Archive for Other Teams

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The Red Sox and Rays will be the Yankees’ primary competition this season, but the American League also boasts three more powerhouse teams. With only five playoff spots available for these six teams and greater emphasis placed on winning the division, it’s going to be a pretty hectic summer around the so-called Junior Circuit.

Detroit Tigers

The team that knocked the Yankees out of the ALDS last year got better this offseason. The Prince Fielder contract — nine years and $214M — is completely ridiculous, but he and Miguel Cabrera now form the best three-four lineup combo since David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez circa 2004-2006. A full year of Doug Fister makes then better as well, though I seriously doubt he will pitch as well he did after the trade over a full season. The Tigers won the AL Central by 15 games last year and only improved while no other club in the division got appreciatively better. I think the gap between Detroit and the second best team in the division is greater than any of the other five divisions by far.

As good as the offense and rotation is, the Tigers will probably field the worst defensive team in baseball if they stick with Cabrera at third base. Austin Jackson in center field is more than fine and Ramon Santiago will be solid on the days he plays, but otherwise you have bad glovemen at first (Fielder), short (Jhonny Peralta), third (Miggy), and the corner outfield spots (Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch). I don’t think they’ll be 2005 Yankees bad, but there are going to be a lot of balls in play not converted into outs that extend the inning and overly tax that quality rotation. With a shaky bullpen beyond cardiac closer Jose Valverde and dynamite setup man Joaquin Benoit, losing outs from the starting staff could be bad news. I just don’t think it’ll be nearly enough to sink their season.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

(REUTERS/Darryl Webb)

No team grabbed headlines quite like the Angels this offseason, who hired a new GM (Jerry Dipoto), imported an MVP candidate (Albert Pujols), and stole an ace-caliber pitcher away from their division rival (C.J. Wilson). The top four of the rotation — Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Wilson, and Ervin Santana — is the best of the game and the clear strength of the team. The defensive unit is solid overall and only figures to get better once Mike Trout wrestles playing time from Vernon Wells. With a favorable home park, the Halos should be among the best run prevention units in all of baseball.

On the other hand, the lineup around Pujols is sneaky bad. Howie Kendrick is a very good hitter and the return of Kendrys Morales would be a significant addition, but Wells, Torii Hunter, and Bobby Abreu are teetering on the edge of disaster. They’ll score enough runs, but it’s not a powerhouse offense. Scott Downs and Jordan Walden make for a fine end-game tandem, but the rest of the bullpen is retread city, I’m talking Jason Isringhausen, LaTroy Hawkins, and Hisanori Takahashi. Rich Thompson is quite underrated, however. Starting pitching depth is also an issue beyond top four, with prospect Garrett Richards and the former prospect Jerome Williams the best bets for the fifth spot. The Angels made some major improvements this offseason, but Pujols and Wilson mask some serious deficiencies.

(REUTERS/Darryl Webb)

Texas Rangers

Call me a homer if you want, but the two-time defending AL Champs are the only club that can give the Yankees a run for their money as the most complete team in baseball. They did take a gamble by replacing a known quantity in Wilson with an unknown but potentially great hurler in Yu Darvish, but they do have pitching depth to spare. Alexi Ogando and Scott Feldman would be the third and fourth starters for most teams but are Texas’ sixth and seventh starters behind Darvish, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, and Neftali Feliz. That is certainly enviable.

The bullpen also offers depth and high-end performance. Joe Nathan isn’t the guy he once was in the ninth inning, but he’s still effective and is more than capable of replacing Feliz as closer. Setup men Mike Adams and Koji Uehara will be around for a full season, and Ogando gives them another power arm. Michael Kirkman will likely replace the reliable Darren Oliver as the lefty specialist and is probably the weak link out in the bullpen. Feldman, Mark Lowe, and screwballer Yoshinori Tateyama fill out the rest of the relief corps.

Offensively, this team can do pretty much everything. They get power from Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, and Mike Napoli. Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, and Craig Gentry provide the speed. Michael Young does a little bit of everything in the classiest of ways. Hamilton, Kinsler, and Gentry are strong defenders while Beltre and Andrus are flat-out elite. If you want to highlight the negative, it’s durability. Hamilton and Cruz never make it through a season without a DL stint and up until last year, the same could be said of Kinsler. Feliz hasn’t started in more than two seasons and Darvish will have to adjust to a five-day schedule and the Texas heat. The Yankees and Rangers are the two best teams in baseball as far as I’m concerned, and you’re free to quibble about who’s first and who’s second.

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(AP Photo)

The Tampa Bay Rays have made life quite difficult in the AL East. Previously a two-team powerhouse, the East saw Tampa Bay’s rise to prominence in 2008. That year the Yankees boasted the fourth-best record in the American League, but missed the playoffs thanks to Tampa’s presence atop the standings (among other factors). The Rays sunk a bit in the 2009 season, but in 2010 they came back to win the AL East, and then made the playoffs as the Wild Card in 2011. They return in 2012 with a slightly heftier payroll. Will it be enough for a third straight playoff berth?

Tampa Bay’s chances — and, really, everyone’s chances — have increased thanks to the second Wild Card spot. But it’s not Tampa’s bid for a Wild Card spot that should have Yankees fans worried. They’ve built another strong team in 2012, one that will likely contend for the AL East crown. They’re the early-season sexy picks for the title, too; ESPN.com’s Buster Olney dubbed them baseball’s best team earlier this year. Let’s take a closer look at what makes them tick.

Starting Pitching

(Via Getty Images)

Once again, the Rays will go with a homegrown rotation in 2012. For the last 165 games they’ve used a homegrown starter, an MLB record. They will, however, finally use a starting pitcher over the age of 30 in 2012, the first time since 2007. To compensate, they’ll also employ one of the youngest and most highly touted pitchers in the league. In other words, the Rays will again boast a formidable pitching staff.

The rotation starts with James Shields, who will face CC Sabathia on Opening Day next Friday. He’s been a workhorse since his full-season debut in 2007, making at least 31 starts and pitching at least 203 innings in each year (and in all but one year he pitched at least 215 innings, including nearly 250 last year). Last season Shields held the Yankees in check, allowing just 10 runs in 38.2 innings, striking out 31 to just 10 walks.

While Shields has been impressive on his own against the Yankees in the last three years, throwing 81.2 innings in 12 starts to a 3.20 ERA, they have gotten the best of him; Shields is just 4-5 against the Yankees in that time. Then again, Shields has pitched a bit better against the Yankees in that span than he has overall. From 2009 through 2011 he sports a 3.96 ERA, which is league average.

After Shields, the Rays have lefty David Price as a strong No. 2 starter. He can even be considered the staff ace, despite Shields holding that spot nominally. Price’s 2009 debut was rough, but that can be expected of a 23-year-old in baseball’s toughest division. He came back in 2010 to produce one of the best seasons in the AL, even finishing second in the Cy Young voting. His ERA jumped in 2011, but all of his peripherals improved. Most notably, he trimmed nearly a walk per nine off his rate. If he can continue striking out nearly a batter per inning while refusing to walk too many batters, his results will follow.

The 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Award recipient fills the third spot in the Rays rotation. Jeremy Hellickson got off to a rolling start last year, throwing 189 innings to a 2.95 ERA. He’s not exactly a strikeout artist, and he didn’t demonstrate great control in 2011. In fact, his peripherals were fairly mediocre. But he does have a chance to take a step forward in 2012.

The big difference between the 2011 and 2012 Rays rotations is Matt Moore. One of the game’s most highly touted prospects, Moore will get his chance in the rotation. It’s hard to undersell his potential. He simply plowed through the minors, dipping below 12 K/9 just once — and even then it was 11.5 K/9. He’s going to give the Yankees fits for years to come. If everything goes well, he’ll join Price atop the rotation, leaving little room to miss Shields once the Rays inevitably trade him.

Bullpen

(Via Getty Images)

It might be easy for a Yankees fan to write-off a bullpen that features Kyle Farnsworth as closer, but he’s not the same Farnsworth that plagued the Bronx from 2006 through mid-2008. He has found some semblance of control, which has in no small way led to his prominence in the last few years. He’ll get the nod again as closer in 2012, but he has some reinforcements.

Joel Peralta is a name that probably doesn’t register on many Yankees fans radars.
Since debuting in 2005, at age 29, he’s pitched for five different teams. Yet he’s been quite effective in the last two seasons. In that span he has boasted a 2.55 ERA in 116.2 innings, striking out 8.5 per nine while walking just 2.1. One of his big assets has been the ability to suppress hits. He has allowed just 5.7 per nine in that span, which leads to an otherworldly 0.87 WHIP. His key is the splitter, which he uses to generate swings and misses as well as poor in-air contact.

The Rays have some depth behind those two late-inning guys as well. Jake McGee had a middling 2011, mostly due to his home runs allowed. If he can get them under control he’ll provide some power out of the pen. Wade Davis, who just lost the fifth starter competition to Jeff Niemann, could very well be one of those guys who flourishes in the pen after struggling in the rotation. There’s also Fernando Rodney, whom the Rays brought in on a flier, and J.P. Howell, who, given his injury history, is also essentially a flier.

Even with some riskier guys at the end of the pen, the Rays do have some depth to cover them. There’s Josh Leuke, whose fastball command, combined with quality breaking ball and splitter, could provide value out of the pen later in the year. Brandon Gomes, who pitched well in his 37 innings out of the pen last year, could provide reinforcements later as well. Combine those with a few other up-and comers, and the Rays do have some pen depth this year. That afford them the opportunity to take risks with guys like Howell and Rodney.

Offense

(Via Getty Images)

In 2011 the Rays actually finished with a below average AL offense, scoring just 4.36 runs per game. The Yankees actually scored one run per game more than the Rays, which is no small difference when spread over 162 contests. They have, however, added a few key pieces this off-season that could boost their offensive profile.

At first base the Rays were particularly abysmal. They hit a combined .288/.357/.388, placing them 13th out of 14 AL teams in OPS. To help remedy the issue they brought back Carlos Pena, who spent 2011 with the Cubs. In his four years with the Rays Pena consistently supplied power, even if he didn’t hit for a high average. The walk rate, combined with his 20-30 home run power will bring a big improvement to the Rays’ overall first base numbers.

The Rays weren’t quite as bad with the DH spot in 2011, though they did rank 10th out of 14. Even still, there was a pretty sizable gap between 10th and 9th, and the Rays DHs did combine for a .320 OBP. To remedy this they signed Luke Scott, who has certainly hit for power in the past. From 2008 through 2010 he hit .266/.348/.497 with the Orioles, a 123 OPS+. He did struggle through an injury plagued 2011 season, but if he rebounds to his former self he’ll provide another boost to the Rays offense.

Another improvement the Rays will realize comes from Desmond Jennings. In left field the Rays were above average last year, due in no small part to Jennings’s .259/.356/.449 line. Yet he appeared in only 63 games, after starting the season in the minors. A full season of him, even a little below the level he established in 2011, will be a big boost to the overall offense. Add in his ability to swipe a bag — he was 20 for 26 in those 63 games, after going 17 for 18 in AAA — and he becomes a legitimate offensive threat.

Last season Evan Longoria’s production dropped off a bit at an age where we expect improvement. He did suffer a foot injury, which cost him a number of games. Perhaps that’s part of the reason for his drop-off. One big reason, however, might be the ebbs and flows of a career. Fancy this: Longoria produced a career-low .239 BABIP in 2011. This isn’t to say that he was merely unlucky. It is to say that it’s considerably out of line with his .301 career BABIP, and the .336 and .313 marks he produced in 2010 and 2009. At the same time, his walk rate jumped, as did his power production. If he brings his average back up into the .280 neighborhood with those power and patience improvements, he could be an MVP contender.

In addition to Longoria and Pena in the middle of the lineup, the Rays also have Ben Zobrist. His numbers might not stand out, .269/.353/.469 in 2011, but that was good for a 132 OPS+. Combine that with his defensive versatility and you have a highly valuable player who can hit essentially anywhere in the lineup. B.J. Upton and Matt Joyce are also quality hitters to round out the outfield. The only real hole in the Rays’ offense, then, comes at shortstop, where Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez both provide little. Rodriguez is the better bet to provide near league average numbers, as he did in 2011, so it won’t be as though they have a gaping hole there.

Defense

One area where the Rays receive universal praise is their defense. Longoria, Zobrist, Pena, Upton, and Jennings are all well above average defensively, and the rest of the team, from the starters to the bench, fields well too. The Rays boasted the best defensive efficiency — number of balls in play turned into outs — of nay team in the majors last year, and by no small margin. In terms of Baseball Prospectus’s PADE, which adjusts defensive efficiency for park effects, the Rays demolished every team in 2011 (4.30, with the next closest being 1.98). That will make things quite easier on their already quality pitching staff.

* * *

Once again, the Rays will complicate the AL East. They might not have the on-paper powerhouse lineups that both the Yankees and the Sox boast, but they do have a number of high-quality hitters throughout the lineup. One through seven, in fact, will comprise above-average hitters, with only the shortstop and Jose Molina dragging them down. They also have five high-quality starters that can rival any rotation in the division. It might take a few things breaking their way, but the Rays do have a legitimate shot at the AL East crown this year.

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More of this, please. (photo by Chris McGrath/Getty)

Much has been made of the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry over the years, although for my money the so-called “rivalry” didn’t really earn its name until the 2003 season, as the teams locked horns in the first of consecutive classic seven-game American League Championship Series. For a rivalry to exist, one presumes that both sides are relatively evenly matched, and prior to the 2000s this generally wasn’t the case for a good majority of Yankee-Red Sox teams.

In addition to the Red Sox of the aughts finally fielding a team as-good-as if not outright-better-than the Yankees, also helping dramatically ramp up the intensity between the two franchises was MLB’s implementation of the unbalanced schedule at the outset of the 2001 season. This of course expanded the number of times the Sox and Yanks faced off from 12-13 games a year to 18-19.

To illustrate just how closely matched the Yankees and Red Sox have become, the following two graphs depict the Yankees’ and Red Sox’ offense and pitching staffs since 1995, which seemed like a notable cutoff as it marks the advent of LDS play. There’s too much information presented to include labels, so if you’re interested in the raw data behind the creation of the graphs, please feel free to click here.

The two teams have been in a near-dead heat offensively since 1995, with the Yankees leading all of baseball with a .351 wOBA during that time frame (112 wRC+) and the Sox boasting the second-most-potent offensive attack at .349 and 107 wRC+. While the Sox have generally out-slugged the Yankees, the Bombers have typically been a tad more adept at getting on base. Additionally, given the favorable offensive environment that comes with playing 81 home games at Fenway Park, the Yankees have led the Red Sox in adjusted offense (wRC+) in 12 of these 17 seasons despite only bettering the Sox in wOBA in nine of them. Perhaps even more impressive regarding the Yankee offensive attack is that it’s been above average (100 wRC+) in each and every season depicted here, while the Sox actually posted below-league-average offensive attacks in 2000, 2001 and 2006.

On the flip side, the rich offensive environment at Fenway makes pitching in Boston a tougher-than-normal task — that difficulty level has helped propel the Red Sox to tie or better the Yankees in adjusted ERA (ERA-) in 10 of these 17 seasons, and even more impressively, tie or better the Bombers in adjusted FIP (FIP-) in 13 of the last 17 seasons. However, one thing I was not expecting to find was that the Yankees actually lead the AL in both ERA and FIP since 1995, with 4.25 and 4.17 marks, respectively. The Sox are fourth in ERA, at 4.32, and second in FIP (4.19).

Even though the rivalry didn’t really heat up until the early aughts, if you go back to 1995 the two teams really have been quite even head-to-head over the last 17 seasons. Since 1995, the Yankees are 145-134 against Boston, with a 75-64 record at home and 70-70 mark at Fenway Park. However, if you change the cutoff to 2003, the Yankees have actually been slightly outplayed by the Red Sox, with an 82-84 record (42-41 at home and 40-43 at Fenway). Additionally, since 2003, the two teams each feature identical MLB-leading .352 wOBAs (though the Yankees get the slight edge after park adjusting, with a 114 wRC+ to Boston’s 111).

After years of essentially playing each other at a .500 clip, things spiraled comically out of control last season, as the Yankees started the year out losing eight of their first nine against Boston (a showing of ineptitude eerily reminiscent of the 2009 team’s 0-8 start against the Sox), due in part to an obscenely prolific Boston offense that was treating seemingly every member of the Yankee pitching staff as if they were Jose Cano in the 2011 Home Run Derby. However, instead of rallying to tie the season series like they did two years prior, the Bombers ultimately finished 2011 with a 6-12 record against the Sox — the Yankees’ worst winning percentage against Boston in a season since going 4-8 in 1999.

Despite dropping 12 of 18 contests against a heated division rival, the Yankees still managed to not only win the 2011 AL East, but also finished the season with the best record in the league, while the Fenway faithful had to endure perhaps the most historic (and horrific) late-season collapse in baseball history. Of course, even though the Red Sox have now missed the playoffs two years running — while boasting the top offense in baseball this past season (116 wRC+) and the second-best in 2010 (109 wRC+) — and haven’t won a postseason game since 2008, they remain one of the top teams in the American League and will undoubtedly give the Yankees fits again in 2012.

Starting Pitching

For one, if Josh Beckett can come close to approximating his 2011 against the Yankees — a season in which the Bombers acted as if they’d somehow never before seen Beckett, whose 1.85 ERA vs. New York in 34 innings was bettered only by Brandon Morrow’s 1.74 among pitchers who threw 20 or more innings against the Bombers — they’ll be trotting out a near-unhittable righty in probably five to six of the 18 games the two teams will play.

For another, if Jon Lester returns to his pre-2011 form, which saw him toss to a 1.19 ERA against the Yankees in 2008, a 4.43 ERA  in 2009 (if you take out the aberrant 2.1-inning, five-run outing on September 25 of that year, the ERA drops to 2.70) and a 2.13 ERA in 2010 — including carrying no-hitters into the sixth inning in both his August and September starts — they’ll be trotting out a near-unhittable lefty to take up another five to six of the remaining games, which means Boston will likely have a big-time pitcher on the mound in more than half their contests against the Yankees. Throw in Clay Buchholz, who has historically tended to struggle against the Yanks but appeared as though he’d finally figured something out in limiting the Bombers to two runs over seven innings in his last start against them on May 13, and Boston looks to have as formidable a top three in its rotation as any team out there.

With punching bag John Lackey out for the year and Daisuke Matsuzaka not expected back until late May, question marks abound surrounding the fourth and fifth slots in the Boston rotation — can Daniel Bard successfully make the transition from top-flight fireballing set-up man to successful starting pitcher? Will southpaw Felix Doubront or old friend Alfredo Aceves grab hold of one of the available holes in the rotation? And can the Red Sox’s starting pitching situation possibly be as bad again as it was in September of 2011, when they were forced to give nine of 27 starts to the troika of Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland and Tim Wakefield while watching their stalwarts turn in enough ineffective performances to let the Rays come all the way back and sneak past them on the very last day of the season? Fortunately for Boston — whose pitching staff turned in a 5.84 ERA in the month of September — the answer to the latter question is almost certainly no, although whether any of the in-house candidates can step up and solidify the team’s biggest area of need will likely determine if the Sox make it back to the playoffs or get relegated to their couches for a third straight October.

The Bullpen

Though they lost elite closer Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies during the offseason, new Boston GM Ben Cherington rebuilt his bullpen on the fly with a series of interesting moves, acquiring former Athletics closer Andrew Bailey for outfielder (and designated-player-who-gets-a-hit-every-time-up-against-the-Yankees-even-though-he-sucks-against-everyone-else) Josh Reddick, and replacing Bard with former Yankee wunderkind Mark Melancon, acquired for Jed Lowrie (see Reddick’s description). Given the fungibility of relief pitching performances, I wouldn’t expect the Red Sox ‘pen — which actually finished the year with the fourth-best ERA and top FIP in the AL despite a wretched April — to miss a beat. Expect Aceves to log his share of relief innings, while Michael Bowden, lefty Franklin Morales, Matt Albers and Andrew Miller appear to be on their way to at least starting the year in the Boston bullpen.

Offense

As for the 2012 Red Sox offense, while I’m certainly pleased as punch that flies-in-the-ointment Lowrie (.330/.423/.534 career against the Yankees) and Reddick (annoying walk-off hit) are gone, Boston’s offensive attack remains relatively unchanged from the relentless machine that pounded out an MLB-high .347 wOBA last season. Jacoby Ellsbury will look to prove the doubters that the adjustments he made are here to stay, while Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis (if he can finally stay healthy) and Adrian Gonzalez make for one of the most potent hearts of any order in all of baseball. Add in another presumed solid season from David Ortiz (who is apparently immune to the dead cat bounce) and a year that has no choice but to be better from Carl Crawford (whenever he returns from the DL), and the Sox have no holes from 1-6 in their lineup.

Additionally, as if they weren’t already potent enough as it is, this is a crew of hitters that seems to save its best work for when they play the Yankees — Pedroia hit .406/.463/.565 (!) across 81 PAs against the Bombers last year, and has a career .392 OBP (again, !) against the Yanks; Youk has a career .313/.442(!)/.498 line against the Yanks; Ellsbury tagged the Yanks for a ridiculous .375/.439/.708 line last year to bolster his .291/.356/.443 career line; and of course, there’s Big Papi, who hit .282/.378/.577 with five bombs against the Yanks in 2011 and has utterly annihilated the Bombers throughout his career to the tune of a .303/.391/.559 line across 741 PAs, including 800,000 (fine, 36) career home runs. Given these numbers, it feels like nothing less than a minor miracle any time a Yankee pitcher can actually retire one of these batters.

However, some cracks in the armor start to appear in the lineup’s lower-third, where new manager Bobby Valentine will generally be starting some combination of Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.319 wOBA in 2011), Cody Ross (.321), Ryan Sweeney (.306), Mike Aviles (.307 wOBA, though .338 as a Red Sock) and Nick Punto (a completely out-of-character .350 wOBA in 2011; .296 for his career). While Saltalamacchia looked like he was finally coming into his own last season none of these players seem overly threatening, although then again I’m sure I would’ve said the same thing about Mark Bellhorn had I been blogging during the 2003-2004 offseason, who rebounded from a .296 wOBA in 2003 to post a .360 mark in 2004 after he joined the Red Sox. For whatever reason, donning a Boston uniform seems to turn even the scrubbiest of players into superstars from time to time, so I’m prepared to eat my words when Boston’s bottom third starts tearing the cover off the ball.

Conclusion

CAIRO has the Red Sox at 92-70, tied with the Rays for second place in the AL East; PECOTA pegs them at 90-72, also in second place in the ALE; and Oliver has them at 92-70 and second-best record in the AL. All three of these scenarios would entail the Sox securing one of the two AL Wild Card berths and playing the one-game playoff to advance to the LDS round, and so barring another disaster, Boston is most likely playoff-bound in 2012.

The Yankees’ first set of the season against Boston is at Fenway Park from April 20-22, and as ridiculous as I find conspiracy theories, at this point I almost can’t help but wonder whether the schedule-makers have it in for the Yanks by once again scheduling an April series at Fenway. Since the advent of the unbalanced schedule in 2001, the Yankees are — believe it or not — a ridiculously bad 8-22 at Fenway Park in April, and have only won their annual April set at Fenway against the Red Sox once (back in April 2010)  in that 11-year span. Not only that, but prior to their April 2010 series win, the last time the Yankees had won an April set against Boston at Fenway was in 1975. So yeah, needless to say I’m really excited to be playing the Red Sox in April at Fenway again, you guys.

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Apr
07

A division turned upside down

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(AP Photo/LM Otero)

  1. Blue Jays (4-1, +17 run differential)
  2. Orioles (4-1, +9)
  3. Yankees (3-2, +4)
  4. Rays (0-5, -15)
  5. Red Sox (0-5, -21)

Those are the AL East standings as of this morning. The teams in Baltimore and Toronto are overachieving due to pitching and timely hitting while the Rays and Red Sox have fallen victim to a lack of offense and pitching, respectively. Tampa has scored seven runs total in their five games and haven’t even held a lead yet all season. Seriously, they’ve been nothing but tied or behind in 2011.

And then there are the Yankees. Right in the middle of the division, winners of three (really should be four) games and the only club in the East doing pretty much exactly what was expected of them. The offense is averaging just over six runs a game but is doing so with heavy reliance on the long ball. Take out their league-leading 13 homers, and they’re hitting just .190 with a .261 OBP as team. Of course it doesn’t work like that, those homers count so we can’t just take them out to fit a narrative, but at some point the balls won’t be flying over the fence with the same frequency. Neither the team ERA (4.89) or FIP (3.56) represents the pitching staff’s true talent level, which is probably somewhere in between those two numbers. We’re still well short of the point where some of these statistical indicators stabilize, so there’s no sense in obsessing over numbers just yet.

While it’s certainly fun to watch Boston and Tampa struggle out of the gate, we know it won’t last. The Red Sox will win a game soon enough, and if it doesn’t happen against the Indians this afternoon, then there’s a really good chance that it’ll happen against the Yankees over the weekend. That will probably begin a stampede toward to top of the standings. The Rays’ offensive ineptitude (.212 wOBA) won’t be around to make fun of all season, unfortunately. On the other side of the coin, eventually the Orioles’ team ERA will climb north of 2.00 (probably once their .212 BABIP and 87% strand rate returns to Earth). Reality will slap the Blue Jays in the face once they stop playing games against AL Central and AL West opponents.

There’s nothing special about the first five games of the season, at least not when it comes to predictive value. We just happened to remember these games more because we’ve been baseball-starved for the last five months or so. The first five games are really no different than a randomly selected five-game stretch in June, it’s just one small slice of the bigger picture. We’re talking about five games people, which is just slightly more than three-percent of the season. If the season was a nine inning game, there wouldn’t even be one out in the top of the first yet. That how much is still left to be played.

By all means, enjoy the Rays inability to get a hit (.152 BABIP) and Boston’s hilariously bad pitching performances (8.25 FIP) while they last. Reality is going to rear it’s ugly head soon enough, crashing through the wall like the Kool-Aid guy saying “OH YEEEEAH!!!” The standings right now are pretty much the exact opposite of what one could reasonably expect coming into the season, but the power of small sample sizes can work in mysterious ways.

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Last year the Blue Jays surprised us by belting homer after homer en route to an above-.500 season. It made me kind of embarrassed to have written this before the season, but then again, who could have guessed that so many Blue Jays would go on power streaks? (In my defense, I had the right idea with the pitching staff.) The Jays have made a few changes this year, and in some ways they’re a weaker team than they were in 2010. But they’re set up for an AL East run in the not so distant future.

Strengths

(Chris Young/AP)

Despite losing Vernon Wells, the Blue Jays still possess plenty of power. Clearly they think that Jose Bautista’s breakout is real, since they signed him to a five-year, $65 million extension this past off-season. He won’t smack 54 homers again, but even if he hits 35 this year it will be a huge plus for the Jays. There are other hitters around him who can also crush the ball.

This year Travis Snider figures to get his chance to break into the bigs. He’s been in the league for the last three years, but has just 675 PA to his name. This year he’s starting with the big club and figures to stick around all season. What’s crazy is that he’s just 23. If he hits his stride this season he’ll provide an excellent left-handed power complement to Bautista. There’s also Adam Lind, a former top prospect who destroyed baseballs in 2009. He had a down year in 2010, but if that’s just a fluke then the Jays have just added even more power.

Another Jay who had a down year last year was Aaron Hill, who also broke out, at least in terms of power, in 2009. his 2010 was poor, but he still hit for some power. If he brings his average up, he’ll add some more right-handed pop to the lineup. The same goes for new acquisition Juan Rivera. He seems like the perfect fit for hitting coach Dwayne Murphy’s system. The same goes for rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia, whose No. 1 tool is his power. Finally, let’s not forget Edwin Encarnacion, who hit 21 homers in just 367 PA last year.

Weaknesses

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Nathan Denette

While the Jays led the majors in SLG last year, they finished 26th in OBP. That’s why their runs total ranked ninth. The power was there, but they just didn’t produce enough base runners. If Lind recovers and Snider approaches his ceiling then they will get a boost in that department. If not, they could be in for a year where they hit for plenty of extra bases, but don’t have enough runners on base to crack the top five in runs scored.

The bullpen has to be something of a concern, since the Jays lost a few key contributors in Scott Downs and Kevin Gregg. They did add Frank Francisco, which helps shore up the unit. But they also added Octavio Dotel, who could detract from it. Jon Rauch might actually be the best addition they made. Jason Frasor stays around, too, but it’s not as though the Blue Jays had a knock-out bullpen last year. That could be one of their most glaring weaknesses in 2011.

The starting staff, too, took a hit during the off-season. The Jays traded Shaun Marcum, perhaps their most effective pitcher, and inserted Kyle Drabek, a rookie. There are also reports that Brett Cecil’s velocity is down considerably — not good, since he didn’t throw all that hard to begin with. Brandon Morrow will miss the start of the season, which further hurts the staff. It figures to be pretty good once it’s completely assembled: Ricky Romero, Cecil, Litsch, Drabek, and Morrow, with Jo-Jo Reyes filling in.

Overall Outlook

I don’t want to make the mistake of underrating the Jays again, but unless they have breakout years from just about everyone, I doubt they’ll do much but play the spoiler in the AL East. This won’t be the case for long. The Jays have a good core of players and a fine farm system. They’ll be contending before we know it. In fact, this could be the last year where I write that they don’t appear to have it all together. At this time next year we could be looking at a four-team dogfight in the AL East. Hell, maybe even five.

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(AP Photo/Dave Martin)

These aren’t your grandfather’s Devil Rays anymore. Since losing the Devil, the Rays have won the AL East twice in three seasons, including last year by one game over the Yankees. The front office, led by acting GM Andrew Friedman, continues to squeeze valuable water out of the payroll rock with some help from manager Joe Maddon, who is willing to buck convention more than any other skipper in the game. Nine players from Tampa’s 25-man ALDS roster will be playing elsewhere this season, and a tenth (Rocco Baldelli) moved into a front office role. They’ve proven adept at rebuilding on the fly, but a roster overhaul of this caliber might have been too much at one time.

If you want a full preview of the 2011 Rays, I highly recommend purchasing The Process Report 2011, the best $15 you’ll spend this spring. The 103-page document includes in-depth articles and player profiles written by the brightest minds on the Rays’ blogosphere. In the interest of full disclosure, our own Joe Pawlikowski contributed an article about former Yankee and new Ray Johnny Damon. Think of TPR11 as the Mariano Rivera of season previews while what you see below is more … Kyle Farnsworth.

Strengths

It wasn’t long ago that a three-game series against the Tampa franchise meant good times for Yankees hitters, who routinely pounded inferior pitching staffs. Things have changed now, and the Rays’ starting rotation is the backbone of the club. David Price broke out and became one of the very best pitchers in the game last season, a hard-throwing lefty with strikeout stuff that has not yet reached his 26th birthday. Number two starter Jamie Shields is one of just eight pitchers that have thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last four seasons, so if nothing else he provides innings. He fell victim to some back luck last year (.341 BABIP, 68.4% strand rate), but his 3.55 xFIP was his best ever. Still just 29-years-old, a rebound is possible, if not likely.

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

The three and four spots go to 28-year-old Jeff Niemann (4.18 xFIP last year, 4.35 career) and 25-year-old Wade Davis (4.61 xFIP as a rookie last year). Matt Garza takes his three straight years of 180+ IP to Chicago’s north side and in steps young Jeremy Hellickson, who is arguably the best pitching prospect in the game. The soon-to-be 24-year-old had a fine big league cameo last year (3.83 xFIP in 36.1 IP), and is just the latest product from the game’s premier player development franchise. Right-hander Alex Cobb (2.80 FIP in Double-A last year) and left-hander Alex Torres (3.47) are next in line and will start the year in Triple-A. Behind them in Double-A will be Matt Moore, Alex Colome, and Nick Barnese. All five of those guys represent some of the better prospects in the game’s second best farm system.

Now that we’re past the starting rotation, we have to talk about Evan Longoria, arguably the best all-around player in baseball. His 19.6 fWAR since 2008 trails only Albert Pujols (25.3) and the now-hobbled Chase Utley (20.9). Still just 25, Longoria has three seasons of .370+ wOBA‘s, .210+ ISO’s, and 10+ ADR’s (aggregate defensive rating) to his credit all ready. Plus he packs some serious heat. Simply put, he’s a superstar of the first order and the best player in the division.

The team defense as a whole has been a strength for several years and figures to be one again in 2011. Losing Carl Crawford definitely hurts, but they’re still very strong up the middle with Reid Brignac at short, Ben Zobrist/Sean Rodriguez at second, and B.J. Upton in center. Maddon also has a deep and versatile roster at his disposal, allowing him to take advantage of platoon matchups and defensive shifts and what not. That farm system also provides a friggin’ ton of ammo for trades, and Friedman has shown a willingness to make huge splashes.

Weaknesses

As I said earlier, the Rays’ roster took a really big hit this winter. Crawford is the best player in franchise history, but he left for Boston. Carlos Pena fled for Chicago. Say what you want about his poor 2010 season (.196 AVG, .326 wOBA), but he hit at least 28 homers for the fourth straight year, and that will be missed. In their place will be old buddy Damon (coming off a .340 wOBA with Detroit, his lowest in the last seven years) and old nemesis Manny Ramirez (his .382 wOBA last year was excellent, but his second worst since becoming a full-time player). Both are on the wrong side of 35, but Tampa didn’t bring in either guy expected them to perform like they did three or five years ago. Either way, going from Crawford and Pena to Damon and Manny is likely to be a three or four-win downgrade, maybe even five.

The rest of the lineup, beyond those two and Longoria, is almost like a patchwork group. Zobrist won’t ever have another .408 wOBA season like he did in 2009 again, but his career .346 OBP and .168 ISO are fine marks for a guy that can legitimately play seven positions. B.J. Upton is now two years from free agency and it’s looking less and less likely that he’ll turn into the megastar everyone though he would after a stellar (.387 wOBA) 2007 campaign. His .317 OBP over the last two years won’t get the job done, even when combined with 40+ steals. Dan Johnson’s late season heroics over the last two years are well-known, but his big league career features a decidedly un-first baseman-like .333 wOBA. Brignac has some pop but is in there more for his glove than his bat, and the catching platoon of John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach is fine as long as they have bats in their hands and not gloves. I like Matt Joyce as a breakout candidate, but he’s a bit of a question mark until he actually does it.

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

And then there’s the bullpen. The Rays lost almost everyone from their relief corps over the winter, with the one holdover being the forgettable Andy Sonnanstine. The dominant late-game trio of Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Grant Balfour has been replaced by Kyle Farnsworth, Adam Russell, and Joel Peralta, a step down no matter how you look at it. Dan Wheeler goes from righty killer to Red Sox, Randy Choate from lefty killer to Marlin. Those two will essentially be replaced by a pair of rookie left-handers: Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos. A couple of guys named Mike Ekstrom, Rob Delaney, and Brandon Gomes provide the depth. Russell and McGee have big-time arms but are unproven, and will be thrust in high-leverage spots this summer. That’s not to say it can’t work, but I’m sure Maddon and fans alike will be reaching for the Tums much more often this year than last.

Of course, the team’s biggest weakness is it’s financial situation. Payroll shrunk down to something like $45M after topping out at close to $73M last season, and it’s not because ownership is cheap. The franchise simply can’t sustain anything higher. Tropicana Field has some appeal in a grungy “it’s a dump, but it’s our dump” kind of way, but it’s poorly located and the attendance totals reflect that. When the star players start calling fan attendance “embarrassing” … yeah it’s bad.

Overall Outlook

There’s no question that the Rays lost a lot of firepower this offseason. Crawford is irreplaceable, but remaking an entire bullpen and finding suitable offensive fill-ins in a single offseason is a minor miracle. Are they as good as last year? Almost certainly not, but Tampa is still extremely dangerous and very capable of winning the division. They have two bonafide stars in Price and Longoria plus a strong supporting cast, not to mention the deepest and most talented rotation in the division. Don’t kid yourself, Maddon’s club is a very real threat to the 2011 Yankees.

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(Charles Krupa/AP)

Stop me when this sounds familiar. Big market team invests tons of money into a team, but suffers from key injuries. The three-team nature of the AL East puts them out of the playoffs. Then, the following off-season they make a big splash by spending tons of money. That’s exactly what happened with the 2008 Yankees, and it more or less happened again last off-season with the Red Sox. They added two key players in big money deals (just wait for Adrian Gonzalez’s extension announcement) and appear to have a team just as strong as, if not stronger than, the Yankees in 2011.

Let’s just hope the parallels end there.

Strengths

(Charles Krupa/AP)

As has been the case for nearly a decade, the Red Sox draw great strength from the starting lineup. The only time in the past nine seasons that they’ve finished outside the top four in runs scored was in 2006. They might not be the powerhouse that led the league in runs scored from 2003 through 2005, but they’re going to give the Yankees a run for their money in 2011. Their lineup is just that deep.

While batting Jacoby Ellsbury atop the lineup might not be the best use of the team’s best bats, it makes little difference. It just slides everyone down a spot, meaning last year’s top DH, David Ortiz, hits sixth, and J.D. Drew, who even in a down year had a .341 OBP, seventh. Even at eight and nine they have Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who we know has talent, and Marco Scutaro, who is better than most No. 9 hitters.

Then there’s the heart of their order, the two-through-five that rivals any team in the bigs. It starts with Dustin Pedroia, who, with Chase Utley likely to miss a decent portion of 2011, figures to be one of the top two second basemen in the league. Following him is Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Kevin Youkilis. I suppose they could flip Youkilis and Gonzalez, but it matters little. That gives the Red Sox two excellent on-base and power guys in back of the speedier Crawford and Pedroia.

The Red Sox bullpen, at least the back end, has become a strength, too. Last year the Sox lost a few games due to Jon Papelbon meltdowns, but that could be just a blip on the radar. He has been one of the league’s elite closers for four years now, and it will take more than one season with a few blown saves to downgrade his status. Last year Dan Bard was the only reliable setup man, but during the off-season the Sox added Bobby Jenks to the mix. The rest of the bullpen is full of question marks, including Matt Albers, but the Sox have a few arms on the farm — Al Aceves and Felix Dubront — who can step in if someone falters.

The bench, too, can be considered a strength, even if Jason Varitek again serves as the backup. Darnell McDonald produced a quality 2010 season and could be of use to the Sox as a fifth outfielder. Ahead of him is Mike Cameron, who would start on most teams and will probably take some at-bats from Drew or Ellsbury against lefties. Jed Lowrie, too, could eventually take over as the starting shortstop. That’s a clear sign of a strong bench: the presence of players who could start for decent teams.

Big Question Marks

This section didn’t appear in Mike’s Orioles preview, because this is something unique to the Red Sox. In rating the Sox, I couldn’t decide whether to put the rotation in strengths or weaknesses. It has strengths for sure, and with a few lucky breaks the entire staff could become a strength. But as it stands they’ve got an ace and a bunch of question marks. It sounds like some other team we’ve come to know.

Jon Lester remains one of the game’s premier pitchers. Last year I picked him to win the AL Cy Young, and he really wasn’t that much worse than the winner, Felix Hernandez. This year Dave Cameron of FanGraphs rode my coattails with the Lester pick, and I don’t think it’s any less likely to happen than last year. If he puts it all together this year — high strikeout, low walk, low homer, and high groundball rates — he could be the pitcher we hate to love.

(Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Behind him, though, the Red Sox have little certainty. Clay Buchholz was the best pitcher behind Lester last year, but he greatly outperformed his peripheral stats. Is he due for a regression, or will he progress similarly to his teammate? Lester, remember, had a below-average strikeout rate in 2008, but experienced a huge jump in 2009. If Buchholz follows his lead he could be in for another excellent season. But if he doesn’t, I would expect his 2011 to look something like Phil Hughes‘s 2010.

Then there are Josh Beckett and John Lackey, who were disappointing for different reasons last season. Beckett pitched poorly and got hurt, and it stands to reason that the two are interrelated. At 31 he’s no sure thing to bounce back, but his track record demonstrates that it is entirely possible. Remember, he had a rough 2006 season when he came to the AL and then came to dominate in 2007. We’re four years removed from that, but it can still happen. It’s just a little less likely this time around.

John Lackey was a disappointment during his first season in Boston, with a reduced strikeout rate and inflated walk rate. Yet he underperformed his peripherals, a 4.40 ERA to a 3.85 FIP. As with Beckett, he’s a bit older and so a recovery isn’t guaranteed. I have a bit less faith in him to recover than Beckett, but that’s mostly a stuff argument — i.e., I think that Beckett’s pure stuff can help him produce another top-flight season, while I’m not as big a believer in Lackey’s stuff.

Weaknesses

(David Goldman/AP)

While the Red Sox are strong up front, they’re a bit week when we move deeper into the roster. That includes the bench, bullpen, lineup, and rotation. Some are a bit weaker than others, but each has a chink in the armor.

In the rotation the Sox have Daisuke Matsuzaka holding down the fifth spot. His track record has been unimpressive during his time in the states. This can even include the 2008 season, when he finished with a 2.90 ERA. his 5.05 per nine walk rate indicates that he got a tad lucky — there is no way he can sustain an 80.6 percent strand rate. The last two years have seen him spend time on the disabled list and in general pitch ineffectively. The Sox have a few pitchers who can come up and take his place, but they’re not exactly high-upside options.

In the bullpen the Sox might be strong in the late innings, but their other options do not inspire. Dan Wheeler has a quality track record, in the AL East to boot, so we might even count him as a strength. I don’t think we can do the same for Matt Albers, Dennys Reyes, or Tim Wakefield. The Sox might get something out of these guys, and as previously mentioned they have a number of arms in AAA who can fill in should these guys falter. That’s what I expect to happen. Even Wakefield, a Red Sox mainstay, could find this is his final year. I don’t imagine the Sox will continue to use him if he’s as ineffective as he was last year.

The starting lineup looks solid at the top, but the last two spots are something of weaknesses. Marco Scutaro is a fine shortstop, but his track record suggests that he’s not any better than he displayed in 2010. Jed Lowrie figures to take his spot at some point during the season, at which point there’s a chance that the lineup spot turns into a strength. Until then it’s a weakness — at least relatively so. Jarrod Saltalamacchia represents the biggest chink in the Red Sox armor. This is not only because he’s completely unproven, but also because they don’t have a strong backup option. In one way it takes guts to put so much faith unto a 26-year-old who hasn’t done a thing at the major league level. In another, more accurate, way, it probably wasn’t the best idea on the part of management.

Overall Outlook

While the Red Sox have weaknesses and question marks, they’re still among the best teams in the league on paper. That’s no different than last year, of course. The big difference this year centers on health. As a team the Sox are in basically the same position as last year. They merely replaced departing players Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre with Crawford and Gonzalez. Their relative performances should roughly even out, though Crawford and Gonzalez will probably be a bit better overall.

The difference is that they’re starting fresh. Last year they lost Pedroia in June and then Youkilis a bit later in the season. If those two stayed healthy last year’s pennant race would have evolved much differently. If they stay healthy this year the Red Sox will be in a much better position, even if they didn’t make wholesale upgrades. If they all stay healthy this will be a powerhouse of a team. Then again, we can say that about more than one other team in the league. Bad breaks happen. The Red Sox are just hoping that they experience fewer of them this year.

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(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

It’s been 13 years since the Orioles last qualified for the postseason, and four years since they finished somewhere other than last place in the AL East. Despite that, they made some noise in the second half of last season, hiring former Yankees manager Buck Showalter in late-July and going 34-23 under his watch, the best record among AL East teams during that time. Before Buck came aboard, Baltimore won just 32 of 105 games.

After employing the American League’s third worse offense (.309 wOBA, 613 runs), worst starting rotation (4.74 FIP), and fifth worst bullpen (4.25 FIP) in 2010, the O’s went out and made several notable moves in the offseason. They traded four young relievers for Mark Reynolds, Brendan Harris, and J.J. Hardy, then signed free agents Vlad Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Justin Duchscherer, and Kevin Gregg, among others. Koji Uehara, Mark Hendrickson, and Cesar Izturis were also retained. Those additions undeniably help improve the team, but just how much?

Strengths

Last year’s Orioles had exactly two well-above-average regulars on offense, and both are returning. Luke Scott led the team in pretty much everything, including wOBA (.387), homers (27), walk rate (11.4%), and ISO (.251). Nick Markakis finished second in wOBA (.353) and led the team in OBP (.370), producing yet another solid season in a young career full of them. Reynolds might be a whiff machine, but .241 career ISO’s don’t grow on trees, and neither do guys with legit 30+ homer power (at least these days). Vlad isn’t really as good as his 2010 first half (.319/.364/.554 with 20 homers) but probably isn’t as bad as his 2010 second half (.278/.322/.426, nine homers), so the middle ground (.355-ish wOBA) is the best bet this season. That’s four legit middle-of-the-order bats, two more than Baltimore had last year.

The defense has been upgraded at short with Hardy, who has the second highest UZR (+21.4) at the position over the last three years. Lee’s reputation with the glove is stellar, far better than what the incumbent Ty Wigginton can do at first. Reynolds is hardly a wizard at the hot corner, but he’s better than Miguel Tejada, so three of the four infield positions have been upgraded defensively. They’re not the ’99 Mets, but the infield defense has been massively improved.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The Orioles also boast what should be an improved relief corps. Uehara was brilliant late last year as closer (11.25 K/9, 1.02 BB/9, 2.40 FIP) and has some competition from Gregg, who’s had a sub-3.90 FIP in four the last five years, including 3.57 in 2010. Mike Gonzalez missed much of last season due to injury, and he overcame his early-season struggles to post a stellar 2.79 FIP. Left-handers that can strike out double-digit batters per nine innings are a rare breed. Add in Jason Berken (3.59 FIP in 2010) and Jim Johnson (3.08), and Showalter should have a solid set of middle relievers and setup men at his disposal.

Jeremy Guthrie, while no All-Star, is a fine rotation option with three straight years of 190+ IP plus a mid-4.00′s FIP in three of the last four seasons. He has a knack for outperforming his peripheral stats, posting a sub-4.00 ERA in three of the last four years. Behind him will be southpaw Brian Matusz, one of the very best young pitchers in the game. He had a fine rookie season (4.05 FIP in 175.2 IP) and was nothing short of brilliant down the stretch (2.18 ERA, 3.35 FIP in his final 11 starts). The O’s have a chance to win whenever either of those two guys is on the bump.

Weaknesses

Just as was the case last year, this Orioles team is only going as far as the pitching staff takes them, and it won’t be that far. Beyond Guthrie and Matusz is a group of has-beens and never-wases, highlighted by Duschscherer. He started just five games last season after missing all of 2009, and has already been setback by nagging issues with his surgically repaired hip a few times this spring; the Duke of Hurl has two whole Grapefruit League innings to his credit and is expected to start the season on the disabled list. Say what you want about Kevin Millwood’s awful season in 2010 (4.86 FIP, 5.10 ERA), but at least he made 31 starts.

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Behind Duchscherer lies Brad Bergesen, a low-slot righty with a career 4.70 FIP, the inability to miss bats (5.7% swinging strikes), and a considerable platoon split (5.32 xFIP vs. LHB, 4.09 vs. RHB). He’s young (25) and a ground ball guy (49.3% career), but the AL East is a tough place to live if you can’t get strike three consistently (4.48 K/9). Jake Arrieta showed flashes of good and bad in his debut last season, ending up with a 4.76 FIP and nearly as many walks (48) as strikeouts (52) in 100.1 IP. Chris Tillman is still struggling to find his way at the big league level (6.00 FIP in 118.2 IP), but has more talent than either Bergesen or Arrieta. Young pitchers tend to take a lot of lumps in this division, and it probably won’t be any different for Baltimore this summer.

Aside from Duchscherer, both Brian Roberts and Lee offer major health concerns. Roberts missed more than three months last year with an abdominal injury and has been limited by neck issues in camp. Lee had offseason wrist surgery and has already been slowed by soreness in the wrist, and the duo has combined for just 16 games played this spring. If they miss any length of time this year, the likely replacements are some combination of Izturis, Robert Andino, Jake Fox, and Josh Bell. Yikes.

The offense is still below average at short (Hardy has a .302 wOBA over the last two seasons) and behind the plate (Matt Wieters has a .315 wOBA in his young career), though both are capable of much more. Markakis’ cannon arm doesn’t make up for his shoddy range (-11.0 range runs over the last three years), and although Scott isn’t as bad with the glove as you’d think, going from Felix Pie in left to him is a step down.

Furthermore, the Orioles have one of the weaker farm systems in the game, ranked in the bottom third by most publications. Zach Britton, arguably the best left-handed pitching prospect in the game, will make his debut at some point this year, but as we saw with Matusz early last year, quick success is no guarantee. Bell, Wynn Pelzer, Brandon Snyder, and Ryan Adams are more solid contributors than future cornerstones. There just isn’t much help on the way right now.

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Overall Outlook

If the Orioles are going to make any noise in the AL East this year, it won’t be because of veteran additions like Vlad, Gregg, and Duchscherer. It’ll be because the young guys all take a major step forward, a step forward that will inevitably be attributed to Showalter. Markakis has flashed MVP potential in the past, and Wieters has all the talent in the world. Adam Jones is a fine player, but a .325 wOBA and just 5.5 fWAR is not what everyone expected in his first 1,800 PA. Matusz, Tillman, and Britton are the makings of a stellar rotation, but progress must first be made by all three. Again, the talent is there, it just has to turn into performance.

Are the Orioles a better team than they were 12 months ago? Sure, I don’t think there’s a doubt about that. Unfortunately, we’re talking about a 74-76 win team being better than a 66 win team. The improvement under Showalter is real but only to a certain extent. Anyone thinking they’ll maintain that 97-win pace they had under Buck over a full season is going to be very disappointed. The O’s are not going to be a total pushover in 2011, but they’re not going to be a real threat to the three AL East powers either.

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Mar
06

2011 AL East Busts: part 2 of 2

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New York Yankees: Robinson Cano

2010 wOBA of .389. 2011 projected wOBA of .360

Laziest superstar EVER. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Despite the absence of both Larry Bowa and Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano had a career year in 2010. His game took a huge step forward in terms of power and on-base skills. His walk rate inched up close to 10%, and he increased his ISO to .214, the latter being good enough for second-best for all second baseman. As Mike noted in Robbie’s 2011 season preview, he was the team’s best player by all methods of evaluation.

In 2011 PECOTA sees Cano taking a step back from his lofty levels of production, projecting a batting line of .299/.347/.488, a .360 wOBA. This would be worse than Cano’s 2010 or 2009, and resembles closely his 2007 season when he put together a .358 wOBA on .306/.353/.488 hitting. The problem with this is that this seems to be largely out of line with what most people expect from Cano this season. It’s possible that this reflects a bit of optimism about Cano’s natural progression, but some of the arguments are quite persuasive. Mike for one noted Cano’s constancy in terms of production:

If you remove that ugly 2008 season, Cano’s last four years have been surprisingly consistent. He’s hit over .300 in each season with at least a .320 BABIP and a .180 ISO, and his strikeout rate has hovered between 10.9% and 13.8%. Robbie’s swung at between 51.6% and 54.1% of the pitches he’s seen during the time, and his line drive rates have been between 19.3% and 19.9% (2007 is the exception on the LD%, not 2008). His ratio of homeruns-to-fly balls has been between 11.5% and 14.4% as well. The three percentage point difference in those last few stats is relatively small and just part of the randomness of baseball. Overall, Robbie’s one consistently productive player.

On Friday, Mike Jaggers-Radolf at Yankee Analysts took a similar tack towards Cano’s conservative Marcel projection (.354 wOBA with a .300/.347/.476 line)

[The] numbers don’t point to any particular abberation that would wipe away the progress he’s made in 2009 and then again in 2010. His BABIP in those seasons, for example, was right in line with his career norms. While his OBP suggests improved discipline, his discipline numbers don’t demonstrate any heavy outliers. He didn’t, for example, double his career walk rate in 2010. Most of his numbers were more gradual improvements, the kind of improvements one would hope a smart ball player would make as his career advances. In light of all this, Marcel’s 2011 projection seems too conservative.

In a lot of ways, having this discussion about whether a .360 wOBA is too conservative for a second baseman is a testament to how talented Cano is and how lucky the Yankees are to employ his services. A .360 wOBA in 2010 would have ranked 5th best in 2010, 3rd in 2009 and 7th in 2008, and it also projects as the second-highest wOBA of any 2B in 2011, ahead of Pedroia, Uggla and Kinsler and behind only Chase Utley. This is a long way of saying that like Mike Jaggers-Radolf and Mike Axisa, I’m optimistic that Cano can outperform these relatively meager expectations and wouldn’t be surprised to see a more bullish projection next year once the systems have another full season of data. I’m not a gambling man, but I would love to plunk down twenty bucks on Cano beating a .360 wOBA.

Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Bautista

2010 wOBA of .422; projected 2011 wOBA of .365

One of the terms of Bautista's new contract is that he can wear his glove like that whenever he wants and no one can say boo about it. (AP Image)

It is entirely reasonable to wonder whether Jose Bautista’s 2010 season will be viewed with the same credulous sense of “he hit how many home runs?” as Brady Anderson’s 1996 season is viewed now. Prior to hitting 50 home runs for the Orioles, Anderson was a career .250/.349/.393 hitter with an OPS+ of only 101. In 1996 he hit .297/.396/.637, and never came close to touching that level of production the rest of his career. Bautista’s power profile was even worse than Anderson prior to last year. He was a career .238/.329/.400 hitter with an OPS+ of only 91. Last year, though, he clubbed 54 home runs en route to an insane line of .260/.378/.617.

Many have noted, though, that Bautista’s 2010 performance might not be such a fluke. Joe Pawlikowski was one of them over at Fangraphs, arguing that it’s at least possible that Bautista’s famed swing change could lead to sustained success. PECOTA seems to take the easy way out and simply splits the difference. A wOBA of .365 would be well north of anything Bautista had done prior to 2010, but it’s also a substantial drop from his .422 mark last year. In a way, PECOTA’s projection probably mirrors what most analysts would forecast if given the chance. No one would be eager to label the entire season a fluke and predict him to return to his .750 OPS days, just as no one actually predict him to slug over .600 again.

It’s appropriate to end with this analysis by BP’s Ben Lindbergh, an analysis that really encapsulates all the moving parts when dealing with projecting difficult cases. The emphasis is mine.

In some cases, players get lucky. In others, they simply cease to be unlucky, and in still others, their true talent level takes an unanticipated step forward. Once those seemingly anomalous seasons take place, PECOTA incorporates them into its projections for the following year and revises its estimates upward, but rarely anticipates a repeat performance, barring a favorable spot on the aging curve.

That doesn’t stop us from identifying players whom PECOTA might like more than the prevailing opinion, but where does it leave us with a few of this year’s trickiest test cases? Take Javier Vazquez (please). As someone whose ERA has routinely failed to match his peripherals (or more accurately, the peripherals we generally expect to predict ERA), Vazquez has come with plenty of baggage even at the best of times. Nonetheless, after Vazquez bought another ticket out of New York with an abysmal performance last season, PECOTA foresees a rebound to a sub-4.00 ERA and a healthy strikeout rate in Florida. Meanwhile, 2010 super-slugger Jose Bautista is projected to shed nearly half of his homers (which would still leave him with his second-best season to date).

In the case of each player, we can do more than simply throw up our hands and attribute last year’s surprising performance to divine dice rolls. Vazquez experienced a sizeable velocity drop (whose effects can be quantified); Bautista made well-publicized changes to his stance and swing. PECOTA doesn’t know those things, but you and I do, even though we might not know their precise significance. Given the increasing granularity of baseball data capture, perhaps the passage of time and future additions to PECOTA’s code will make it possible to adjust the forecasts not only according to what numbers were produced, but to a greater degree, how they were produced. For now, feel free to indulge your inner PECOTAs, but remember to forecast responsibly.

Tampa Bay Rays: John Jaso – 2010 wOBA of .341; projected 2011 wOBA of .319.

Jaso with GM Andrew Friedman, who is no doubt pointing out some new market inefficiency he discovered over breakfast. (AP Images)

John Jaso may have a very limited major league track record, but it’s still a bit odd to see such a projected drop-off from PECOTA. Jaso placed 5th in Rookie of the Year voting this offseason after logging over 400 plate appearances for the Rays as their catcher (so long, Dioner). His increase in playing time was partly the result of him doing one thing very, very well: take walks. In 2010 John Jaso was to taking walks as Kevin Youkilis was to being ugly, and he also shared Youkilis’ disciplined approach at the plate. His walk rate was the second-highest of all catchers with at least 250 plate appearances. The Process Report ’11 noted rather poetically that Jaso’s approach at the plate was based on a very selective eye:

Jaso’s offensive approach is simple too. Jaso will not swing if he determines a pitch is on its way outside of the strike zone. Labeling this an approach is probably being too casual, as Jaso’s pitch selection seems to teeter on the thinnest border between obsession and religion. At times, it seems Jaso follows the scripture of Youkilis, where swinging at a poor pitch is a sin – one punishable by eternal damnation and pitchfork poking.

In 2011 PECOTA projects Jaso’s OPS to drop nearly 50 points with an OBP of .347 and a slugging percentage of .355. This is largely predicated on a slight decrease in walk rate (13.1%) and a fairly low BABIP of .270. Jaso sported a robust OBP throughout his minor league career, so this would surely be a disappointing mark for him in 2011. The Rays have options, though. The Rays always have options. They can use Jaso against righties and have him avoid the tougher left-handed pitchers, and then deploy lefty-murdering Kelly Shoppach against the CC Sabathias and Jon Lesters of the league. They’re also working out Robinson Chirinos at catcher this spring, and his PECOTA projection is very impressive. If for some reason Jaso can’t live up to the standard he set for himself in 2011 the Rays ought to have good flexibility at catcher regardless.

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Mar
05

2011 AL East Busts: part 1 of 2

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Let’s start this with a disclaimer. Last week I took PECOTA for a spin and picked out five AL East offensive threats projected to outperform their 2010 wOBAs in 2011. I’ve done the same thing this week, just with players projected to underperform their 2010 wOBAs. This doesn’t exactly make them busts, and so the title of this piece is slightly misleading. I simply can’t think of the antonym of sleeper. I suppose “2011 AL East Players Projected to Underperform their 2010 wOBAs” would be far more accurate, but that’s a tad wordy for my liking. Today we’re examining the Orioles and the Red Sox, and tomorrow will be the Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays.

Baltimore Orioles: Luke Scott

2010 wOBA of .387. 2011 projected wOBA of .359

Better mechanics than Brackman though amirite? (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

For many Luke Scott came out of nowhere in 2010 when he posted a batting line of .284/.368/.535 with a .387 wOBA in 517 plate appearances. The burly first baseman has always shown the ability to hit for power, both in the minors and the majors, but this was the first time he was able to put it all together for an entire season since he was traded from Houston to Baltimore after the 2007 season. While Scott did hit for a lot of power in 2010, he also showed improvement in his batting average and on-base percentage. Both increased exactly 28 points from 2010. However, this likely attributable to an increased in batted ball fortune, given that his BABIP went up 21 points. Indeed, his approach at the plate in 2010 appeared remarkably similar to what he did in 2009. His walk rate increased only a half a percent, and he dropped his strikeout rate only 1.3%.

Even though Baltimore’s lineup looks to be slightly better in 2011, even though one could make the case that they’re doing themselves no long-term favor by signing Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee when they can’t reasonably expect to contend this year, PECOTA sees a fair amount of regression in store for Luke Scott this year. It predicts a batting line of .262/.345/.474 with a .359 wOBA, a decrease of .028 in wOBA. It also sees his BABIP falling back down to .290, despite a career BABIP of .300 and a .304 mark in 2011. All told, PECOTA’s projection for 2011 sees Scott showing less power than he did in 2010 or 2009 and showing roughly similar abilities to hit for average and get on base.

Scott gave back some of his fWAR value at the plate last year by spending some time at 1B (all the warnings about fielding metrics and small samples apply), but this year he’ll spend time in left field as Lee takes over at 1B and Guerrero at DH. Scott generally grades out as a decent defender in left, so he still ought have moderately good overall value for the Orioles in 2011. PECOTA just doesn’t like his chances of having as much offensive thump as last year.

Boston Red Sox: Jed Lowrie

2010 wOBA of .393. 2011 projected wOBA of .331

That's a pretty good worm, Jed (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Last week I picked Jacoby Ellsbury as a sleeper, but noted that his inclusion on the list was more a function of an incredibly low 2010 baseline, one created largely by injuries rather than a dip in skill. As a result, while Ellsbury was projected to see a drastic improvement over his 2010 line in 2011 it didn’t mean that his projection was at all robust. Jed Lowrie is the exact flipside of the coin. In 2011 he’s projected to post a far lower wOBA than he did in 2010, but this tells you more about his insane 2010 performance than it does about his 2011 projection. He still represents a good middle infield option for the Red Sox.

A year removed from wrist injury, Lowrie had less than a half season of plate appearances (197) with Boston in 2010, but really went out of his way to make them count. After a relatively normal July Lowrie went on a tear for the rest of the season (ending in early October, of course), hitting .293/.385/.544 and leaving him with a gaudy .393 wOBA for the year. This mark was higher than any 2B in baseball, including Cano, and was second only to Troy Tulowitzki’s .408 mark for shortstops. There are no easy culprits to explain away this performance: his BABIP was entirely normal and his HR/FB ratio, while higher than his career average, was still only 11.6%.

One less obvious explanation for his power surge might be the quality of pitchers faced: his 9 home runs in 2010 came off Brad Mills, Tommy Hunter, Casey Janssen, Brian Matusz, Luke French (2), Andy Pettitte, Dustin Moseley and Joba Chamberlain (2). It’s not indicative of anything prima facie, good hitters beat up bad pitchers, but late season surges in performance can sometimes be explained by a deterioration of the quality of opposition due to injury attrition or the presence of September call-ups.

In 2011 PECOTA sees Lowrie hitting .245/.338/.401, good for a .739 OPS and a .331 wOBA. Marcel’s projection is similarly conservative (.336 wOBA), but this is the result of the fact that Marcel only uses the past three years of data and doesn’t include minor league performance. Obviously the systems are showing a fair bit of reticence to overvalue his 2010 performance, in light of the relatively pedestrian 382 plate appearances in 2008 and 2009. There is, however, considerable upside. While he is 26 years old already, Lowrie was still a first-round pick in 2004 and boasts an impressive minor league pedigree. When you combine that with past struggles and an injury history that would make Nick Johnson proud, it’s hard to know what to expect from Lowrie in 2011. This was exactly Patrick Sullivan’s point when he did a mini-preview of Lowrie back in January over at Red Sox Beacon:

Anyone who tells you they have a beat on Jed Lowrie and his prospects for 2011 is speculating. He has an encouraging Minor League track record, a choppy Major League one and he hasn’t been able to stay healthy long enough to get a sense for what type of player he ultimately will be. But I also think it’s worth trying to find significance in his 2010 standout season. I know all small sample warnings apply, but he did hit .287/.381/.526 in just under 200 plate appearances. Here’s the list of middle infielders who have managed a single-season 139 OPS+ or better in 175 PA’s or more since 2000: Alex Rodriguez, Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra, Bret Boone, Roberto Alomar, Ben Zobrist, Hanley Ramirez, Edgardo Alfonzo, Chase Utley, Rich Aurilia, Robinson Cano and Carlos Guillen.

And that’s it. I know the Red Sox can’t depend too much on him until he shows an ability to stay on the field. But at the same time, they need to prioritize getting Lowrie the requisite playing time to figure out his value, either for them to retain or trade given the looming presence of Jose Iglesias. There’s a chance that Lowrie could put up some superstar seasons if given the opportunity.

I’m not as enthused as Sullivan is about this list. While there are certainly some serious heavy hitters, there are also some apparent flukes. Aurilia posted one season of 142 OPS+ in 2001 but was a 91 OPS+ hitter from then on and a 99 OPS+ hitter for his entire career. Edgardo Alfonzo and to an extent Carlos Guillen and Ben Zobrist, appear to be similar outliers, and if you drop the OPS+ requirement down from 139 to 135 you pick up a even wider swath of interlopers: Jhonny Peralta, Marcus Giles, Jose Hernandez and Mark Loretta. Again, none of these players ever produced an OPS+ of over 135 again in their career. This doesn’t really tell us a whole lot about Lowrie though, so ultimately Sullivan’s conclusion about Lowrie is spot-on: the best we can do is speculate about what Lowrie can do in 2011. He’s a talented player with a bad injury history and a murky positional place on the club. He could take over for Scutaro and perform solidly or spend most of the season on the disabled list, and neither result would be a great surprise.

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