little better, as does his ability to miss bats.

R.J. Anderson: Yeah, this is a matter of Cueto versus Latos. It's probably worth noting that Cueto has been the better pitcher by most measures in recent years. We're talking about who will be, not who was, of course, but I'm going with Cueto. I dig his craftiness.

2. Will Devin Mesoraco end the season with the Reds?

NF: Ryan Hanigan has established himself as a more than capable option for Cincy, which means Mesoraco is stuck in a reserve role until an opportunity opens up. Unless there are off-the-field reasons for the front office to push to move Mesoraco, however, I can’t see the Reds jettisoning the young backstop this season. He has the potential to be an above-average offensive contributor at a very light position, and he still has another season or two before we really need to worry about his game failing to develop at the top level. Selling in 2013 would mean selling at a discount, and it would likely also mean that the Reds wouldn’t receive an impact piece in return. Mesoraco stays put for at least one more season, but needs to start showing progress over the course of the year.

RA: I still believe in Mesoraco's ability to make it work at the big-league level. The question for me isn't so much whether the Reds trade him this year, but whether they keep him around as the backup. They signed Miguel Olivo during the offseason, and they could opt for him as the main reserve. Remember, Cincinnati went to Dioner Navarro late last season, including the playoffs, so there's some precedent here.

3. True or false: Billy Hamilton makes a postseason appearance?

NF: True. The playoffs are a collection of games that are heavily managed, and part of that overmanagement is looking for opportunities to gain small advantages. Hamilton’s speed is game changing, and I cannot think of an argument against having him on the playoff roster for late-inning baserunning purposes (although Sam Miller argued against calling him up to fill that role late last season). If he’s at all capable in center field in Louisville, he should carve out MLB time at some point this season. The only way I don't see him making a postseason appearance is if the Reds don't finish as one of the top five teams in the National League.

RA: I'd also say true, for the reasons you specify.


DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Playoff Pct: 76.1 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 90-72
Team WARP: 39.1
Team TAv: .272
Runs Scored: 819
Runs Allowed: 726
Team FRAA: -3.3

1. Over/under combined 70 HR/225 RBI/.315 AVG for Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera?

RA: Over across the board. Last year they hit 74 home runs, had 247 RBI, and each hit better than .313 in more than 690 plate appearances. Cabrera, entering his age-30 season, is the older of the two. Obviously they could fall short, but I'll take my chances with hitters as good as these two.

NF: I tend to agree, though I’m not sure I’d push the lines much higher. The most likely area in which I could see the duo fall short would be home runs, with Cabrera going well beyond his previous career best in 2012. If I’m to be a betting man, give me under, over, over.

2. Will Rick Porcello be traded before the July deadline?

RA: Probably. When there's smoke there's usually fire, and there's a lot of smoke around Porcello's name—not just now, but throughout the winter. The Tigers have Drew Smyly to plug in, and you have to figure the difference in performance there probably wouldn’t be that big. Plus, neither one of those guys would start in the postseason, unless there were an injury. So we're talking about a fifth starter who just has to get through 162 games before taking on a cheerleader role. If the Tigers have the chance to upgrade in a meaningful manner at another spot, I don't think they'd hesitate to deal Porcello.

NF: Entering the season, I would have agreed with you. But by all accounts Porcello has looked sharp this spring, and I think there is a good chance that come July, the asking price isn’t going to sync up with what teams are willing to pay. Porcello loses some value in Detroit due to his proclivity to produce ground balls in front of a below-average defensive infield. Still, his walk and strikeout rates are moving in the right direction, and he will pitch the 2013 season as a mere 24-year old, with four years already under his belt. Today, he may be the most likely to be packaged and shipped out, but I say he’s still a Tiger come August.

3. At the end of the year, _____________ will lead the team in saves.

RA: I'll take the safe pick and go with Joaquin Benoit. For whatever reason, there was a sentiment this offseason that entrusting Bruce Rondon with the closer role was a safer, smarter play than signing Rafael Soriano. Rondon, as lovely as his stuff is, has flaws. Yet those flaws were ignored and trivialized because signing Soriano meant forfeiting a draft pick and dollars. Dave Dombrowski—who, by the way, is an underrated general manager—has thrown youngsters into the fire before and come out looking good. But it was an uncharacteristic move for a win-now team to consider. I just don't think they'll trust a 22-year-old with command-and-control issues for long. My guess is they'll go to Benoit until a better exterior option presents itself. Whether that's Carlos Marmol, Brian Wilson, John Axford, or someone else, I don't know.

NF: I think Rondon gets a fairly long leash, with Benoit providing perhaps more value in the seventh and eighth innings than he does coming in to close. Rondon does have control issues to sort through, but the closer role (due to the fact that you’re almost always entering the game with no one on base) is one where you have some latitude in that respect, so long as your stuff can miss major-league bats. It may not always be pretty, but give me Rondon.


LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Playoff Pct: 71.8 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 91-71
Team WARP: 42.2
Team TAv: .261
Runs Scored: 697
Runs Allowed: 608
Team FRAA: 4.0

1. Will Adrian Gonzalez bounce back?

NF: Yes, but the days of 30-plus home runs and a .500 SLG may be a thing of the past. BP’s weighted-mean projection puts Gonzalez at an .851 OPS with a .485 SLG, and that sounds completely reasonable to me. Gonzalez saw increases across the board in the second half, and those triple-slash and home run totals (.317/.361/.517/12 are closer to what I expect to see prorated through a full 2013 season. His home run per flyball rate dropped all the way to 9.6 percent (from 16.4 percent in each of the previous two seasons), without a decrease in line drive percentage. He is still hitting the ball hard, and while he is likely entering the decline phase of his career, it should get better than 2012 before it gets worse.

RA: I tend to think he'll hit better than he did last season. Gonzalez is a guy who always seemed to understand hitting and was obviously able to keep up the act for years upon years. It's just hard for me to envision him slipping from offensive force to secondary talent within a year's time. PECOTA's projection feels about right. That's a step down from 2011, but a step up from 2012.

2. In which month will Yasiel Puig debut?

NF: When the BP Prospect Team discussed Puig for the 2013 Dodgers Top Ten list, his estimated time of arrival was set at 2014. Even with a stellar spring training in the works, there is not any particular rush to push Puig to Los Angeles, especially considering the talent and contracts from left field to right field in the forms of Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier. Provided Puig shows well in Double-A, he could get serious consideration to fill in if one of the current starters goes down for any extended period of time. But for now I’d say September is most likely, with an outside shot at August if Crawford is struggling and Puig has proven all he needs to in the minors.

RA: I'll just throw a summer month out there at random and say July. Someone will get hurt, and the Dodgers will be in the race. They'll bring Puig up for two weeks to get his feet wet and to give the team a little boost.

3. True or false: The Dodgers will trade for a player who makes more than $10 million in salary this year.

NF: We have seen ownership willing to get aggressive financially, and I assume that if there is a glaring need and an available piece, money will not be the roadblock to completing a deal. However, I am going to say “false” based on the fact that, on paper, there aren’t any holes that jump out as necessitating a big fix, which is what I’d consider a prerequisite if you are looking to bring on $10 million plus in annual salary. Looking players making that much or more, the most obvious fit would appear to be someone like Cliff Lee, if the wheels fall off the Philly bus and one or more of Beckett and Ryu fail to meet expectations. Even in that case, it would likely take some other moves to free up at least a little capital, since we’d be talking about adding $25 million in both 2014 and 2015 and $27 million in 2016 (if Lee’s vesting option kicks in) to an already bloated budget. I just don't see need and opportunity matching up on this front, but of course I never would have predicted anything like the blockbuster that brought Beckett/AGon/Crawford to the West Coast last year.

RA: I'll also say false. The one position where acquiring a big-money rental would make the most sense, third base, doesn't have an obvious option available.


ANAHEIM ANGELS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Playoff Pct: 69.0 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 91-71
Team WARP: 42.5
Team TAv: .277
Runs Scored: 774
Runs Allowed: 674
Team FRAA: 9.4

1. Is Trout/Pujols/Hamilton the best trio of position player teammates in the game today?

RA: I wanted to say no to this, because it feels too trendy to be true. So I went through the rosters and pulled a few trios. It always seemed to be star-star-role player, which goes to show how rare the trio of superstars is. Anyhow, these are the three alternative trios that I felt the best about putting forth: Troy Tulowitzki/Carlos Gonzalez/Dexter Fowler; Jose Reyes/Jose Bautista/Edwin Encarnacion; Miguel Cabrera/Prince Fielder/Austin Jackson. I'm not sure I'd take any of those trios over the Trout-Pujols-Hamilton combination right now.

NF: I think the historic nature of Trout’s first full year makes it difficult to pick any other trio. If Trout is close to what he was in 2012, and Hamilton and Pujols are healthy and productive, I think they are the obvious pick. But I keep coming back to 1) Hamilton’s troubling second half in 2012, 2) the second straight rough April/May for Pujols, and 3) a level of disbelief that Trout can replicate his incredible showing last year. To me, Fielder and Cabrera carry much less risk than, say, Pujols and Hamilton, even if the latter duo when healthy and fully clicking probably provide more overall value. Trout obviously gets the nod in a head-to-head with Austin Jackson, but decline from Hamilton and Pujols in 2013 could quickly make up much of that difference. Looking solely at upside, the Braves could end up with an interesting trio in some combination of Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton, and Andrelton Simmons, with Justin Upton capable of putting up “among the best in the game” numbers and Heyward still possessing room to grow into an elite player. There are too many question marks to put them at the top of the list now, but perhaps the Dodgers deserve a mention as having potentially the most productive trio of players six months from now in Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, and Hanley Ramirez.

2. Who will be the best starting pitcher behind Jered Weaver?

RA: I don't have confidence in Tommy Hanson staying healthy, and I think Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas are what they are. That leaves C.J. Wilson as my favorite for second-best starter by default.

NF: I don’t disagree, but I wonder how dependable Wilson truly is entering the season. The second half of 2012 was not kind to him, and his overall stuff was nowhere near as crisp as it was through the first half. To me, the question is less about whether Hanson, Blanton, or Vargas can perform on Wilson’s level, and more about whether there is a legitimate chance that Wilson will be performing more like a no. 4 than a no. 2.

3. Which Angel is most likely to disappoint?

RA: Probably one of the three stars. With all due respect to Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick, Mark Trumbo, and the rest of the roster, Trout, Hamilton, and Pujols are going to be expected to have OPS figures starting with nines. I would guess that, were one of them to finish with an .850 OPS or something in that range, he would be viewed as the most disappointing player on the squad. Whether that should be the case or not is debatable.

NF: I think this comes down to Trout and Hamilton, if we’re setting odds. It would be almost impossible for Trout not to fall short of expectations considering the standard he has set for himself. Hamilton dealt with a multitude of issues toward the end of last season and has historically had some trouble staying on the field. While Pujols has started out slow the past two seasons, he has otherwise largely looked like himself. Considering the contract he landed this year, I’d say Hamilton enters the season as the most likely to leave fans (and perhaps the front office) wanting.


TEXAS RANGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Playoff Pct: 67.2 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 91-71
Team WARP: 43.4
Team TAv: .268
Runs Scored: 827
Runs Allowed: 725
Team FRAA: 4.8

1. Will Nicholas Tepesch be in the Rangers rotation come May?

NF: With the loss of Martin Perez and a thus far uneven showing from Justin Grimm this spring, I think there is a fair chance that Tepesch gets heavy consideration for a rotation spot at some point in the first two months if there are further injuries, or if we see underperformance in the back half of the rotation. Grimm’s stuff is better, but the fastball can get flat and hittable, particularly up in the zone. He’s added a slider, which will help give hitters another look, but I’m not convinced that he’s ready to shoulder an MLB rotation load at this point. Both Ogando and Robbie Ross will likely get rotation spots ahead of Tepesch, but neither is proven in the majors, and Tepesch is far enough along, developmentally, to warrant serious consideration if either of those two proves incapable.

RA: One guy that you didn't mention who may play into this is Kyle Lohse. I know Texas hasn't made the move yet, but if Lohse's asking price drops over the next four weeks I'd say it's possible Jon Daniels bites the bullet on the draft pick and adds another capable middle-of-the-rotation starter to his roster. The Rangers signed Roy Oswalt in late May last year, so they have familiarity with how to get a veteran arm up and in the rotation in a timely manner.

2. What should the Rangers do with Jurickson Profar?

NF: Profar needs to see game time every day, which means there probably isn’t room for him on the major-league team at this point. But the very first injury, at any position in the field, and I think he needs to be in Arlington. Profar is advanced beyond his years, and could immediately 1) step into the middle infield and provide good defense, and 2) put together strong major-league at-bats on a daily basis. He has an advanced understanding of the strike zone, makes at-bat to at-bat adjustments, is comfortable hitting deep in counts, and may be unparalleled at the minor-league level in squaring the ball up consistently. He is potentially an impact player from day one, and accordingly, the Rangers need to find a way for that skill set to be utilized in the majors. If that means shifting players around when an outfielder goes down, so be it. Profar has to be first in line when an opportunity opens up.

RA: I think it's tempting for a team with big-time resources like the Rangers to break a highly talented youngster like Profar into the majors in a lesser role. Ron Washington could get him two or three starts a week at various positions, and he could be a weapon off the bench. But ultimately I'm not sold that that's the right move. As you said, Profar could probably benefit from playing every day. I'd agree, and I'd ask this: Could sitting on the bench potentially harm his development? Maybe not. But when you have a potential asset like Profar, you should probably play it safe and go the traditional development route.

3. Over/under: 350 plate appearances for Lance Berkman?

NF: At 37 years old, there is almost always a greater risk of injury or fatigue than you’d find in a player five years younger. But Berkman has a couple of factors working in his favor. First, outside of last year he’s never had fewer than 481 (2010) plate appearances in a season, and has generally done a solid job of avoiding extended trips to the disabled list. He has been a steady presence in the lineup throughout his career—during a majority of which he’s been asked to play the field. In Texas, he’ll have the luxury of almost exclusively slotting in as a designated hitter, which should drastically reduce the everyday toll of fielding that might otherwise make him more susceptible to injury or fatigue.

Second, while he has averaged a solid 25 home runs per year over the course of a 14-season career, and has posted a career batting average of .296 through that same span, it is his career .409 on-base percentage that truly defines him as an offensive player. As currently constructed, the Rangers lack a true grinder in the box, though David Murphy and Adrian Beltre tend to put together consistently solid at-bats that work the opposing pitchers. Berkman could help in this area, and if the Rangers have an opportunity to inject both Berkman and Profar into the lineup, the result could be much earlier exits for opposing starters.

RA: I'll go over as well, but only with the caveat that this could change if Texas asks Berkman to play the field during a few interleague games. The wild cards here are if Berkman A) can't perform as well as they'd like while only DHing and/or B) replaces Mitch Moreland due to poor performance.


NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Playoff Pct: 67.0 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 91-71
Team WARP: 42.0
Team TAv: .268
Runs Scored: 799
Runs Allowed: 693
Team FRAA: 4.0

1. Is this the year the Yankees become "too old"?

RA: We ask this every spring, and every summer they're in the chase and every fall they're in the tournament. Granted, this year does feel different. Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Curtis Granderson are dealing with injuries, Mariano Rivera is coming off a serious injury, and so on. Even the rotation, which looks like the strength of this team, has some durability-based question marks—CC Sabathia went on the DL for the first time in forever last season; Andy Pettitte has made trips there in each of his past two seasons; Phil Hughes is only one year removed from missing a good chunk of time due to shoulder fatigue and is presently dealing with a bulging disc; and so on.

Yet despite it all, I'm not ready to write the Yankees off. One, because all the teams in the AL East have questions marks. Two Brian Cashman has shown a knack for identifying undervalued talent—particularly in the form of old, injury-prone veterans—and the Yankees staff has shown a knack for keeping those guys healthy and productive. Will those two factors be enough to guide the Yankees to October? Maybe not. But I'm skeptical that an age-related collapse is in order.

NF: You are, of course, correct in your characterization of the annual hand-wringing regarding the aging Bombers. Still, it’s difficult not to look at the roster, along with the mounting health concerns (either cropping up or not going away) as we approach the season, and feel like 2013 is different from previous years. Mark Teixeira has seen his production and ability to stay on the field decrease each season since going the Yanks, and there is a fair chance that his 2013 could be lost completely due to his strained wrist.

Jeter continues to fall behind schedule in working back to full health from the ankle injury suffered at the end of 2012, and even the most optimistic of Yankees fans would have to concede that there is no telling what a “healthy” Jeter is going to look like given the nature of the ankle injury, his age, and his declining skill set—particularly in the field and on the bases.

True, Cashman has once again assembled a lineup of professional hitters who should, at minimum, put together tough at-bats and hang lots of pitches on opposing starters. But the explosiveness that once was a given in the Yankees lineup is all but gone, save for Robinson Cano (who continues to be among the best players in the game). Perhaps betting against the Yankees is still a fool’s wager, but the margin for error is smaller right now than I can remember it being at the same point in any spring training in recent memory.

2. Over/under .280/10 HR/550 PA for Derek Jeter?

RA: It's a testament to Jeter's career that we're talking about these numbers for a 38-year-old shortstop fresh off a serious ankle injury. This is sort of like the "are the Yankees too old" question, but focused on a single position player. Logically, I should bet against Jeter hitting .280 with 10 or more homers in 550-plus plate appearances. But the guy always seems to find a way to get his numbers. I do think Joe Girardi will try resting Jeter more this season, but we don’t know whether Jeter will accept that time off, or whether the Yankees will be in position to offer those rest days all season. I'll say over, push, over.

NF: I take the under across the board, if for no other reason than an ankle injury can be tricky from a recovery standpoint for anyone, let alone an ancient shortstop who will routinely put pressure on the joint in the field, at the plate, and on the bases. Staying healthy could be a year-long struggle for the future Hall of Famer, and the surprising production of 2012 isn’t quite enough to convince me that Jeter can continue to defy father time.

3. More crucial to the 2013 season: Sabathia or Cano?

RA: For me this isn't a question. Sabathia's talent and importance is undeniable, but Cano is the better player. If Sabathia gets hurt, the Yankees have some options to fill in at the back of the rotation, be it David Phelps, Adam Warren, or Chien-Ming Wang. If Cano gets hurt, it's David Adams, Corban Joseph, Eduardo Nunez, Gil Velasquez, or Jayson Nix. There would be a big disparity in talent in either case, but I think some combination of those arms could produce better results than some combination of the bats.

NF: I wholeheartedly agree that Cano is the more valuable player, and given my above concerns with some of the other position players, logic would follow that the Yankees need Cano more than ever to be a driving force for the offense. However, given the question marks on the offensive side, the performance of the rotation is of paramount importance, and Sabathia is the leader of that corps. The fall-off from Sabathia to a replacement may be smaller than that from Cano to a replacement, but as a starter, Sabathia’s presence may be more meaningful on the days he throws (acknowledging that he has no impact on the other four days). Perhaps more importantly, if Sabathia ends up closer to 185 innings than the 230 or so he averages in a healthy season, there will be added innings for the bullpen to eat. Given the potential health concerns you mention above related to Hughes and Pettitte, if Sabathia falters, we could see too many pressure points on the pen for it to hold up for six months.

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
Nick J. Faleris is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nick's other articles. You can contact Nick by clicking here

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