March 26, 2014
AL Central 2014 Preseason Preview
In the week leading up to Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus is conducting a division-by-division dialogue, asking and answering five questions about each team. Below, Ben Lindbergh and Nick Wheatley-Schaller discuss the American League Central.
1) How will the shortstop situation shake out?
Nick Wheatley-Schaller: The Tigers will try to platoon Alex Gonzalez with Andrew Romine, but they’ll have to be creative with how they choose when to play each player. Romine is a switch-hitter and Gonzalez has hit .243/.291/.400 against lefties and .249/.293/.405 against righties in his career, so it will be tough to leverage the two players to get any offensive advantage. I expect to see Brad Ausmus switch between the two players based on the starting pitchers’ preferences and Alex Gonzalez’s health. By the time Iglesias is back, Ausmus will be leaving one glove at shortstop and Romine and Gonzalez will have to race to the position at the beginning of every game.
Ben Lindbergh: It’s too bad that we’re talking about this; I was really looking forward to the Tigers’ transformation into a team that could catch the ball. I’m more optimistic about their plan to play a 37-year-old Alex Gonzalez at short than I was about the Brewers’ plan to play the 36-year-old version at first base, but that doesn’t mean I have high hopes. There’s a reason why Gonzalez sat out the rest of the season after Milwaukee released him last June. Yes, he’s hit .429/.467/.679 in spring training, but Yuniesky Betancourt hit .446/.450/.625 in twice as many at-bats last spring, and we know how well that worked out.
Romine projects to be both the better hitter (barely) and the better glove, so I’d expect him to get most of the starts, especially since he’s less likely to be banged up. As it stands, though, shortstop for the Tigers projects to be the least-productive position on any projected playoff team. (Well, except for third base for the Tigers—PECOTA has it out for Nick Castellanos.) Iglesias may miss the whole season, and as long as Stephen Drew is at large, it’s going to be tough to resist the temptation to place a call to Scott Boras that could turn the Tigers’ weakness into a strength. This team is probably good enough to survive a vortex of suck at shortstop, but watching Romine and Gonzalez struggle all season might make Mike Illitch tear his full head of natural-looking hair out. If they get off to a slow start, he could crack.
Nick: Yes. Even after trading away Doug Fister, the Tigers have enough pitching depth to tread carefully. Judging by the Bailey and Kershaw deals, the discount for signing a player a year early doesn’t seem large enough to warrant the risk of signing a pitcher to such a massive deal. If the Tigers think that Robbie Ray is good enough to be the centerpiece of the Fister trade, then they’ll want to see him for a full year before making a decision on Scherzer.
Ben: I’m with you, Nick, and I’ll add Kate Upton’s own Justin Verlander to the list of extended starters who didn’t come cheap. Coming off a Cy Young season, and with his financial future reportedly protected in the event of an injury, Scherzer wasn’t going to give Detroit the kind of discount that would have justified making a commitment without knowing whether his arm would survive this season intact. Since the Mike Hampton contract, teams have been unwilling to sign a pitcher for eight years, even with pitchers whose mechanics are regarded as lower-risk than Scherzer’s. Scherzer knows that with Jon Lester (and maybe Justin Masterson) signing extensions at some point this season, he’ll be in a class of his own on the open market, so there’s no incentive for him to settle. If the Tigers are going to pay through the nose to keep him, they might as well do it with more data at their disposal. If I blame them for anything, it’s their somewhat passive-aggressive press release.
3) Is the Tigers’ search for a setup man going to be the new Tigers’ vacancy at closer?
Ben: I thought the 2013 Tigers’ season-long search for a closer could have been resolved a lot sooner; Joaquin Benoit looked like a perfectly fine closer candidate to me in March, and though the team seemingly tried everything to avoid handing him the job—up to and including a comeback by Jose Valverde—Benoit ultimately succeeded as the designated Guy Who Gets Saves (except for that one time with David Ortiz). Assuming Joe Nathan stays intact at age 39 (which isn’t exactly a lock), the Tigers have addressed their ninth-inning needs, but Benoit’s departure and Bruce Rondon’s injury leaves them with a similarly uncertain situation in the eighth.
In Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque, Luke Putkonen, and Evan Reed, Brad Ausmus’ bullpen has a bunch of typically Tigers hard throwers—heck, even lefties Phil Coke and Ian Krol throw 94—but they all have shaky control and/or secondary stuff. Collecting flamethrowers and hoping one of them clicks isn’t the worst approach to building a bullpen I drafted Putkonen (10 strikeouts, zero walks in 11 IP this spring) in my Effectively Wild reliever league, so I’m hoping he’s the one who emerges.
Nick: It’s hard to see the Tigers settling on an option anytime soon. Unless Alburquerque rediscovers his magical ability to prevent homers on fly balls or Chamberlain finally gets those midges out of his eyes, the Tigers will be hoping that someone like Putkonen will come out of nowhere to fill that role effectively. The team’s rotation will have to pick up some of the slack by pitching later into games.
Nick: It will be tough for Porcello to do anything more helpful than improving his strikeout rate from 13 percent to 19 percent as he did last year, when he improved his whiff rate on all of his pitches compared to 2010-2012. The problem Porcello has always had is ineffectiveness with guys on base. It’s not just an unlucky BABIP with men on, or a small sample size—Porcello has been worse in nearly every way from the stretch over his career. That will limit his potential for any sort of breakout unless he makes a significant mechanical adjustment.
Smyly won’t have an easy path to success as a starter. His 2013 stats were aided greatly by facing lefties in 42 percent of plate appearances, a luxury he won’t enjoy as a starter. That split allowed him to throw his changeup just five times all year. He will be serviceable as a fifth starter, but the Tigers will definitely regret dumping Fister if their rotation faces a serious injury and Smyly has to move up a spot or two.
Ben: I’m not sold on further improvement from Porcello either, not just because of his issues with men on base, but because of his struggles against southpaws. Lefties have a 116 career OPS+ against him, and they tagged him to the tune of a 124 OPS+ last season. It hurts that he won’t have Iglesias gobbling up his grounders, too, though he has found a creative way to avoid allowing batted balls.
The good news is that Porcello’s peripherals already paint him as a pretty good pitcher, and he’ll be a fine fourth starter if his ERA-FIP gap gets any smaller.
I’m a bit more bullish on Smyly, whom I expect to more or less replicate his performance as a starter in 2012. Under Jim Leyland, the more Smyly succeeded, the less he was allowed to pitch. The decision to stretch him out was smart, though the conversion came at a cost if it made Dave Dombrowski more impatient to deal Doug Fister.
5) How long will the Tigers be the AL Central’s team to beat?
Nick: The Tigers’ combination of a good front office and a large budget will keep them in the catbird seat for at least the next couple of years. After that, either the Royals or the Twins will have graduated enough minor league talent to have a chance to supplant the Tigers as favorites. If the Tigers go all in and re-sign Scherzer, Cabrera, and Jackson, they could buy themselves another year or two.
Ben: Yes, although they might doom themselves to a Phillies-esque decline phase in the process (and a Cabrera extension could have some Pujols potential). I wonder whether the Fister trade stemmed in part from front-office anxiety about the club’s lack of young talent. The 25-man roster is still strong, but without a plan to transition from the current core to the next good Tigers team, it’s easy to envision the end.
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 25.4 (7.0 pitching, 18.4 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 702
Runs Allowed: 725
Team TAv: .265
Team FRAA: -8.8
1) How many games will Carlos Santana play at third base this year?
Nick: When I came up with this question, I didn’t think it would be more than 30 games, but yesterday, Terry Francona announced that Santana will the starting third baseman heading into the season. There won’t be a platoon, which makes Lonnie Chisenhall’s future uncertain. Of course, there’s still a very real chance that Santana will play his way off third base. From what I’ve seen of him in the Dominican Winter League and spring training, he should be capable of playing the position at an acceptable level. But Santana has made some ugly errors, and if he makes a few at unfortunate moments and costs the Indians a game or two, they might decide it’s best to play him at first base and DH, with the occasional chance to spell Yan Gomes behind the plate.
Ben: I was skeptical that Miguel Cabrera could stick at third for as long as he did, but I’m not going to make the same mistake with Santana. The Indians have had plenty of time to evaluate his defense, and they’ve determined that they can live with what they’ve seen so far, so while his future lies at DH, I’ll buy that he’ll play the bulk of his games this year at third base. Between moving Santana and releasing Lou Marson, it looks like the Indians are getting on board the framing train. If there’s anything that could kill this experiment, it’s that this team doesn’t have an established DH, which means that Santana might slide into that role if Chisenhall hits.
2) Who will be the Indians’ fifth starter at the all-star break?
Nick: Either Carlos Carrasco or Josh Tomlin will win the spot out of spring training, but I think that by July, Shaun Marcum will be in that role. His peripherals were decent with the Mets last year, and the Tribe has the luxury of letting him prepare for the season slowly. He probably won’t get a chance to pitch until May, which means that by July he’ll be at full strength and won’t be injured quite yet. There’s a chance that Trevor Bauer could crack the rotation at some point this year if his revamped mechanics come together. Even if the overhaul succeeds, he probably won’t make it to the majors until later in the summer, because he still needs to prove that he can command his fastball consistently.
Ben: All of the possible answers to this question make me sad. I’m past the point of counting on Marcum to be pitching at any point in time, so I’ll pick Carrasco, just because the Indians will be tired of Tomlin by then but Bauer probably won’t be ready.
Nick: Kluber will have the edge in innings, because Cleveland will be careful with Salazar. But while Kluber should have a solid year, Salazar has a better chance of dominating for a full season. Among starters who threw 50 innings last year, Salazar had the highest swinging strike rate on fastballs and the the third-highest whiff rate on splitters. He has incredible velocity and can attack both lefties and righties with his devastating splitter. I think he makes up for the innings gap with to a sub-3.50 ERA.
Ben: Tie. Seriously, don’t make me pick one. Both of their WARPs will be good.
4) Will Asdrubal Cabrera be playing in Cleveland in September?
Nick: If the Indians are in contention, they’ll have no reason to trade him away. Cabrera should be better than he was last year, but even so he’s not going to have too much value as a rental. The Indians aren’t trying to rush Francisco Lindor, and even if they bring him up in September, Cabrera could be useful to have around.
Ben: Agreed. I think he’s going to play out his contract in Cleveland, though a super-slow start by the team and a super-hot first half for Cabrera could change that.
5) Did the Indians miss their chance last year?
Nick: Jimenez and Kazmir were pretty incredible at the end of last year, and once Masterson came back from his finger injury the rotation was strong. It’s going to be an uphill battle for the Indians to win 90 games again with this roster, but they didn’t totally miss their chance at playoff success. Their lineup is still solid, and Yan Gomes has a great glove behind the plate. When Lindor arrives in 2015, their defense will get the boost it needs up the middle.
Ben: It seems cruel to say that they missed their chance, since just getting a chance was an achievement, and despite their 30-17 record in one-run games, their run differential fully supported their record. That said, I don’t think their pitching is up to the task of taking them back to October (see question no. 2).
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 28.0 (8.2 pitching, 19.8 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 711
Runs Allowed: 737
Team TAv: .263
Team FRAA: 24.4
1) Dayton Moore’s winter: good offseason, or the best offseason of any GM?
Nick: Not trading away any Rookie of the Year candidates gets him to “good.” Signing Infante before the Yankees could brings him up to “the best.”
Ben: Until fairly recently, Moore’s best major-league move was trading for Esteban German, so if we assess his offseason relative to his previous performance, he may have had the best winter ever. We don’t have to grade on any kind of curve to pronounce Kansas City’s offseason a success, though. Signing Omar Infante and trading for Norichika Aoki were shrewd moves and major upgrades (though the upgrades were so big only because Moore was so slow to cut bait on Chris Getz and Jeff Francoeur). Moore also did well to sell high on David Lough, getting Danny Valencia in return as Mike Moustakas insurance.
Back when the Royals’ farm was getting the kind of acclaim that the Cubs’ and Twins’ systems are today, the concern was that Moore, who specialized in scouting and player development and had a history of questionable moves at the major-league level, would derail the rebuild by dealing homegrown talent in pursuit of the wrong players. We’ve taken plenty of shots at moves he’s made in the past, but he redeemed himself to some extent this winter by recognizing that the Royals wouldn’t improve upon (or even maintain) their modest success from last season without some help at a couple of key positions.
Nick: Escobar and Moustakas should both be better, but Escobar has a lower floor to start from, so I’ll pick him. He doesn’t have to do much—just go back to his career chase rate instead of limiting his walks and hitting into weak outs on pitches out of the zone. His triples were also down last year (he was between seven and 10 each year from 2009-2012, but his total fell to four in 2013), so a little luck when he does hit a gapper will go a long way toward raising that embarrassing .066 ISO.
Ben: I agree that Escobar has the best shot; his offensive struggles were so severe last season that he could pull off a 20-point jump just by hitting his ~35th-percentile projection. But I don’t think a substantial gain is out of the question for any of these guys—even Hosmer, who has the highest bar to clear. Hosmer’s .307 second-half TAv in 2013 was 28 points higher than his first-half mark and 16 points higher than his full-season performance, and his mid-season rededication to pull power makes me more inclined to believe that was something more than a BABIP boost.
Maybe I’m blinded by the average age of this offense, two-thirds of which is still well under 30, but I still see some upside here. Mike Moustakas is hitting .429/.525/.796 this spring! Sure, he hit .394/.429/.718 last spring and was awful all season, but this time…
Ben: I promised myself that I’d answer this question without resorting to PECOTA, so I came up with my own estimate: a combined 300 innings with a 4.50 ERA. Then I checked our depth charts, which give Chen and Guthrie a combined 299.3 innings with a 4.62 ERA. The lesson here, other than the fact that we could save ourselves a lot of time and effort if we retired PECOTA and just went with my gut, is that the Royals have some runs to make up, even before accounting for the loss of Ervin Santana. This year’s team could be even better on defense (which might help Chuthrie beat my 4.50 forecast), but they’re still going to have to score some more runs.
Nick: It’s hard to imagine Chen repeating his 3.27 ERA, so that number should be worse, but Guthrie has been very consistent in accruing innings, so they have a good chance of providing the same volume. An excellent outfield defense will help limit the extent to which the flyball-inducing Chen regresses, but a 4.20-4.30 ERA is the best the Royals can realistically expect from the pair.
Ben: It wouldn’t be fair to apply that tag to anyone—rookie seasons like the one Fernandez had come along about as often as he and Doc Gooden do—but Ventura could be the closest thing. Unlike Archie Bradley, Fernandez has already made the majors and locked up a rotation spot, and he has both the means and opportunity to make a more immediate impact than Taijuan Walker, Kevin Gausman, and Noah Syndergaard. Unlike the younger Fernandez, who was shut down late last season, Ventura will be working without an innings limit, so he might make up in bulk what he doesn’t deliver in per-inning performance. We could dismiss Ventura’s spring training stats (20.3 IP, 18 K, 4 BB, 1.77 ERA) as a small sample, but there’s no ignoring the stuff:
Nick: Ventura will rival Fernandez’s exciting repertoire and high strikeout totals, but it will be tough to match his overall effectiveness. Fernandez allowed only 0.52 HR/9 last year, a mark that will be very difficult to match in the American League. The Royals righty will produce some great highlights, but he’ll also leave some fastballs over the middle of the plate.
5) Is 2014 the best chance that the current collection of Royals has to win? And if so, how worried should KC fans be?
Nick: Losing Shields will hurt, but their core of Perez, Gordon, Hosmer, and Ventura will keep them competitive for the next few years, so this isn’t their last shot. Things could come together again in 2016, as they start to see more of that minor-league talent but still have Gordon under contract. Considering how the last 19 years have gone for Kansas City, now is not a good time to worry.
Ben: I concur. A step back could be coming in 2015, but I wouldn’t expect a return to the team’s depressing pre-2013 depths in the foreseeable future.
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 21.1 (7.1 pitching, 14.0 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 685
Runs Allowed: 739
Team TAv: .261
Team FRAA: -19.5
1) What are the chances that the White Sox finish anywhere other than fourth place?
Nick: Barring significant injuries to Cleveland or Kansas City, the White Sox would have to get very lucky in order to finish third, but they have enough talent on their pitching staff to avoid losing more games than the Twins. Fourth place is a very likely option, as their lineup lacks depth and their defense will be bad again.
Ben: Well, I picked them to finish fifth, which, now that I think about it, was probably a Pavlovian reaction to seeing John Danks on the depth chart. I do like the moves Rick Hahn made to improve a putrid offense, and a Chris Sale-led rotation almost has to better than one fronted by Ricky Nolasco, Danks be damned. But I have a hard time envisioning any way that this team could climb past Cleveland or KC.
Nick: Probably not this year, but maybe next year. Eaton has to play decent defense in order for that to happen, unless Trumbo ends up being as bad in left as he looked in Sydney. Eaton will be fun to watch this year, as his above-average on-base percentage enables him take advantage of his speed.
Ben: Better this year? No, though it could be close. (PECOTA gives Trumbo only a 0.4-WARP edge.) Better over Trumbo’s three remaining years of team control? Yes, I’d say so. A combination of youth, up-the-middle defense, and on-base skills is hard to beat.
3) Is Chris Sale more likely to lead the league in strikeouts or watch his arm fly off?
Nick: I don’t think there’s any reason to be more worried about Sale than any other young pitcher. He managed 214 innings last year, and if he does that again, he has a chance to lead the league in K’s. The biggest obstacle in Sale’s path to a strikeout title is Yu Darvish, not his own mechanics. It’s very impressive for a left-handed starter to be so dominant. One can only imagine what he would have done in the bullpen, where he would have faced southpaws more often.
Ben: More likely to lead the league in strikeouts. But just because Sale’s arm has defied the predictions of the doom-and-gloom crowd so far doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily safe to exhale. He has only 511 pro innings under his belt, so it could be that that the counter on the time bomb is still ticking. Even pitchers who don’t look like Mister Fantastic when they throw run some risk of encountering arm issues in any given season, and Sale has suffered from some minor shoulder fatigue/inflammation in each of the past two seasons.
4) Will Jose Abreu's slugging percentage be higher than his batting average in his best Cuban season (.453)?
Nick: Higher. He has enough raw power to get there even if his batting average hovers around .250. Yasiel Puig’s adjustment period led to a lot of sliders low and away, so we’ll see whether the same is in store for Abreu. Having Paul Konerko to spell him against certain pitchers could be helpful.
Ben: Abreu says he’s been pleasantly surprised by how comfortable he’s felt this spring, and he hasn’t looked overmatched. I’ll take the over too, if only because of the ballpark—If Alexei Ramirez could slug .475 in his first year in Chicago, Abreu can too.
5) How will Hawk Harrelson react to the increased use of sabermetrics in the White Sox broadcasts?
Nick: Hawk won’t overreact now that he knows what’s coming. Steve Stone will present information as one possible way in which to view the game, and Hawk will be dismissive but polite. It’s a lot easier to fight with Brian Kenny than to fight with your broadcast partner, and Hawk just wants to have a good time.
Ben: Remember that game last June when Kyle Seager hit a game-tying grand slam against the Sox in the 14th inning, and Hawk responded with 40 seconds of silence? I’m expecting a lot of silence to follow the sabermetrics segments. Whether he chooses passive resistance or fights back with a barrage of dadgummits and TWTWs, Hawk’s response to Stone discussing stats might be the best reason for non-fans to watch the White Sox this season.
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 18.4 (3.4 pitching, 15.0 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 688
Runs Allowed: 784
Team TAv: .261
Team FRAA: -2.1
1) Fill in the blank: Joe Mauer is a top-____ first baseman.
Nick: Top 10. He’s athletic enough to play average defense at first, and the move to catcher will keep him healthy enough to maintain that excellent BABIP. He may never have another slugging percentage above .500, but he gets on base enough to make up for that. The only warning sign is his strikeout rate, which rose to a career-high 17 percent last year. He was still excellent overall, but that’s something to watch, since Mauer relies so heavily on getting hits on balls in play.
Ben: Mauer’s .315 TAv last season would have ranked seventh among first basemen with a minimum of 500 plate appearances; PECOTA projects him to rank sixth in that category among his peers at the position in 2014. In the past, this is where I would’ve said something like, “And who knows how much better he’ll hit now that he’s not squatting and getting foul-tipped!”, but I’m not going to go there after Zachary Levine’s recent article on that subject, which showed that catchers tend not to improve on offense after moving out from behind the plate.
I’m willing to buy that Mauer can be an above-average fielding first baseman, though—not because of his small-sample statistical success there, or because a scout in 2001 told Jayson Stark that “if he ever moves to first base, he’s a Gold Glove first baseman,” or because Kent Hrbek says he could play a decent shortstop, but because he seems to have the physical skills to succeed there. I agree that top 10 is the likeliest outcome, but if he stays healthy and shows no lingering effects from his concussion, he has an outside shot at the top five.
Nick: Hughes has done that three times in the last four years, so he’s got a good chance. In general, he’ll have an easier time in Target Field after giving up so many homers at Yankee Stadium. Without having to worry about giving up a homer every other pitch, he can take more risks with his fastball and get ahead of batters more often. Of course, there’s always a chance that he he’ll adopt the Twins’ pitch-to-contact tendencies and revert to his 2011 days, when he struck out 5 per 9, and in that case the alternatives are scarce.
Ben: I’m high on Hughes, and I think he can do it if he’s healthy enough to take the ball 20 times. Sam Deduno might have an outside shot if Kyle Gibson struggles again. Ricky Nolasco did it last year, but I’d be surprised if he sustained that strikeout rate in the American League. This staff still looks like something out of the ’80s.
3) Why sign Kurt Suzuki? Asking for a friend who’s currently this club’s backup catcher.
Nick: The Twins needed a catcher who is focused on handling the pitching staff, not someone who’s too busy “getting on base” to chat with his starter on the bench.
Ben: Josmil Pinto is a poor framer, but so is Kurt Suzuki. Suzuki has been a good blocker, though, and he’s showing it again by blocking Pinto. Pinto, at least, has the potential to improve behind the plate, not to mention a much better bat, so the Twins will be better when he’s in the lineup. Suzuki beats Eric Fryer or Chris Herrmann (low bar alert), so there’s that, but he should be the backup (and probably will be at some point this season).
4) Will this team score runs? What about when Mauer isn’t in the lineup?
Nick: Mauer will spend a lot of time at first—not only in the field, but also as a baserunner. Trevor Plouffe might provide more power than he did last year, and Oswaldo Arcia could be excellent if he reduces his strikeout rate to a reasonable level, but otherwise the outlook is grim. Things could get ugly against the Tigers’ front four, and Salazar, Ventura, and Sale will all pad their stats against this lineup. I hope Mauer knows that now that he’s an infielder, he has to play 162 games.
Ben: “My god, it’s full of stars!” says no one, when looking at the Twins’ lineup. This offense was weak last year, and Minnesota didn’t do much to improve it. The Twins have to hope that Josh Willingham and Jason Kubel recover their 2012 form and that Arcia picked up some pitch recognition over the winter.
5) The Cubs are getting plenty of internet attention for building a strong farm system, despite their short-term struggles. Why haven’t the Twins received the same love? Do they deserve to?
Nick: The Cubs are normally big spenders, so in their case, focusing on the farm system is a better story and seems more like a deliberate plan. Plus, Theo Epstein’s presence adds some star power. That said, even if the depth of the Twins’ system hasn’t been as well publicized, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano have gotten their fair share of hype, so I think the industry is aware that Twins fans have good reasons to look forward to the future.
Ben: Twins employees are appointed for life, so their rebuilding effort isn’t a case of a new regime coming in, doing things differently, and cleaning up a mess made by a previous front office. Plus, the Cubs have the big market, the long history, and the legendary title drought, so anything they do is bound to get more attention. The sabermetric community has a soft spot for teams that espouse the same beliefs, so an Epstein-led enterprise attracts attention, but it might be that we could learn more from Terry Ryan, who puts together contenders without being an outspoken disciple of Bill James. The Twins topped the Cubs in our organizational rankings; even if the story isn’t as sexy, the talent is.
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @benlindbergh