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March 30, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

Loose Threads: East Edition

by Jay Jaffe

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In five weeks of bouncing around the country while watching spring training—or at least the news of it—I've compartmentalized the sore shoulder-driven roster dramas and other mundanities to the point that I'm left with one nagging question for each team, one loose thread that I can't resist tugging upon as the season nears. Showing my blatant East Coast bias, today I'll run down those loose threads from the near coast, working my way westward next week.

AL East
Yankees: The Seven Starters
After a fairly quiet November and December, the Yankees created rotation competition for Freddy Garcia, who re-upped in December after a solid comeback season, and Phil Hughes, who missed half a season due to shoulder weakness and delivered a 5.79 ERA when he was available, by trading for Michael Pineda and signing Hiroki Kuroda. All well and good, but then in mid-March, special instructor Andy Pettitte's secret bullpen session turned into a full-blown comeback attempt at age 39. He's targeting a May 1 return, and he's not doing this to pitch long relief, so somebody—presumably not Kuroda or CC Sabathia—will head to the bullpen or the minors if they're underperforming; Pineda, Hughes, and Ivan Nova all have options remaining. And what will Pettitte, a player who has been such a vital part of seven pinstriped pennant-winners and five world champions, have left? I'm giddy at the prospect of finding out, even if the answer is "not as much as we hoped."

Red Sox: The Bard Conversion
Coming off their shocking collapse, the Red Sox created plenty of noise by ousting Terry Francona and Theo Epstein, then proceeded to have a strangely quiet offseason, at least in the transaction column; new manager Bobby Valentine has set the Blatherphonic 3000 to 11, and the media can't get enough (Sox and Yankee fans, on the other hand, are forming cross-rivalry suicide pacts to avoid listening). Meanwhile, after getting a 5.73 ERA from seven pitchers who combined to make 87 starts last year—John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, and lesser clowns—the team's main bid to upgrade the rotation centers on converting set-up man Daniel Bard into a starter. Bard's 2007 pro debut was a disaster (7.08 ERA, 9.4 BB/9) before the Sox turned him into a reliever, but that's ancient history. He needs to establish a consistent third pitch to survive the physical rigors of throwing 100-plus pitches every five days and to maintain some efficiency to give the Sox enough value in his presumably limited innings total to justify the move. Valentine hasn't entirely been sold yet, so how long can this last?

Rays: Upton Over and Out?
While it seems like just yesterday when he had his big breakthrough at age 22, the Rays' center fielder is now 27 years old and headed into his final season before free agency. Despite low batting averages and middling on-base and slugging percentages—he's hit a combined .240/.322/.408 over the past three years, hardly straying from any of those numbers—Upton has been a valuable player for the Rays, worth 2.7 WARP per year over the last three years, and 3.5 over the last two or the last five, depending upon how you want to look at it. History suggests the budget-conscious Rays won't re-sign him to a lucrative multi-year deal, and they have an heir apparent in Desmond Jennings. Can they stomach trading him as they battle for a playoff spot, and if so, what will they get for him given his pending free agency?

Blue Jays: Out of Left Field
While Brandon Belt's potential demotion has the baseball world up in arms, precious little has been said about the actual demotion of Travis Snider, who lost out to Eric Thames in the battle for the starting spot in left field. Snider, who ranked fifth on Kevin Goldstein's Top 101 Prospects list as recently as 2009, has hit just .248/.307/.423 in 877 PA strewn over the last four seasons—never more than 319 in a single season—while battling injuries and a seemingly endless series of promotions and demotions, yet he's only 24 years old. Snider hit just .225/.269/.348 in two month-long stints for the Jays last year, a brutal April (.184/.276/.264) and then a hacktastic July (.260/.262/.420), the latter with an appalling 33/1 K/BB ratio. Clearly, he's got work to do to recover his lost promise, but after a strong spring, one has to wonder if things are ever going to come together in an organization that keeps pushing him around. Meanwhile, can Thames, whose .262/.313/.456 showing as a 24-year-old rookie looks a lot worse if you break it down into a hot start (.308/.357/.519 in 112 PA before the All-Star break) before the league caught up (.244/.295/.430 in 282 PA after), produce enough to merit playing every day?

Orioles: Baby Birds Maturing?
Just a couple short years ago, the Orioles appeared to have a fighting chance to turn more than a decade of futility around thanks to their young pitching. Their 2010 prospect list included Brian Matsuz, Jake Arietta, and Zach Britton in their top four, with Chris Tillman outranking all of them on the 25-and-under list after an abbreviated rookie season. Alas, injuries and ineffectiveness have plagued those baby birds, and after the first three combined for a 4.66 ERA over 329 2/3 innings in 2010, they were lit for a 5.67 ERA last year; Britton made a solid debut, but Arrieta regressed and needed surgery to remove a bone spur, Tillman again failed to stick, and Matusz took the "Be Like Roy Halladay" meme a bridge too far with a 10.69 ERA in 49 2/3 innings.

While Britton has been shut down following a trip to Dr. James Andrews, the other three have shown hints of their forgotten promise this spring, via improved health and restored velocity Tillman was throwing mid-90s heat but has been sent down while the O's sort through their Asian imports, but Matusz has put together an 18/2 K/BB ratio in 19 2/3 spring innings, and Arrieta is lined up to be the Opening Day starter. Can they restore some hope to a downtrodden franchise?

NL East
Phillies: Maybe Mayberry
With Ryan Howard and Chase Utley both likely to miss at least the first month of the season, the Phillies' offense looks a lot more vulnerable. Hunter Pence will have to live up to last year's breakthrough (.314 TAv, 5.1 WARP), and the team will also need strong production out of left field. John Mayberry Jr. enjoyed a nice breakout of his own as a 27-year-old rookie, with a .293 True Average and 15 homers in 296 PA, but his performance against righties (.250/.330/.455 in 176 PA) was meager compared to that against lefties (.306/.358/.595 in 120 PA). If he's called into service as the first baseman—alas, Jim Thome can't play the field every day—other options such as Ty Wigginton or—good Lord—Juan Pierre aren't so likely to get it done, and Domonic Brown has again been farmed out so he can be ritualistically beaten with a sand-filled hose, as has become the custom in that organization. Can Mayberry emerge as an everyday threat? PECOTA is lukewarm, forecasting a .276 TAv and 2.2 WARP.

Braves: Plodding Prado
The Braves had the NL's least-productive outfield last year, with their pasture-dwellers combining to hit just .251/.321/.375. A healthy Jason Heyward should bounce back, and a full season of Michael Bourn ought to be an upgrade on the undead Nate McLouth, but Martin Prado is fairly underpowered for a left fielder, coming off a miserable season in which he missed more than a month due to a staph infection and saw his True Average plunge by 38 points, to an unacceptable .245. For the moment, he has been called back into the infield to fill in for Chipper Jones while he recovers from another knee surgery, while Eric Hinske and Matt Diaz platoon, but that duo hit a combined .248/.306/.361 last year, down from an already mediocre .253/.322/.448 when they teamed up in 2010. Can't the Braves find anybody who can play left field adequately?

Nationals: Getting Their Werth?
I've talked up the Nats on at least half a dozen radio hits, and have praised their revamped rotation everywhere. But if they're to have a shot at a playoff spot, they need their offense to do its share of the heavy lifting, and they can't count on 19-year-old Bryce Harper to do so given that he's starting the year in the minors. No, they particularly need their $126 million man, Jayson Werth, to rebound from last year's dismal .232/.330/.389 showing. Since coming back from his 2006 wrist injury, the 32-year-old righty's ability to mash lefties has been a cornerstone of his production, but after hitting .309/.413/.589 in 664 PA against them from 2007-2010, he collapsed to .184/.307/.368  in 137 PA last year. Was that a small-sample fluke, the result of nagging injuries, or a gypsy curse? For what it's worth, PECOTA is particularly optimistic, forecasting 4.6 WARP, and a .296 True Average.

Marlins: Joshin'
Shiny new stadium with home run monstrosity? Check. Volatile new manager? Check. Expensive free agents? Check. The Marlins are suddenly interesting in ways they haven't been in years, but any hopes they have of contending—and our PECOTA projections place them as an NL wild card at the moment—hinge on the fragile right arm of ace Josh Johnson, who posted a 1.64 ERA in his first 60 1/3 innings last year, then went on the disabled list in mid-May due to shoulder inflammation and never returned. Johnson threw over 390 innings in 2009-2010, but he's only topped 30 starts once, and has just one other season of more than 100 innings in his career (2006). His forecast calls for 2.6 WARP in 154 1/3 innings, but can his body hold together to manage even that, and will he have the stamina to step up late in the year if Miami is in the playoff hunt? 

Mets: The Return of Santana
The post-Reyes, post-Beltran Mets sure have the look of a dreary bunch, and Terry Collins already sounds like a man who's going to snap by Memorial Day, but one thing that could lift sprits in Queens would be a credible comeback from Johan Santana. The two-time Cy Young winner hasn't made a major-league appearance since September 2, 2010, shortly before being diagnosed with an anterior capsule tear, but after needing to dial back his rehab efforts every time he neared a return last year, he's had no physical trouble in five spring starts totaling 18 1/3 innings, and he's been able to fool hitters even while rarely cracking 90 mph. A crafty lefty isn't exactly what the Mets want for their $55 million for over the next two years (including the buyout of his 2014 option), but it beats getting absolutely nothing from him. Can Santana hold together long enough to give the Mets something for their trouble, and can the Mets be satisfied with it under the circumstances?

I'll be back with the Central divisions on Monday.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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