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March 28, 2013

Prospectus Preview

These Questions Three: The Maybe-Next-Years

by Bradford Doolittle and Harry Pavlidis

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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 continue with a look at the group of six teams with the second-worst odds of winning at least a Wild Card. As a reminder, you can find links to our preview podcasts for each team here.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Playoff Pct: 20.1 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 80-82
Team WARP: 31.0
Team TAv.258
Runs Scored: 703
Runs Allowed: 716
Team FRAA: 1.3

1. Is Andrew McCutchen an MVP candidate?

Harry Pavlidis: He’s one of the most exciting players in baseball, and one of the best. But voters may disregard the value of playing center field, and the team won’t win enough games. Hank Aaron Award, perhaps?

Bradford Doolittle: Yeah, unfortunately I think there is still very much an element of team success in the voting, as Mike Trout found out in 2012. McCutchen’s .375 BABIP last year screams for regression, and I wonder how much more upside there is to his game at the dish. He’s clearly getting stronger with age. It would help if the Pirates could surround McCutchen with enough weapons to keep pitchers from working around him.

HP: I don’t worry too much about lineup protection, although the Marlins and Placido Polanco are testing my resolve. I would just bat McCutchen leadoff and try and get him as many at-bats as possible. In related news, I am not a manager.

2. Is there a 1995-ish organizational ignorance of the value of OBP?

HP: Maybe they value it differently; I have to hope that Director of Baseball Systems Development (and former BP author) Dan Fox keeps them informed. There may also be a disconnect between what they value and what they can afford or successfully acquire.

BD: I’m sure that they understand the value, but it also seems like they’ve got a cluster of guys like Garrett Jones, Travis Snider, Pedro Alvarez, et al, who are a little too much on the aggressive side.

HP: And Russell Martin is not exactly selective, but he would’ve been second on the team in walks in 2012.

BD: Which reverts back to the question—this lineup will be awfully reliant on average and power, and I just don’t see enough contact to get to league average. That would be bad news in a division with the offenses in Milwaukee, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

3. Who's the best candidate for a sorely needed breakout/career year at the plate?

BD: John Gibbons thinks Snider is the next Jose Bautista, right? Okay, he didn’t quite state it like that. Obviously there was a lot more power and patience in Bautista’s track record even before he exploded, but I could see Snider experiencing an uptick, especially if the lineup plays deeper than the last couple of seasons. On paper, it could be a nice group of position players.

HP: I like Starling Marte but I’m not sure he’d play everyday on a first-division team. He’s awfully raw, but he is another exciting young player. There may be more upside across the board here than I give them credit for, but, as you noted, the aggressive tendencies could dampen that.

BD: I’d love to see what Alvarez would do with a little better command of the strike zone. It’s not like he’s an innately over-aggressive hitter. He’s one guy whom I could see cutting strikeouts with experience, and he has the power to make pitchers work him off the plate.


CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Playoff Pct: 18.1 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 77-85
Team WARP: 28.4
Team TAv: .260
Runs Scored: 720
Runs Allowed: 757
Team FRAA: 7.5

1. How great a concern is Chris Sale's delivery from a health standpoint now that he's locked in as a starter?

HP: Great question for the White Sox insurance agent. I’m less scared of his delivery than most people, because it reminds me of Randy Johnson’s, and he didn’t break down.

BD: As much as his delivery, I worry about his frame. He’s just so thin. But the White Sox have obviously been ahead of the curve in regard to pitcher health over the last decade, and I’m sure they evaluated Sale’s health profile appropriately before signing him. For what it’s worth, Don Cooper said something like if you throw strikes consistently, you by definition have good mechanics. If Coop said it, it’s probably true.

HP: I actually think his lack of weight helps him, since it means less mass to put strain on his joints. If he bulks up, the max-effort thing could be too much. That said, I do worry about him on windy days. Ballast is required.

BD: I’m laughing at that, but you can’t see it.

2. What’s the downside of an Alex Rios/Paul Konerko/Adam Dunn core?

HP: This group scares me. Dunn not so much, but Rios I can’t see repeating his 2012, and Konerko can’t beat Father Time forever. But, yes, Rios is the one whom I’d worry the most about.

BD: Without Konerko putting up top-tier numbers, this lineup could really hit rock bottom. Like you said, he’s already cheated the aging curve the last few years more than anyone could have expected. Still, it’s hard to bet against him if he’s healthy.

3. How do the White Sox get butts in the seats, and how does that relate to the team's unwillingness to undergo a legit rebuild?

HP: Put together another winning season.

BD: Even when they’ve hovered around contention the last couple of years, the attendance was pretty dismal. Contention isn’t enough on the South Side—they have to win big. And if some lean years are about to set in, The Cell could become a lonely place.

HP: But maybe if they do it again, sustained contention...I don’t know, I admit that I’m grasping at straws. I went to more White Sox games in 2012 than I did in almost all prior seasons combined. They sold me on the product. And let’s see if Rick Hahn changes the organizational philosophy when it comes to developing talent. With Hahn being a Sox insider and Kenny Williams upstairs, I don’t expect radical changes.

BD: It’s hard to read how a front office setup like that will work. For most teams, you could just assume that the guy who was kicked upstairs would stay out of the way. I’m not sure that’s in Kenny’s nature.

HP: Jerry Reinsdorf is renowned for his loyalty to people. We’ll see how it shakes out if Kenny steps on Rick. If.


CHICAGO CUBS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Playoff Pct: 14.6 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 78-84
Team WARP: 31.0
Team TAv: .253
Runs Scored: 679
Runs Allowed: 707
Team FRAA: -7.7

1. Who gets traded first?

HP: A healthy pitcher.

BD: I have to agree with that, with Matt Garza on top of the list. Though perhaps they might be able to package said pitcher with Alfonso Soriano at the same time. I love fresh starts.

HP: What if that healthy pitcher is Jeff Samardzija? I know the Cubs view him as a core contributor, but if the team is falling out of contention, I don’t think GMs will be calling about Edwin Jackson and his new contract. Garza we won’t see until May, and Scott Baker…well, the only person he’ll work in front of for the foreseeable future is a Physical Therapist. The other new Scott, Feldman, will have to prove himself before he’s worth anything in trade. Which brings me back to Samardzija, who may be the most attractive piece.

BD: But he went to Notre Dame! Though his departure wouldn’t upset all Cubs fans. Remember that guy at the convention who asked Ricketts, “Could you give the players a raise so they could get a shave and a decent haircut?” Gotta love Cubs fans.

HP: That must’ve been snuck in between Tony Campana worshipping sessions.

2. Can Darwin Barney maintain his defensive impact?

HP: Why not? His skills didn’t erode this winter and the Cubs will still position him well.

BD: Barney is an interesting case. He was a wizard on defense last year (11.3 FRAA) in every respect in which a second baseman can excel. But how long can he save that many runs? How many runs did he actually save? My point is, if the defensive peak for a second baseman is, say, two years, do the Cubs then have to view Barney as a trade candidate? It seems like he’d have solid value because of his ability to play shortstop.

HP: Now that you mention it, he would be an outstanding first-division utility player. I hate to keep banging the positioning drum, but the Cubs will get the most out of Barney even if his range declines.

3. Samardzija: extension, regression, both, or more upside?

HP: Brave move for a pitcher with one good season to gamble on having a second one. But that’s part of his attitude: no self-doubt.

BD: Like many pitchers before him, Samardzija is still too subject to bouts of inconsistency, often within games. So I’d definitely like to see him repeat his 2012 season before I’d lock him up. My feeling is that he can be a solid mid-rotation starter. I love his athleticism and build, which should lend itself to some high-inning seasons.

HP: A big season would raise his price tag, which would make it a double impetus to trade him. It’s pretty much a win-win situation for both the Cubs and Samardzija. He could be a solid mid-rotation guy for several years, or a front-line starter/trade chip.


MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Playoff Pct: 14.5 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 78-84
Team WARP: 31.4
Team TAv: .257
Runs Scored: 725
Runs Allowed: 759
Team FRAA: -3.9

1. Will the offense score more runs than the pitching staff allows?

HP: Aramis Ramirez seems healthy, Ryan Braun seems eligible…but as I mentioned in my chat recently, I feel like the Brewers are one injury or bad season away from losing their edge on offense. This may not be a rational perspective.

BD: Ramirez reminds of Paul Konerko, in that I keep expecting him to take a big step back,and  then he just puts up another big season. If he does take a step back, it’s going to kill the lineup. In my view, anyway, because I’m not sold on Carlos Gomez and I also wonder if they’ll get as much out of Norichika Aoki this season.

HP: Corey Hart starts another season late, and he’s on the wrong side of 30. He’s another question mark, in my book. Milwaukee really needs a full season of Rickie Weeks—the good version of him. This is also his age-30 season, so he may already be in decline.

2. Does the Kyle Lohse signing make sense?

HP: I’m having trouble with this move. The second and third year, plus a draft pick? This isn’t a team that has a rich farm system, so it seems counter-intuitive. But they may believe they have a shot at their division this year.

BD: It seems like a win-now move to me, and even that might be wishcasting for a team desperate for starting pitching. I could see Lohse giving up an awful lot of homers in that park.

HP: I had high hopes for Wily Peralta, with his 96-mph sinker. I don’t care about his spring numbers; this guy isn’t going to be much more ready than he already is. There’s a lot of uncertainty in their rotation, so maybe this stabilizes things. But the costs seem high.

3. Carlos Gomez is apparently now a core piece. Discuss.

HP: I like Gomez, but he doesn’t strike me as a rare commodity in terms of actual performance. The Brewers took a risk by extending his contract to 2017. He’ll be worth the money for a year or two, but as his salary goes up, his performance should start to decline. Not a good match.

BD: That’s how I view it, though I’ve come to realize that I’m averse to giving anybody multiple years if I see holes in their games. So in effect, I’d never sign anybody outside of team-controlled years unless they were a sure-fire All-Star. Perhaps that’s why I’m not running a team. I think it’s a poor contract, but it’s definitely not a franchise-killer.


SEATTLE MARINERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Playoff Pct: 14.1 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 78-84
Team WARP: 26.9
Team TAv: .262
Runs Scored: 657
Runs Allowed: 682
Team FRAA: -1.8

1 Will the new park dimensions impact the team in a positive way?

BD: In the long term, I think so, but it’s hard to see a middle-of-the-lineup of Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse, and Justin Smoak generating more homers than the divisional foes the Mariners will face this year, Houston aside. There’s an awful lot of power in the lineups of Texas, L.A. and Oakland, and initially, those teams will be better positioned to take advantage of the smaller dimensions. And of course we don’t yet know just how those new dimensions will play.

HP: I’m thinking along the same lines, that they have to catch up in the talent department no matter where they play. But, yes, this year the shorter fences could be putting them at a disadvantage.

2. Assuming the Mariners can't contend in a rough division, how much trade value is there among all those veterans?

HP: Very little. Maybe they can take on salaries?

BD: The M’s apparently have more money to spend, but what are the pitfalls of doing so right now, given the other teams in the West?

HP: Get some prospects, too? It’s almost like they can’t spend the money, based on this last hot stove season, so they might as well burn some while building prospects. It would be similar to what the Cubs are doing—they’ll pay salary if you send them prospects.

BD: That’s a reasonable approach. It’s probably not the best time for the Mariners to really go for it (from a money-spending perspective) right now, anyway. Not a solid enough core, and the competition in the AL West is fierce.

3. What can we expect from Jason Bay?

HP: Hopefully not anymore time in center field.

BD: I wouldn’t expect much. He has a 687 OPS over his last 1,100 plate appearances, will turn 35 late in the season, and has been injured repeatedly. He’ll get some at-bats against lefties to spell Morales and maybe Michael Saunders.

HP: Tell the M’s announcers that. They think he’s healthy and that they’ll get the real Bay from the Pittsburgh days. This seems delusional at best. But the team seems to be treating him like an everyday super-utility type. LF, CF, DH, if spring training is any hint. I mean, they put Casper Wells in left field one day, and put Bay in center. Why would you do that?

BD: I wish them luck with that.


SAN DIEGO PADRES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Playoff Pct: 13.5 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 77-85
Team WARP: 29.5
Team TAv: .258
Runs Scored: 652
Runs Allowed: 691
Team FRAA: 1.1

1. Are they really counting on Andrew Cashner to be a starter?

HP: The Cubs were comfortable parting ways with him, since they figured he didn’t have a starter’s profile with that shoulder problem. Obviously the Padres see him differently and haven’t given up.

BD: I don’t see it working out with him as a starter, but I applaud the effort. I feel like teams are a little too quick to move guys into relief roles these days. Can you really improve a pitcher’s durability upside that way? It’s not clear to me that pitchers can be kept healthier in the bullpen. Whether or not Cashner can develop a semblance of an off-speed pitch is another matter, but you’ve got to love a big guy that throws that hard and heavy.

HP: His delivery isn’t violent or anything, but he managed to hurt himself just the same. If he can’t stay healthy long enough to build up the stamina necessary to be a starter, put him in the bullpen.

2. When can they start to turn some of those rotations spots over to kids?

BD: Hopefully as soon as possible. There is a lot of upside in the lineup—an exciting amount. It would be great to see the Padres get off to a good start so they could start to transition in guys like Cashner and Robert Erlin. Right now, our Padres depth chart includes Clayton Richard, Jason Marquis, Eric Stults and Tyson Ross. I’m not saying I could hit those guys, but I’m not sure I would be afraid to try.

HP: I’ll just hang out over here and wait for Max Fried. Wake me up when he gets the call. Nothing against Erlin, and you know how I feel about Cashner.

BD: If the Padres surprise and Fried skips all the way up to the majors for the stretch run—that would be a great story. But I assume you weren’t referring to this season. Such things have happened, though.

3. Will the new park dimensions work out well for San Diego?

HP: Assuming Carlos Quentin and Chase Headley are healthy enough for long enough, sure.

BD: In general, I think extreme ballpark environments are a bad idea. With the old configuration, why would a lefty power hitter ever sign with the Padres? Some teams have issues with climate and elevation that you can’t do anything about, but I don’t think you want your park to be that much of an issue.

HP: Given the atmospheric conditions—sea level, the marine layer at night—I’m surprised that they didn’t build a small park. Something like Wrigley Field, which is a pitcher’s park on some days and a hitter’s paradise on others. San Diego could’ve created the same dynamic with a more intimate park.

BD: Of course, some people view that as a curse for the Cubs. Not that I buy the excuse.

HP: It creates a challenge in terms of constructing a roster, but it’s not insurmountable. Like a billy goat would be.


Bradford Doolittle is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bradford's other articles. You can contact Bradford by clicking here
Harry Pavlidis is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Harry's other articles. You can contact Harry by clicking here

Related Content:  Cubs,  White Sox,  Padres,  Mariners,  Pirates,  Brewers,  Season Preview

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