Thursday, March 31, 2011

2011 Predictions - AL West

1. Oakland (85-77)

In what may well turn out to be baseball's weakest division, the A's might be able to win simply by having the fewest weaknesses. The addition of David DeJesus, the continued improvement of Cliff Pennington and Daric Barton, and most importantly, the exemplary young starting rotation. Tampa Bay has (rightfully) received a ton of attention for their ability to develop quality starting pitching, but Oakland is right there with them. Trevor Cahill went 18-8, 2.97 as a 22 year old last year. Brett Anderson had a 2.80 ERA and a K/BB ratio of nearly 3.5, albeit in only 112 innings. The unheralded Gio Gonzalez, seeminly on prospect lists forever, was only 24 when he broke through with a 15-9, 3.23, 171 K performance in 200 innings - more than acceptable as a #3 starter. And old man Dallas Braden, already an ancient 27 years old, established himself as the veteran presence both on the mound and in the clubhouse, throwing a perfect game and not having any problems calling out Alex Rodriguez for his poor sportsmanship. A modern Danny Darwin, perhaps? Anyway, with good pitching and defense, the A's can probably win this division with only about 700 runs, which isn't a sure thing by any means.

Player to watch: David DeJesus. Something less than a star, DeJesus nevertheless has been a good player on a bad team for a long time. He gets on base, has gap power, and plays very good defense. He'll be a huge upgrade over Gabe Gross and the other players the A's tried in left field last year, and he's one of the reasons why they're in good position to take the step forward and win their first division title in five years.

2. Texas (83-79)

That was nice, now do it again. I hate to be bearish on them after what the Rangers accomplished in 2010, but it just seems a little bit flukish. I'm not saying CJ Wilson, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter won't for a strong top 3 in the rotation, I just need to see it again to believe it. When a team succeeds on the strength of performances by so many people who had never performed at that level before, a little skepticism is sensible. However, it is time to stop being skeptical of Josh Hamilton. He's a great baseball player, capable of carrying a team for an extended period. Depsite his long journey, he doesn't turn 30 until mid-May. Hamilton now has a career line of .311/.371/.544 - the Rays couldn't have envisioned more than that when he was drafted #1 overall in 1999. The rest of the team has holes, and I'm not sure Hamilton has enough power to overcome all of them. An tough start to the season that ends up with Neftali Feliz converted to the rotation may be a blessing - he has too much talent to only be used 60 innings a year. The Rangers owe it to themselves and to Feliz to at least find out if he can start.

Player to watch for: C.J. Wilson. The converted reliever was a revelation, throwing 200 innings and keeping his ERA at 3.35. He also led the American League in walks - normally a bad sign for a 29 year old, but we're still talking about a first year starter. If he can get that walk rate down from 4.1 per 9 to the mid 3's, then he may be able to keep up his success. If that walk rate stays up though, his ERA will follow.

3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (76-86)

The Angels have long been the face of the "scouting" side in the "stats vs, scouting" argument, consistently winning despite moves that drove analysts crazy. The Vernon Wells move may be the toughest yet to swallow. Coming off his third good year in the last eight, the Angels traded stathead favorite Mike Napoli as well as Juan Rivera to take on Wells, including all of Wells contract. The problem isn't simply that they traded for Wells, it's that they used one of their valuable commodities, and didn't improve the areas of their team that needed improving. However, while the Wells trade is a negative, it doesn't take away from the way they fleeced the Diamondbacks last summer for Danny Haren. After a slow start, Haren had a 2.87 ERA with Anaheim, and is poised to be the staff ace, in front of Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver. Like the A's, the Angels success will depend on their ability to rank around the league average in run scoring. Decisions like the one to make Jeff Mathis the starting catcher of Hank Conger do not inspire confidence, but the Angels have been proving me wrong for years.

Player to watch: Jered Weaver. I swear, if Weaver had been born Will Johnson, and had no relation to Jeff Weaver, he'd be regarded as one of the better pitchers in the American League. But because the elder Weaver was such a disappointment, and because he probably had the worst mound presence of any pitcher of the last 20 years, seeming to get hopelessly frustrated at anything bad that happened, it seems that people project Jeff's negativity onto Jered. It doesn't help that Jered so resembles Jeff, physically. Anyway, Jered threw 224 innings last year, led the league with 233 strikeouts, and walked only 54. The 23 home runs allowed really aren't bad, considering that number of innings. It's time to give the younger, better Weaver his due.

4. Seattle Mariners (68-94)

That was a rough year in the Pacific Northwest, and it doesn't seem to be a whole lot better, Sure, out-machines Jose Lopez and Casey Kotchman are gone, but there is a lot of building to do here. Ichiro dug out another 214 hits, but he had his worst year in the states, and, at 37, fears of decline by their franchise player are legitimate. Still, he is exceptionally durable and a fantastic athlete for any age, which should mean his decline phase, if we are there, is likely to be a slow one. It's not hard to imagine him being productive enough into 2014 to get 3000 MLB hits - an accomplishment that would be mind boggling, considering he was three years older when he got his first hit than Wade Boggs, currently the record holder in that category among the 3000 hit club. Youngsters Michael Brantly and Justin Smoak will get their chances to prove they belong in a low-pressure setting.

Player to watch for: Felix Hernandez. The King Felix show continues. With 71 wins and counting, and still only 24 years old (he turns 25 on April 8th), it seems the only thing holding him back from a serious run a 300 is the team that he's on. He's logged a lot of innings the past two years, but he's such an efficient pitcher that he's not throwing significantly more pitches than guys in the 220 inning range. Much like Pedro Martinez 14 years ago, it's easy to forget how young Felix is - he may still be improving. If he is able to average 12 wins a year for the next 15 years, or 15 a year for 12, he'll already be at 250 wins, and it's likely he'll average more than that. The upside here is multiple Cy Young Awards, 325 wins and a plaque in Cooperstown.

2011 Predictions - AL Central

1. Chicago (91-71)

There's a lot that could happen with this team, so they're awfully tough to predict. It all starts with Ozzie, who could be described as mercurial - he's feisty, in your face, and often doesn't know when to pick his battles. That's worked with some teams over the years and not with others, so the best thing to do when predicting it is shrug it off. That doesn't mean it won't have an affect, it just means we have no clue what that affect will be. Beyond that, Carlos Quentin is healthy, and Adam Dunn was the most underrated signing of the offseason. Even declining some, he's a huge upgrade at DH for these guys, and will at least offset Konerko's likely decline. Gordon Beckham rebounded after a bad first half. The starting pitching will be solid even if Jake Peavy makes little contribution - I'll take a rotation of Danks, Buehrle, Floyd and Edwin Jackson and be happy. Depth is a fair concern, but this team has the highest upside in the division.

Player to watch for: Alexei Ramirez. The Cuban Missile was the best shortstop in the league in 2010, both offensively and defensively. He's a flashy player, so a playoff run could make him a strong candidate for the "so many people talked about him being underrated that he became overrated" all-stars. He's a very good player though, and the lack of quality shortstops in the American league makes him a valuable commodity.

2. Minnesota (90-72)

Every year they win more games than they can be reasonably predicted to, so why not just pick them for more wins than is reasonable. Say what you will about Gardenhire's playoff managing, but he consistently gets the most out of his team in the regular season. Still, there are questions. Will Joe Mauer's power come back? Is Justin Morneau 100%? Can Denard Span bounce back after a bad year? Will Danny Valencia be the Twins best 3B since the Gary Gaetti era? Will Francisco Liriano stay healthy? It's a lot to juggle, but the Twins have some depth on offense, and six capable starting pitchers. Personally, I don't agree with putting Slowey in the bullpen, as he doesn't have the kind of pure stuff that is likely to be maximized in a shorter role. I wouldn't be surprised to see him traded to a team with some holes in the rotation in exchange for a more traditional reliever.

Player to watch for: Justin Morneau. Morneau was the best player in the AL the first half of last year, until a flukish knee off the head gave him a concussing that took him all season, and then all winter, to recover from. It's a tribute to the Twins (and Jim Thome, specifically) that they were able to keep playing winning with Morneau out, but one would think they need him healthy in order to make another playoff push.

3. Detroit (84-78)

The Miguel Cabrera thing seems to be hanging like a cloud over this team, but Jim Leyland will have them focused on baseball once the season begins. The problem, of course, may not be the focus of the rest of the team, but of Cabrera himself. The Tigers are trying to figure out how to deal with the off-field problems of their best on-field player. The Victor Martinez signing will help out the offense, which was right around league average last year. Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch had a rough go in the second half last year - strong full season performances from those two will make a big difference. Justin Verlander is a legitimate ace, but the rotation beyond him and Max Scherzer could be frightning.

Player to watch for: Max Scherzer. His 2010 stats look solid on the whole, but take a step back. In the first couple months, he was so bad that he ended up at Triple-A Toledo to sort out his mechanics. In April and Mayu, he was 2-4 with a 6.42 ERA. In 47 innings, he'd struck out 40, walked 20, and allowed 9 homers. After his recall, Scherzer went 10-7 with a 2.55 ERA. In 148 innings, he struck out 144, walked 50, and allowed only 11 homers. Those are ace numbers, and if he can keep that up, he and Verlander form the best 1/2 combo in the American League.

4. Kansas City (69-93)

This team is all about 2013 and beyond. We've heard all about the incredible stock of prospects the Royals have gathered, to the point where they are in Tampa Bay Rays 2006 or Cleveland Indians 1992 mode. Of the guys who are here already in the majors, only Billy Butler seems likely to be a contributing factor in four years, unless Alex Gordon and/or Alcides Escobar figure it out. This first half could be another long few months, but expect Mike Moustakas to join the club sometime after midseason. Royals fans have reason to hope once again.

Player to watch for: Billy Butler. Actually, you should probably try to get Omaha Royals tickets if you can. But, if you are watching the major league team, Butler is one to keep your eye on. He very quietly put up a .318/.388/.469 line in his age 24 season. His level swing produces more line drive doubles than it does home runs, but that's a minor quibble- the likely upside here is a consistent .325 hitter with good patience and 20 to 25 home runs, and the nice thing is that the downside isn't much lower than that. I don't forsee him becoming a superstar, but it's almost impossible to believe that he'll be something less than very good.

5. Cleveland (66-96)

Is there a more depressing team to be a fan of? They blew the 1997 World Series, the 2007 ALCS (to the Red Sox, who ended up sweeping the World Series), and now must sit around as Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia became baseball's two highest-paid pitchers. There are positives here. Shin-Soo Choo is a dynamic five tool star, the most underrated player in baseball by a longshot. The sky is the limit for Carlos Santana. Grady Sizemore may finally be healthy.Asdrubal Cabrera is very good defensively. Justin Masterson gets a lot of ground balls... You see where this is going. There are some things to be positive about, but I just don't see how they're going to win that many baseball games. If they don't end up with the American League's worst record, something went wrong for somebody else.

Player to watch for: Grady Sizemore. Not just because he's so darned dreamy, but because we're hoping he's finally healthy again. From ages 22-25 he put up a .281/.372/.496 line and combined it with great defense. Maybe the Mickey Mantle comparisons were a little crazy, but Sizemore looked like he'd be one of the best players of the decade. Then injuries happened and Sizemore suddenly appeared to be on the Eric Chavez career path of a true superstar in his early 20's who is never able to reach expectations because of injuries. If Sizemore is healthy, he and Choo will form arguably the best outfield duo in baseball, but 2008 Grady Sizemore seems a long way away.

2011 Predictions - AL East

Since the real games get started in about four hours, I figured it's about time I got a predictions post in. That way we can all laugh in six months about how bad my predictions are. I'm going to make separate posts for each division, and another for my playoff/postseason awards choices, just to make everything easily accessible.

AL East:
1. Boston (99-63)

Comment: On paper, they have the best team. Beyond their fantastic everyday players, they also have much more depth than any other team. An injury in the infield? Bring in Jed Lowrie. In the outfield? Mike Cameron and Darnell McDonald are ready to go. Starting pitching? After the top five, they have Wakefield and Aceves, plus Andrew Miller, who they seem to be committed to actually "developing" rather than throwing him out there and making him figure it out. Only an extreme rash of injuries seems likely to keep them out of the playoffs.

Player to watch for: Adrian Gonzalez. Other than Miguel Cabrera, he's probably the best hitter in the American League, and he's doing it without Cabrera's baggage. He's my MVP pick.

2. Tampa Bay (89-73)

This team hasn't fallen off as much as you think from their 96 win season. Losing Crawford hurts, yes. But Carlos Pena had a terrible year for them, and Matt Garza was inconsistent. Hellickson is likely to outperform what Garza did last year (minus the no-hitter), so call that a wash. One thing to watch - their starting pitchers have been extremely durable, rarely getting injured. If they can keep up that incredible durability, they're a playoff contender.

Player to watch for: David Price. The former #1 overall pick made the leap last year. He also pitched over 200 innings for the first time. If he stays healthy this year, he's a perennial Cy Young candidate for the next ten to twelve years.

3. New York (88-74)

Most publications seem to have them penned in for 90-93 wins, but I'm not sure they have the depth to pull that off. I can't, in good conscience, pick a team with a starting rotation of Sabathia/Hughes/Burnett/Nova/Garcia, with Bartolo Colon(!) as the backup plan, to get enough outs to win consistently in such a tough division. They're a playoff contender, but teams this old don't stand pat and succeed.

Player to watch for: Alex Rodriguez. A lot was made of the struggles of Jeter and the painful slow start for Teixeira, but A-Rod's gradual decline


That's a guy under contract for SEVEN more seasons. He hasn't played in 140 games since 2007. I can't imagine he'll ever be the 1996-2007 player he was ever again, but if he can get back to 08-09 levels, the Yankees will be happy. With his defense failing, and Montero a catcher in name only, we'll see if the Yankees do the smart thing and try to convert Montero to 3B.

4. Baltimore (79-83)

They've revamped the offense, and their young pitching is solid. I'm not the first person to say this, but they'd be a sleeper pick in a different division. Mark Reynolds, going to a bigger park in the more difficult league, could be in for a rough season. It would take some serious injuries on the teams ahead of them, plus a major step forward from Matusz and the other young guns, to label these guys a contender just yet.

Player to watch for: Matt Wieters. I'm just not comfortably labelling a 24 year old catcher a "bust." Catchers have the hardest development curve, which is why so few of them are even in the majors at 24. Mike Piazza, and then Joe Mauer, completely threw out of whack the expectations we have for catchers. If Wieters can run a .270/.330/.415 line he'll be the best catcher in the division, and he could blow that slugging percentage away.

5. Toronto (71-91)

One step back to take two steps forward. Vernon Wells had a very good year last year, but that contract was an albatross, and it was really only his third very good year in his last eight. The Jays have gotten younger, and much more financially flexible this offseason. They're now in a position to figure out who among Lind, Arencibia, Snider, Morrow and others are part of the long term picture. Under the Ricciardi era, this seemed to be a team that was built with the goal of winning 82-86 games in mind in order to challenge for second place in case another team was hit with injuries. They were filled with overpaid players who were serviceable but who weren't going to be the key components of a team that would take the next step. Rios, Wells, Overbay and B.J. Ryan were very good complementary parts (until Ryan got hurt), but they weren't the core of a championship team. Current management seems to understand that, and they've scrapped that model. It's impossible to say whether they'll be successful, but they're going about this the right way.

Player to watch for: Jose Batista. He went into his age 29 season with 59 career home runs. He hit 54 last year. And it wasn't like it came in one power spurt either, as he slugged over .500 in four of the six months, and over .740 in three of them. If anyone can tell me for sure whether or not it was a total fluke, he's a smarter man than I. I'd be surprised by 54 homers again, but not by 35-40. Important note - his defense was not as good in right field as you would expect from a converted infielder, so if his bat falls back to pre-2010 levels, he's not much of a player at all