March 30, 2011
On the Beat
All spring training clichés go out the window on Thursday. It will be Opening Day for 12 teams, with the other 18 beginning their seasons the following day. There will be no more talk about pitchers just getting their work in and hitters grooving their swings. Managers will no longer be talking about how the results don't matter.
The games start counting and the excuses for poor performance stop. With that in mind, let's take a look at one player on each major-league team who needs to make no excuses and step up this season for his team. (Statistics are 2011 PECOTA projections.)
Angels: INF Maicer Izturis. The oft-injured infielder could fill two big holes by playing third base and hitting leadoff. However, it has also been five years since he posted a career-best 2.9 WARP. Regardless, he's a better option than Brandon Wood and last year's .151 TAv.
Astros: 1B Brett Wallace. He struggled last season after being acquired from the Phillies in a deadline trade, with a .229 TAv in 159 plate appearances. However, Wallace impressed Astros manager Brad Mills enough this spring to keep his spot in the lineup. If he can carry that over into the regular season, it would be a major help to Houston's anemic offense.
Athletics: CF Coco Crisp. He is an effective leadoff hitter when healthy, but he always seems to have some kind of injury or ailment. He posted a .296 TAv last season but was limited to just 328 plate appearances. A full season with a .296 TAv would go a long way in helping the Athletics complete in the AL West.
Blue Jays: C J.P. Arencibia. He went 4-for-4 with two home runs in his major-league debut last season but finished with a .183 TAv in 37 plate appearances. Arencibia will begin this season sharing time behind the plate with Jose Molina, as Toronto is concerned about his defense. However, Molina is better suited to be a backup, and for the Blue Jays to be a factor in the AL East they are going to need Arencibia to produce.
Braves: CF Nate McLouth. He was awful last season, with a .240 TAv in 268 plate appearances, and was sent was sent back to Triple-A for a month. Atlanta, though, believes McLouth is back on track, and he will begin the season hitting leadoff for a team with post-season aspirations.
Brewers: CF Carlos Gomez. He has yet to live up to his potential, accumulating just 2.4 WARP through 1,420 career plate appearances. He will get another opportunity to prove himself this season this season, though the Brewers acquired center fielder Nyjer Morgan in a trade with the Nationals last Sunday to add insurance.
Cardinals: CF Colby Rasmus. St. Louis management believes he is poised for a breakthrough season, something along the lines of 30 home runs and a possible Gold Glove. Some scouts and front-office types feel he is ready to break through as the best center fielder in the game.
Cubs: 3B Aramis Ramirez. He seemed disconnected last season until Lou Piniella walked away as manager in August and third base coach Mike Quade took over. Now that Quade is the full-time skipper, it stands to reason Ramirez is happier. He certainly has plenty of motivation, as this is his walk year.
Diamondbacks: RF Justin Upton. He had a disappointing 2010 with 2.1 WARP, after looking like he was ready to become a superstar in 2009 when he was worth 4.3 WARP. Still just 23, Upton still has a lot of upside, and a bounce-back season would help Arizona try to climb out of the NL West cellar.
Dodgers: CF Matt Kemp. Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly says Kemp is focused and ready to have a big year. That would be a change from a tumultuous 2010, when Kemp was publicly criticized by GM Ned Colletti, clashed with members of the coaching staff, and seemed more interest in getting publicity for his now-ended relationship with pop singer Rihanna.
Giants: 3B Pablo Sandoval. The Kung Fu Panda's WARP went from 5.6 in 2009 to just 1.0 last season, and he was a nonfactor in October during San Francisco's unlikely drive to the World Series championship. However, Sandoval lost 37 pounds over the winter, and the Giants hope his WARP gains accordingly.
Indians: 1B Matt LaPorta. He was the centerpiece of the four-prospect package that Cleveland received from the Brewers in the CC Sabathia trade in 2008. This figures to be LaPorta's last chance to prove he is a major-league regular. If he fails, the trade will go down as a terrible one for the Indians.
Mariners: 1B Justin Smoak. Seattle needs all the offense it can get after scoring the fewest runs in the major leagues last season. Furthermore, Smoak needs to prove he was worthy of being the centerpiece of the trade that sent Cliff Lee to Texas last July, particularly after the Mariners turned down an offer from the Yankees that included top catching prospect Jesus Montero.
Marlins: RHP Ricky Nolasco. He has the stuff to be one of the league's best pitchers, fills up the strike zone, and always has good peripherals. Still, he has yet to emerge as a strong No. 2 in the rotation behind Josh Johnson. Florida is betting Nolasco will become that type of pitcher this year, having signed him to a three-year, $26 million contract in the offseason.
Mets: LF Jason Bay. He had a miserable first season in New York last year after signing a four-year, $66 million contract as a free agent, and now appears likely to begin the season on the disabled list with a strained muscle in his side. While his .280 TAv wasn't terrible last year, he contributed just 0.7 WARP, then missed most of the second half after suffering a concussion. The Mets need more bang for their buck than that.
Nationals: RHP Jordan Zimmermann. He is the best hope to give Washington a frontline starter this season while Stephen Strasburg recovers from Tommy John surgery. Zimmermann sat out most of last season while recovering from his own Tommy John operation, but has looked sharp this spring.
Orioles: C Matt Wieters. The expectations, which PECOTA helped fuel, have been high ever since he made his major-league debut in 2009. While Wieters has won high marks for his improvement in working with a pitching staff, his offensive production has still lagged. While it's unfair to call him a bust at this point, he certainly hasn't hit like a young Johnny Bench.
Padres: RF Ryan Ludwick. He was a major disappointment after being acquired from the Cardinals at the trading deadline last season, posting a .234 TAv and 0.1 WARP in 239 plate appearances. The Padres brought him back for $7 million this season and are counting on him to make up for some of the production lost when Adrian Gonzalez was traded to the Red Sox in December.
Phillies: SS Jimmy Rollins. The Phillies look like they are going to be without second baseman Chase Utley (knee) for an extended period, and rookie Domonic Brown (broken hand)—charged with filling the void left when right fielder Jayson Werth exited as a free agent—will also start the season on the disabled list. Philadelphia needs someone to step up, and it would certainly help if Rollins could regain his old All-Star form after posting .247 and .263 TAvs the past two seasons, contributing 2.0 WARP in that span.
Pirates: RHP Kevin Correia. Pittsburgh has a rotation full of number four and five starters and needs someone to at least eat up some innings to avoid asking the bullpen to work four or five innings a night. Correia, who has been tabbed as the Opening Day starter, did pitch 198 innings for the Padres in 2009, though they removed him from the rotation in the middle of a pennant race last September.
Rangers: 3B Adrian Beltre. Given a five-year, $80 million contract as a free agent over the winter, he will be counted on to make up for the production lost when Vladimir Guerrero left for the Orioles as a free agent. Guerrero had 29 home runs and 115 RBIs last season, levels Beltre hasn't reached since 2004, his walk year with the Dodgers.
Rays: SS Reid Brignac. While free agent additions Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon have garnered the most attention this spring, the Rays are counting on the 25-year-old Brignac to take over at a key position. It's a calculated risk, as Brignac has started just 61 major-league games.
Red Sox: RHP Josh Beckett. Boston has a strong starting rotation with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz at the top, but it would be even better if Beckett could return to form following a dismal 2010. Beckett was sub-replacement level last season with -0.6 WARP, though his 3.84 SIERA gives hope for a strong comeback this year.
Reds: CF Drew Stubbs. Many scouts believe Stubbs is a 30-30 player waiting to happen and that he could reach those marks as soon as this season. However, he will be asked to man the leadoff spot, something he isn't particularly suited for because of his severe lack of plate discipline.
Rockies: 3B Ian Stewart. Though he might begin the season on the DL with a sprained ankle, Colorado believes he has the raw power and bat speed to be a game changer. His inability to translate that potential into production is one of the reasons Don Baylor was fired as hitting coach at the end of last season. The Rockies hope new hitting coach Carney Lansford can get Stewart on track.
Royals: LF Alex Gordon. Kansas City has been waiting a long time for Gordon to live up to his potential. However, scouts have raved about Gordon all spring, prompting one to say, "He's going to be the surprise player of the year in the American League."
Tigers: RHP Rick Porcello. He had a fine rookie season in 2009 with 2.5 WARP, but slipped to 0.3 last year and even needed a tune-up back in Triple-A. Detroit believes Porcello can team with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer to provide a strong top of the rotation. Though his velocity in spring training sent up a red flag, Porcello will get the chance to prove the Tigers right this season.
Twins: CF Denard Span. His on-base percentage cratered from .392 in 2009 to .331 last season, as he went back to his old habit of chasing breaking balls outside the strike zone. Minnesota needs more than that from its leadoff hitter if it is going to win a third straight AL Central title.
White Sox: 2B Gordon Beckham. He needed a late surge just to finish last season with 0.8 WARP and a .255 TAv after posting 2.8 and .281 marks as a rookie in 2009. Chicago is confident Beckham will return to his rookie production and has only 44-year-old Omar Vizquel as a backup plan at second.
Yankees: RHP A.J. Burnett. With rookie Ivan Nova and retread Freddy Garcia at the back of the rotation, the Yankees need Burnett to join forces with CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes to form a top-notch 1-2-3 starting punch. Burnett was barely better than replacement level last season, with 0.7 WARP in the second year of his five-year, $82.5 million contract. However, he says he has worked out some mechanical issues this spring with the help of new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, and did not walk a batter in 11 Grapefruit League innings.
Rumors and Rumblings: Jose Contreras will begin the season as the Phillies' closer as Brad Lidge (shoulder) will be out for up to six weeks. That comes as quite a surprise, because the Phillies have been grooming Ryan Madson to replace Lidge, probably as soon as next year since Lidge can become a free agent at the end of this season. … The reason the Blue Jays have decided to go with Edwin "E5" Encarnacion at third base and Jose Bautista in right field to start the season is because of Juan Rivera's complete lack of range in right, not magical improvement by Encarnacion at third. … Right-hander Alexi Ogando will only be a short-timer in the Rangers' rotation, returning to the bullpen once right-handers Tommy Hunter or Brandon Webb are ready to be activated from the disabled list. … The Cubs plan to watch right-hander Andrew Cashner's work load closely, as he has never pitched more than 111 2/3 innings in a professional season. … Matt Treanor will be the Royals' No. 1 catcher to begin the season, but the job will be Jason Kendall's once he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery and is activated from the DL, likely in late April.
Scouts' takes on various players:
Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury: "He really looked good this spring. That lineup is so dangerous to begin with, and it's even going to be better because Ellsbury is ready to have a breakout season at the top of it."
Brewers infielder Erick Almonte: "He might have been the best story in Arizona this spring. He's 33 and a Triple-A lifer, but he just hit, hit, hit until he forced his way onto their roster. I doubt he'll make much of a difference when the regular season starts, but it's nice to see a guy who has paid his kind of dues get a reward."
Mariners infielder Adam Kennedy: "Every time I think he's finished, he resurrects himself, and he did it again this spring. He's like a cat with nine lives."
Tigers outfielder Casper Wells: "He's an interesting guy because he's got some pop and he's got some speed. The key at the major-league level, though, is going to be not to overexpose him. The pitchers will exploit him because he's a free swinger."