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March 14, 2012
The Platoon Advantage
Why You Should Watch the Non-Contenders
Bad teams have been much on my mind lately. Blame it on being an A's fan, blame it on marrying into a Mets family, blame it on my generally sour personality. Irrespective of the cause, I find myself less intrigued by the powerhouses or the teams in tight races for the playoffs than by the squads that will come out of the gate slow, dawdle through the dog days, and finish in a muddle of obscure Triple-A players crowding the expanded September rosters as they fight for 2013 jobs on what will likely be yet another mediocre team.
If you're a fan of one of these franchises, you'll probably watch them whatever happens. But what will the rest of you watch on the nights when your team is off, or long, lazy weekend afternoons? You can always tune in to see the Yankees and Rays face off in a game with playoff implications for the umpteenth time, but if you're like me, you get a little bored seeing the same (really good) players over and over. Let me present, then, a team-by-team list of reasons to tune into a game at which more casual fans might turn up their noses. Call it the Every Team is Special list.
A quick note on methods and format: I've chosen every team that currently has fewer than 80 projected wins on our Depth Charts. In the AL Central and NL West, this results in two teams that might actually have an outside shot at the playoffs, but I'm an inclusive guy. In the parentheses after each team's name is its current projected record and how far behind the projected division leader this record falls.
Toronto Blue Jays (78-84, 16 games behind the Yankees): They've got this right-fielder, see, and ... well, that's sort of cheap. "Go watch arguably the best player in baseball" isn't in the spirit of this list, so I'll instead call out the impressive collection of young talent that Alex Anthopolous has acquired in the relatively brief time he's been at the helm. Projecting Brett Lawrie to match the .338 TAv he hit last year (in 171 PAs) wouldn't be wise, but it'll be fun to see how much of that offensive performance he can retain. Between the arguments about his actual talent level (especially on defense), the significant questions regarding his ability to stay healthy, and even the attitude/parental issues spicing the stew, Colby Rasmus is one of the great enigmas in the game today. You won't see his dad snipe at the coaching staff by pressing "Blue Jays" on MLB.tv, but if you don't watch Toronto this year, you might miss him making a very exciting return to his 2010 form with the bat.
Baltimore Orioles (72-90, 22 games behind the Yankees): Mark Reynolds is an everyday delight for Three True Outcomes fetishists, particularly since his disdain for defense extends to his attempts to field the ball himself. As a fan of hilarity, I hope that Chris Davis hits his 90th-percentile projection at first base and forces Buck Showalter to write Reynolds's name in at third base every day. On a more positive note, historical catcher aging patterns leave some hope that Matt Wieters could still make the leap from very good offensive catcher (28.9 VORP last year) to the powerhouse that his 2008 minor-league lines (and scouting reports) suggested he might be.
Chicago White Sox (78-84, 8 games behind the Tigers): Speaking of Three True Outcomes types, Adam Dunn's attempt to come back from one of the most spectacular and shocking collapses in memory should be worth watching, at least insofar as he's moderately successful in doing so. If he hits for a .218 TAv again, it could be too depressing for words. Jake Peavy is trying to return from an entirely different kind of collapse, as he hasn't cracked 200 innings since 2007 or 170 since 2008. The perpetually injured player returning to form is always a nice story, even when said story is called by Hawk Harrelson. (Choose the other team's feed if you have the option.)
Kansas City Royals (71-91, 15 games behind the Tigers): PECOTA is unmoved by Kansas City's youth movement, as the Royals are projected to be the worst offensive team in the American League and Jonathan Sanchez's 4.45 ERA is the lowest projected for any starting pitcher, but the team could be legitimately good if enough of the young players (with particular emphasis on Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas) step forward and beat their projections. Even if that doesn't happen, don't overlook the delight of watching Jeff Francoeur run around being happy. Have you looked at the headshot on his player card lately? Click his name. I'll wait.
Look at that face! How could you not want to watch that guy?
Minnesota Twins (71-91, 15 games behind the Tigers): Last week, Bill Parker looked for signs of hope for the Twins. Whether they're good or not, though, the stylistic clash between Ben Revere, a left fielder who should be a center fielder living in the body (and possessing the offensive game) of a shortstop from the '70s, and Josh Willingham, a right fielder who should be a DH living in the body of a power hitter and rumbling around the outfield pasture like a robot in need of a lube job, is compelling for those whose aesthetic tastes run toward pleasure in the dissonant.
Oakland Athletics (73-89, 18 games behind the Rangers): This is too easy. Yoenis Cespedes might be Bo Jackson, he might be Wily Mo Pena, or he might be some weird thing we've never seen. Either way, barring injury, he's certain to get more at-bats in 2012 than Pena ever got in a single season. Dented walls, a new source of wind power, the second 40-40 Cuban outfielder in history—it's all on the table.
Seattle Mariners (70-92, 21 games behind the Rangers): If the Mariners insist that Jesus Montero is a catcher, Felix Hernandez's starts will be even more compelling than they already are. If Montero is just a DH, then I'll still want to watch. The ex-Yankee is the most hyped hitting prospect with a clear shot at a full-time major-league job. On Kevin Goldstein's Top 101 for this year, only Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Jurickson Profar rank ahead of Montero, and none of those three has been penciled in as a regular starter this season. (Perhaps Harper requires a "yet," though.) I've always thought that Seattle's ballpark plays as beautiful as any in the game on TV, and the pleasures of watching Montero and Hernandez need not be reserved for the same weirdos who get off on Josh Willingham's brand of defense.
New York Mets (78-84, 11 games behind the Phillies): The NL East is a quiet beast, per PECOTA, with the Mets coming in last despite being projected for a reasonably-close-to-.500 record. There's talent on this team, intriguing talent even, as David Wright and Johan Santana try to regain their peaks after injuries laid them low, to some degree or another, in 2011. But the player I'm tuning in for every five days is R.A. Dickey. There may not be characters in the game these days, but Dickey, with his now-unique knuckleball, his bats named for swords from Tolkien and Beowulf, and his forays up Kilimanjaro, is as close as we've got these days. (And don't forget the face.) Sure, most of this won't come out on the field itself, but I find that knowing Dickey is swinging a bat named Orcrist adds to my enjoyment of a game.
Chicago Cubs (74-88, 14 games behind the Cardinals): It's easy, in light of the offseason the Cubs have had and the players the Cubs have, for the kind of people who read Baseball Prospectus to get more caught up in the movements of the front office as it goes about trying to rebuild a franchise than in the men who wear the uniforms. If you want something to watch besides the (d?)evolution of Starlin Castro, then keep an eye on Quad-A superstar Bryan LaHair, a first baseman with Triple-A TAvs of .293, .320, and .335 over the last three years. He's 29, though, and he has a grand total of 219 major-league PAs, so he's going to have to seize his chance to have a semblance of a career ahead of the ascension of actual prospect Anthony Rizzo. I always root for these types of players—maybe it hearkens back to the glory days of my A's fandom, before the baggage of the playoffs and Moneyball weighed everything down. Geronimo Berroa's not walking through that door in Oakland, though, so my transferred affections go to LaHair.
Pittsburgh Pirates (72-90, 16 games behind the Cardinals): Andrew McCutchen has put up about 40 VORP in each of the last two seasons, with his FRAA marks making the difference between a nice, above-average season (3.1 WARP in 2010) and a legitimate star season (5.2 WARP in 2011). I have no idea what McCutchen's talent level on defense actually is or will be, but I do know that the Pirates trust him to play center and that he's worth roughly four wins over a replacement center-fielder between his bat, legs, and durability. He's also just 25, so there's a chance that he could see his performance jump even further. Indeed, PECOTA sees something north of a 30 percent chance of McCutchen improving upon his already excellent 2010-11 seasons. If McCutchen is a five-to-six-win outfielder for the next eight years, you'll want to be able to tell your kids that you were watching him all along.
Houston Astros (60-102, 28 (!) games behind the Cardinals): Projection systems being as conservative as they are, a 100-loss season and a 28-game gap between first and last on the Depth Charts are eyebrow-raising. This is an awful team, even if it's one that's in better ownership and front-office hands these days. Jack Cust, powered by a .366 OBP, projects to be the best hitter on the squad with a .285 TAv, but he doesn't have a clear job, with nondescript youngster J.D. Martinez manning left field and the even more nondescript Brian Bogusevic in right. Cust, with his strikeouts and walks, his absurd upper-cut swings, his hilarious defense and base-running, and his all-around weird ability to be a relatively effective baseball player while looking more like a moderately talented professional bowler, is one of my favorite players ever. If you share my love, you'll tune in hoping that he gets a spot start or that Brad Mills gets bored with Bogusevic. If you don't, then there's always Jose Altuve's five foot "seven" self trying to be the mightiest of all the mites.
San Diego Padres (79-83, 7 games behind the Giants): The Padres, like the White Sox above and the Dodgers below, are within hailing distance of the playoffs. In San Diego, that's thanks to a reasonably talented set of position players and a division without an obvious heavy. Even without the carrot of postseason play, I want to watch Carlos Quentin. The outfielder, who's still shy of 30, put up a 5.7 WARP season in 2008 but followed that up with a total of 3.4 over the next three years. You want to hear something weird? Quentin has a career .287 TAv, well above average, and a career .253 BABIP. This isn't unprecedented, precisely, but here's the list of hitters since 1954 with at least 2,000 PAs, TAvs above .280, and BABIPs below .260:
When your grandkids ask you why you didn't spend more time watching the 21st-century Ken Phelps, I hope you have a very good reason at hand.
Los Angeles Dodgers (78-84, 8 games behind the Giants): "Vin Scully" is the easy answer, but legacy Expo and extreme BABIP suppressor Ted Lilly is one of my favorite pitchers around. He throws the ball 88 and his glove 92, gives up plenty of homers, and has been an average to above-average pitcher for eight out of the last nine years, with a shoulder injury derailing his 2005. He's 36, so we're approaching "can he really do this forever?" territory. The best part about keeping an eye on Lilly is that, unless he's felled by injury, his downfall should come in a Matusz-like explosion of homers, which may hurt the hearts of those of you with a shred of empathy but will at least provide some fireworks for the rest of us.