Archive for Other Teams
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
New York Yankees: Robinson Cano
2010 wOBA of .389. 2011 projected wOBA of .360
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
As Spring Training warms up and baseball season approaches, it is easy to find plenty of “busts and sleepers” columns around the baseball community, particularly for fantasy baseball. I’ve done the same thing here for the American League East using Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system. First I used PECOTA and calculated the projected wOBAs for every offensive starter in the American League East. Then I subtracted each player’s 2010 wOBA from the projection. The players with the largest differences are projected to do better than they did in 2010, and the players with negative values are projected to perform worse than they did in 2010. Today we’ll look at the “sleepers”, the players that PECOTA sees doing better this year than last year. I’ve selected one player from each team because Orioles and Blue Jays fans need love too.
Boston Red Sox: Jacoby Ellsbury
2010 wOBA: .237. 2011 projected wOBA: .333.
Given how poorly Jacoby Ellsbury’s 2010 campaign went, it’s a bit odd to include him on this list: repeated injuries to his ribs kept him from staying on the field and producing at anything resembling a normal level of production. While it might be more interesting to examine another Red Sox player, the next highest wOBA-gainer on the list is JD Drew (.346 2010 wOBA; .355 2011 projected wOBA) and, frankly, JD Drew is boring.
As mentioned, Ellsbury had a rough go of it in 2010, injuring his ribs in April, and then reinjuring them when he attempted to return. 2010 was a lost year for those attempting to ascertain what Ellsbury’s true talent level is. In 2009 he had taken a step forward, increasing his on-base and slugging percentages by about twenty points apiece and bumping his OPS to .770. Ellsbury isn’t the type to hit for power, but his relatively decent ability to get on-base in 2009 and his blindingly fast speed led many to expect him to take another step forward in 2010. Many were the fantasy players who took Ellsbury in the first round of a standard 5×5 league, and great was their disappointment.
All fantasy owners and the Boston Red Sox got from Ellsbury was a measly set of 83 plate appearances, and all Ellsbury got was older and more expensive to the Sox. In 2011 he looks to get back on the horse with fellow speedster Carl Crawford behind him, yet PECOTA isn’t very bullish on Ellsbury’s ability to advance past his 2009 statistical line. The projection of .281/.337/.381 is nearly identical to his relatively inferior 2008 season.
Even with an OPS of barely over .700 Ellsbury has good value to the Red Sox. He’s relatively inexpensive, he plays good defense and he runs the bases well. However, unless he can outperform PECOTA’s meager expectations for his ability to get on base and hit for power he will fall well short of his solid 2009 season. Whether this makes him a true “sleeper”, then, is an open question.
Toronto Blue Jays: JP Arencibia
2010 wOBA: .232; 2011 projected wOBA: .331.
Like Ellsbury, JP Arencibia’s presence in this list is largely the product of an unnaturally low 2009 line in limited playing time: Arencibia hit .143/.189/.343 in a mere 37 plate appearances. Yet Arencibia has an impressive minor league pedigree, and should get a decent shot at holding down the Toronto catching job now that John Buck has departed for greener pastures. Arencibia doesn’t profile to take a lot of walks; his career minor league OBP is .319. However, he has exhibited some serious power potential, albeit in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League. Howard Bender of Fangraphs recently wrote up Arencibia as a “catcher on the rise” over at Fangraphs:
If the growth that we’ve seen in the minors is any indication, the power potential here is massive. He progressed nicely from Single-A to Double-A and the little hiccup he experienced his first year in Triple-A (increased K% with a major decrease in BA) was thoroughly wiped away with his follow-up season in 2010. His ISO numbers are fantastic and you can tell that his hitting prowess is more than just luck as evidenced by his relatively normal BABIP numbers. One caveat that I should point out is the .228 average vs lefties with a .284 OBP in his two seasons in Triple-A. Those numbers could translate even worse in the majors. There will also be questions as to whether or not he can handle the rigors of catching full time in the bigs as well as how he can handle the pitching staff, but those will certainly be answered this season as the Jays will afford him every opportunity to succeed this year. Consider him a middle round pick who should, if he keeps his head on straight, put up early round pick numbers.
In a refreshing exhibition of clear expectations, PECOTA is strikingly bearish on Arencibia’s ability to get on base (.290 OBP) and strikingly bullish on his ability to hit for power (.483 SLG). It’s probably not the well-rounded game the Jays are looking for long-term out of the catcher position, but it’s not far off from the level of production they got out of John Buck last year (.281/.314/.489 with a .345 wOBA). If Arencibia can stick behind the plate for the season and hit to his projected .331 wOBA the Jays would be happy campers.
Tampa Bay Rays: Dan Johnson
2010 wOBA: .339; 2011 projected wOBA: .367
Dan Johnson is exactly the kind of player that Rays’ management loves to sign, and he’s exactly the kind of player to take AJ Burnett deep at an inopportune time, leaving most Yankees fans saying “wait, who?”. It’s just so typical.
Johnson has bounced around in his career between the Athletics, the Rays, and the Japanese club Yokohoma Bay Stars. He hasn’t exhibited the typical power one would expect from the first baseman, but boy can he take a base on balls: he had the highest walk rate of any 1B with at least 100 plate appearances in 2010.
In 2010 Johnson, the victim of an absurdly low BABIP of .188, hit .198/.343/.414 (.339 wOBA) in 140 plate appearances. PECOTA sees his walk-heavy ways continuing in 2011, but also projects him to add some power, predicting a line of .244/.368/.465. Ultimately this isn’t going to measure up to the standard set by Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira, but Johnson will only cost the Rays $1M in 2011. They would certainly be thrilled (and smug) if they got a 0.367 wOBA from a $1M first baseman.
Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters
No one will soon forget the occasion when PECOTA, in a seeming fit of spasmodic optimism, spit out the following line for Matt Wieters, the rookie, prior to the 2009 season: 649 PAs, 31 HR, 102 RBI, .311/.395/.544. Despite a minor league track record befitting the finest thoroughbred in all the land Wieters missed this projection and missed badly, hitting .280/.340/.412. This is an impressive line for a rookie 23 year-old catcher debuting at the major league level, but it certainly fell well short of the incredibly lofty expectations PECOTA had laid out for Wieters. In 2010 expectations were tempered but Wieters still fell short, undergoing the dreaded sophomore slump with a line of .249/.319/.377. The difference can largely be traced to a seventy point drop in Wieters’ BABIP. In his debut he averaged .356; in 2010 the mark was .287.
Aside from the fluctuation in BABIP, there are reasons for optimism for Wieters in 2011. Last year he increased his walk rate from around 7% to 9%, and managed to reduce his strikeout rate by a solid 3%. In other words, despite a worse batting line he actually made some small positive steps forward at the plate. His ISO increased ever so slightly, again indicating that the decrease in his batting line was largely related to a difference in fortune on balls in play. PECOTA sees Wieters’ BABIP normalizing at .311 this year. It’s a safe bet, but it’s hard to know whether he’ll settle in 20 points lower or higher than that on his career. As a result, the system projects a line of .268/.341/.419, very similar to what he produced in his rookie debut.
When PECOTA made the Wieters projection, there was a lot of confusion. Sure, there were the typical troglodytes who take every opportunity possible to mock the concept of a “computer” predicting baseball, but it’s always easy to ignore them. The more serious questions came from people who didn’t understand how in the world PECOTA came up with that: if PECOTA is in essence conservative, how could it produce a statistical line that looks like it was ripped straight off a fanboy’s message board posting? At the time Baseball Prospectus’ Steven Goldman sought to answer this question, contextualizing it within a discussion of the structural design of PECOTA and what it seeks to accomplish. His words are just as relevant now as they were then:
PECOTA is an essentially conservative program. Its player-performance projections are neither wildly optimistic nor pessimistic, but built purely from the data, and from its own understanding of the way that player careers progress based on literally thousands of antecedents. Thus, when it proposes that Orioles catching prospect Matt Wieters, a rookie-to-be who has never played above Double-A, could hit .311/.395/.544 in the majors this year, we took notice: this was the first time that PECOTA had looked at a prospect and predicted an MVP-caliber, Hall of Fame-level season right off the bat…
Of course, as we’ve often said in our annual book, PECOTA is not destiny. Much stands between a young player and the achievement of his projection, whether that projection is as boldly put as Wieters’ is, or merely average. Injury is a particular risk for a young catcher, as an errant foul tip can mangle a finger, or a contact play at the plate can mangle an entire body. What makes Wieters’ projection all the more impressive is that PECOTA is aware of the toll that catching can take on a backstop’s offensive skills, and yet it still sees such impressive short-term results for the Orioles tyro
Perhaps, then, it is wrong to say that PECOTA lacks optimism, that it doesn’t rave. In its own way, Wieters’ projection is its way of saying, “Hey, I think I spot a very rare talent here; you might want to pay attention.”
Given his words, and Wieters’ super minor league track record, and the fact that he’s settling into his third season in the American League East, many would be forgiven for taking the “over” on Wieters’ modest batting line this season. Yet this serves as a reminder, both for Wieters and for the Yankee sleeper who follows Wieters below, that no matter how much evidence, statistical research and historical comparisons you have you simply never know what’s going to happen next.
Yankees: Jesus Montero
2010 wOBA: N/A; 2011 projected wOBA: 0.346.
Everyone’s favorite prospect has been every projection system’s favorite golden boy this February, and PECOTA is no exception. PECOTA sees a line of .285/.331/.471 in 2011 for Montero with 18 HRs in 480 PAs. This would quite obviously be a tremendous level of performance for a 21 year-old in his first season in the bigs.
Jesus Montero has been the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for so long now that it’s hard to imagine him actually putting up an OPS of over .800 in Yankee pinstripes. It doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t something go wrong? Shouldn’t he have been traded by now? Despite lingering questions about his defensive ability, and despite multiple near-misses in trade talks, Jesus Montero is on the precipice. The greatest Yankee hitting prospect since Derek Jeter is ready for the bright lights of New York.
The last few years have been exciting times for prospect watchers. We’ve seen players like Jay Bruce, Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Colby Rasmus, David Price, Tommy Hanson, Matt Wieters, Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward, Buster Posey and Carlos Santana get hyped and then promoted to the bigs. Some like Wieters and Bruce struggled at first; others like Posey and Heyward became immediate game-changers for their club. The Yankees have the luxury of patience with Montero this spring, but they certainly will hope that he falls into the latter category of game-changer. For its part, PECOTA is expecting great things. We all are.
An off-day is a good time to reflect on where the Yankees stand. We can see in the standings that they’re 35-22, second place by two games in the AL East. But plenty has changed since the last off-day. Here’s where the Yankees stand among their peers during this break in the action.
1st Place: Tampa Bay Rays
Their place in the standings hasn’t changed, but their pace has. Last time we checked in the Rays were 32-13 and running away with the AL East. They’re now 37-20, meaning they went 5-7 in their last 12 games. They have slowed from a 115-win pace to a more reasonable 105-win pace. The biggest difference, unsurprisingly, has been their pitching.
Last time we looked at the Rays they had three starters with an ERA under 3.00, and two not far above. Still have two starters under that 3.00 mark, David Price and Jeff Niemann, but the other three starters have seen their ERAs balloon in the past two weeks. Matt Garza is up to 3.31, James Shields is up to 3.64, and Wade Davis has launched into orbit, hitting 5.03 after being at 3.35 last time we checked. It’s the same as it ever was; pitching has determined the Rays’ fate.
On the offensive side, the Rays have seen a few contributors step up. Ben Zobrist was already on his way back up after a slow start, at least power-wise, last time we checked in, and he’s been as good as ever during the past few weeks. John Jaso has maintained excellent production and has even moved into the leadoff spot. He has all but assured that Dioner Navarro will hit the waiver wire, via designation for assignment. I can’t see the Rays carrying three catchers once Jason Bartlett returns, and it’s tough to find any way to justify Navarro over Jaso.
Contributions from a few unexpected players, including Jaso and infielder Ben Zobrist, have help offset disappointing production from Carlos Pena (.646 OPS) and B.J. Upton (.229 BA and .318 OBP, though he’s hitting for power). They could use a bit more from those guys, but as long as Zobrist and Jaso keep producing the Rays offense will keep rolling. Especially because their anchor, Evan Longoria, continues to smash the league.
2nd Place: New York Yankees
Again, we’re not here to talk about the Yankees. They were 26-18 at the last check-in, and have moved that to 35-22 after Sunday’s win, so they went 9-4 after dropping two of three to the Mets. The difference, as with the Rays, has been starting pitching. Their guys have, for the most part, turned in quality performances and it has shown up in the win column.
Yesterday’s off-day came at a convenient time. The Yankees just suffered their toughest week of the year, so getting a night away from their struggles is probably a good thing. They’ll pick things up tomorrow night in Minneapolis, starting with a tough assignment against the Twins and then hitting a stretch of schedule where they play just one team above .500 — and even the Blue Jays might be reeling by then. For now, though, let’s take a step back and see where the Yankees stand compared to their AL East peers.
1st Place: Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays have come out of the gate quicker than any other team in the majors, and with a 32-13 record are on pace for a 115-win season. Whether they get there will be largely dependent on 1) how they fare against their tougher AL East opponents, and 2) whether they remain reasonably healthy for the rest of the season. For now, though, they remain the kings of the league.
Their ascension — or re-ascension — to the top of the AL East should come as little surprise. The Rays had a good team last year but caught a few unlucky breaks, likely making up for their incredibly lucky 2008. Once Scott Kazmir returned that May they used only five starting pitchers. Last year they only used seven, but Andy Sonnanstine lost his command and Scott Kazmir lost it in general. They’ve used only five starters this year, three of whom have an ERA under 3.00. James Shields is at 3.08. Wade Davis was at 3.35 before the Red Sox tore into him last night. They lead the AL in runs per game allowed by a significant margin.
On the other end, their offense has been killing the ball. Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford have been offensive juggernauts, posting wOBAs of .414 and .392. Ben Zobrist, despite his lack of power, still has a .385 OBP and a .375 wOBA. Like the Yanks, they’ve gotten production from unexpected players. John Jaso, called up to replace the injured Kelly Shoppach at catcher, currently sports a .446 wOBA, and Hank Blalock, recalled from AAA to replace Pat Burrell at DH, has opened his Rays career with a bang. They’re also seeing excellent production from former top prospect Reid Brignac.
On one side, the Rays will certainly lose some of that production. Jaso stands no chance of maintaining his .446 wOBA once he gains more playing time. He’ll be an upgrade over Dioner Navarro, which is all the Rays really need. Blalock might hit decently, but not .407 wOBA good. On the other end, though, both B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena have proven to be better than their current numbers suggest. If they recover it can help offset the effect of Jaso coming back to earth.
Where the Yanks have to be really concerned is with the Rays pitching. Shields and Garza have proven themselves as top performers, and David Price has started looking like a player worth of the top overall pick. Combine that with a second soid year from Jeff Niemann and they don’t need Wade Davis to be lights out. He might be, though, which will cause problems for every team in the AL East — hell, for every team in the majors. I’m not sure if the Rays are this good, but they’re good enough to finish the season with the league’s best record.
2nd Place: New York Yankees
Not that we need to harp on the Yankees, since we do that every day. We know the story: slumping and injured. The pitching, which dazzled early in the season, took a couple of rough turns through the rotation. After the Twins series, though, they hit a patch of lesser teams, during which they should get Granderson and Posada back. If the pitching gets back on track, the Yanks will do just fine from here on out.
3rd Place: Toronto Blue Jays
During the off-season, I wrote about no other non-Yanks team more often than the Blue Jays. They’re a fascination of sorts. J.P. Ricciardi never seemed to have a concrete plan in constructing his roster. I’m sure he did, but from afar it didn’t seem like a solid one that would propel the Jays to the front of the AL East. Instead it seemed like he was trying to make little gains every year, and that just won’t happen when the top two teams in the division spend a combined $350 million on payroll.
Like last year, though, it’s unlikely that the Jays are as good as their early season record indicates. They have received unprecedented production from a number of players, and we’re almost certain to see that drop off in the coming months. John Buck and Alex Gonzalez are notably playing above their heads. There is little, if any, chance that either finishes within 20 points of their current wOBA rates, .379 for Buck and .367 for Gonzalez. Their wOBA leader, Vernon Wells, could be for real, though. He has the talent to put up those numbers,
On the other end, though, they have a few underperforming players, Adam Lind chief among them. If he, Lyle Overbay, and Aaron Hill pick up the production they might compensate for the declines of Buck and Gonzalez. I doubt it will be enough to keep them third in the AL in runs per game, but they’ll likely remain above average.
Their pitching has been good, though sprinkled with poor performances. Shaun Marcum and Ricky Romero have both been excellent. They won’t make Toronto fans forget about Roy Halladay, but they’re doing a good job in his stead. Brett Cecil has made some strides this year, and his peripherals look far better than his 4.98 ERA. If Brandon Morrow can manage to stop walking hitters so frequently they could have a more than formidable top of the rotation. The pitching staff could actually be the reason they stay afloat this season and possibly finish above .500.
I never thought I’d type that last sentence before the season started. Shows how much I know.
4th Place: Boston Red Sox
A 25-21 record isn’t terrible for a team that lost two of its outfielders and its No. 1 pitcher for a while, but that’s not what matters right now for the Red Sox. They’re clearly a better team than their record reflects, but games in the bank are games in the bank. Then again, the 2009 Yankees were just one game better, 26-20, through 46 games, so the Sox certainly have a chance. In fact, they found themselves at the same place, six games over .500, a month later. In other words, it would be foolish to count out the Sox right now.
Despite the slow start, despite the focus on defense over offense this off-season, despite injuries to two of its starting outfielders, despite a terrible start for David Ortiz, and despite an equally slow start for Victor Martinez, the Red Sox still rank fourth in the AL in runs scored. Nos. 1 through 3 are all AL East foes. Run scoring has not been even a slight problem for the Sox. In fact, if their run prevention plan had not hit a few bumps in the road, they might be up there with the Rays right now.
Red Sox pitchers, before last night’s game, ranked 13th out of 14 AL teams in runs allowed. John Lackey has had a rough go in Boston so far, and Josh Beckett got off to a horrible start and is now on the DL with back problems. Daisuke Matsuzaka was on the DL to start the season and has been hot and cold since returning. Jon Lester gave up tons of runs in his first few starts, exacerbating the Sox’s woes, though he has more than gotten back on track in his past few. Add to that an effective Clay Buchholz and an unsurprisingly league average Tim Wakefield, and it’s a good rotation that has faced a few unexpected problems.
What scares me about the Sox is that few of their hitters are playing above their heads. A 1.071 OPS would represent a career year for Kevin Youkilis, but he’s still capable of achieving it. Victor Martinez will almost certainly improve on his numbers, too. In other words, the Sox could maintain their offensive production throughout the season. If Lackey turns it around and Beckett comes back fully healthy, well, the Sox could surge like the 2009 Yanks did. They have a long way to go with both the Yanks and the Rays out in front, but I wouldn’t count them out until the math says they’re eliminated.
5th Place: Baltimore Orioles
I didn’t think the Orioles were in for a 2008 Rays-type run, but I didn’t think they’d be this bad. Maybe that’s because I overestimated their young pitching. That’s not a long-term overestimation, though, but merely a short one. Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie have done an admirable job as the veterans on the staff, but all of their young pitchers — Brian Matusz, David Hernandez, and Brad Bergesen — have struggled in the first month and a half of the season. It also doesn’t help that they feature one of the league’s worst bullpens.
As of today, May 25, the Orioles are done. They’ve been done, really, most of the season. That’s not a completely bad thing, though. It affords them the patience necessary to deal with growing pains for Matusz and Bergesen. It also means they can take their time with their other top pitching prospect, Chris Tillman, who has had ups and downs in AAA this season. It might get frustrating when the bullpen blows wins for them, but maybe that will be part of their learning process.
It’s on offense that the Orioles have truly struggled. If not for Ty Wigginton’s unexpectedly insane level of hitting, a .407 wOBA, the Orioles might be in an even worse place right now. Miguel Tejada has been good at times, but on the hole hasn’t been anything special. Adam Jones is having a terrible time this season, as is Nolan Reimold, whom the Orioles recently optioned to AAA (perhaps to play more first base and take over for the horrible Garrett Atkins). Matt Wieters has not impressed with the bat, either. Nick Markakis remains the only other bright spot on the offense, and even he has faced some issues. His .123 ISO isn’t up to his career standard, though his .406 OBP represents an improvement in his discipline from last season.
The Orioles still have a strong group of young players and a good farm to back them up, but this just won’t be their year. With the Yanks, Rays, and Sox established, and the O’s and Jays on the rise, though, we could see quite a battle emerge in the AL East as soon as next year.
The Yanks and Rays have played just one series so far, but in it the Yankees took the lead in the season series 2-1. That might not sound important, knowing that they’ll play 15 more times before the end of the season. Yet any advantage is at least somewhat important in the 2010 AL East. The Yanks and Rays appear to be the best teams in baseball right now, so head-to-head matchups mean even more. Neither team can do anything about what the other does for the other 144 games of the year, but they can make a difference during those 18 included in the unbalanced schedule.
Thankfully, the Yankees have played the Rays well in the past few years. Last year, even though the Rays underperformed to an extent and essentially fell out of the division race in August, the Yankees went 11-7 against them, despite losing two out of three in a meaningless series to close the season. Even in 2008, when the Rays won the AL East with 97 wins and the Yanks missed the playoffs, the Yanks won 11 of their 18 match-ups. Going back further than that gets into Tampa Bay’s cellar dwelling days, though, strangely, the Yanks had a losing record against them in 2005.
The Yanks’ current 2-1 edge over the Rays means that they’ll continue leading the season series even if they split the next two games. That record will hold for a bit, as they don’t meet again until July 16th. The biggest battles will likely have to wait until September, when the Yankees travel to St. Petersburg for three games from the 13th through the 15th, and then the Rays come to the Stadium for four starting on the 20th. Those could be the final stand for either team’s claim to the AL East title. For now, the Yanks will just try to stay above water.
Thankfully, they open the series with a pitching advantage. Other than his meltdown at Fenway, A.J. Burnett has been fantastic this season. Even when he doesn’t have everything working, as he didn’t Friday evening against the Twins, he’s still able to scrape together quality starts. In only two starts, both against the Sox, has he failed to pitch into the seventh inning, which has been a boon to the bullpen. Last time around Burnett pitched seven innings and held the Rays to two runs.
The Yankees hit Wade Davis well in his season debut, turning 11 baserunners into four runs in six innings. Since then Davis has been a bit better, and now has his ERA down to 3.38. His peripherals, however, do not match up. His FIP sits at 4.94 and his xFIP is 4.96, so it appears that he’s gotten a bit lucky. That’s easy to verify with a look at his strikeout rate, 6.08 per nine, against his walk rate, 4.73 per nine. Davis has walked as few as two batters twice, but both times that came against Oakland, not the most patient team in the league. Unsurprisingly, he walked four batters, his season highs, against the Yankees and Red Sox.
Where the Yanks might find a real advantage is tomorrow night. While facing James Shields is never an easy task, this is more about the Rays offense than their pitching. Against left-handers this year the Rays have hit .229/.309/.360, while against righties they’re .266/.342/.424. Andy Pettitte, tomorrow night’s scheduled starter, missed the series against the Rays the first time, though CC Sabathia had his way with them. While Shields could hold the Yankees’ offense in check, Pettitte could match him pitch-for-pitch.
When two teams as good as the Yanks and the Rays meet, it’s tough to set expectations. As the last three games have reminded us, anything can happen when two good teams battle for nine innings. All the Yanks have to do, though, is win one of these. That will keep them above water against an important division foe until the next time the two meet.
Buried behind the big market clubs atop the AL East for past decade, the Blue Jays managed to win 256 games from 2006 to 2008 (.527 winning percentage) yet never finished closer than ten games back of the division winner. Longtime GM J.P. Ricciardi was fired after the team won just 75 games last season, and was replaced by his assistant Alex Anthopoulos. He’s launched the team into full rebuild mode, a process that won’t bear many fruits in 2010.
Usually when a team has a player under contract for the next five years at a cost of $98.5M, they would expect that player to be the face of the franchise and the centerpiece of their lineup. Instead, Vernon Wells represents a lesson in ill-advised contract extensions, as he’ll soak up approximately 25% of the team’s payroll going forward, assuming there’s no dramatic increase in the budget.
Since signing his deal in December of 2006, Wells has hit just .265-.317-.426 (.330 wOBA) with a -33.6 UZR (worst in the game among centerfielders), making him worth a total of 2.0 WAR. For comparison’s sake, Melky Cabrera has hit .267-.323-.385 (.315 wOBA) with a -8.4 UZR in center during the same three year stretch, making him worth 2.4 WAR. Toronto only paid him $7.5M during that time, so the big money doesn’t kick in until next year. Wells will pocket $12.5M in 2010 before earning $23M, $21M, $21M, and $21M from 2011 to 2014. Yikes.
The Jays aren’t going to get lucky like they did with Alex Rios, when they were able to unload the entire $60M+ left on his deal on the White Sox after they claimed him on waivers. The good news/bad news scenario is that Wells’ performance had improved as he got further away from the fractured left wrist he suffered in May of 2008, but the bad news is that he had surgery to repair cartilage damage in the same wrist this offseason. Toronto has to hope that’s nothing more a minor bump in the road, and he’ll be able to return to the four-plus win level of performance he showed from 2003 to 2006. As for a rebound in 2010, the Magic 8-Ball’s sources say no.
Luckily for Toronto, they do have a bonafide homegrown star in the middle of their lineup named Adam Lind. Freed from the shackles of inconsistent playing time once manager John Gibbons was fired in June of 2008, Lind was instantly installed into the lineup on an everyday basis when Cito Gaston took over. He hit a respectable .296-.329-.463 (.341 wOBA) after the managerial change in ’08, but Lind broke out and emerged as one of the most dominant offensive forces in the league last season. His .394 wOBA was eighth best in the AL, and his 35 homers placed fifth in the circuit. Although he provides zero defensive value and is likely to spend the majority of his time in Toronto at the DH position, Lind represents the Jays’ best offensive player since Carlos Delgado left town after the 2004 season, and he’s under team control for another four years.
His running mate during the 2009 season was second baseman Aaron Hill, who enjoyed a breakout of his own by posting a .357 wOBA and a team leading 36 homers, five more than any other full time second baseman in the game. His 12 “just enough” homers (according to Hit Tracker) represent a third of his total, and chances are that’ll even out a bit and he’ll send fewer balls over the fence in 2010. A lack of plate discipline (swung at 26.3% of the pitches he saw out of the zone last year) and a weakness against breaking balls don’t help his case either. Of course, getting further away from a concussion that caused him to miss most of the 2008 season surely helped his production, so maybe those 36 homers aren’t as fluky as they appear on the surface.
Promising youngster Travis Snider will be given another chance to stick with the big league club this year, though he’s had a poor spring and last year’s .327 wOBA in close to 300 plate appearances doesn’t inspire much confidence. He’s way too young to give up on at just 22-years-old, especially when the organization just watched how long it took everything to click for Lind. At least Snider offers some defensive value in right, with okay range and one of the strongest arms no one knows about.
First basemen Lyle Overbay will be counted on to provide some thump behind Hill and Lind, though his days of 40+ doubles and 20+ homers are a thing of he past. He’s a rock solid glove man with strong on-base skills. Edwin Encarnacion came over in the Scott Rolen deal at least year’s trade deadline, and his M.O. is the same as it’s always been: decent on-base ability, good power, and a hazard to those around him when he’s playing defense at the hot corner. Leftfielder Jose Bautista shouldn’t be a bad choice for the leadoff spot given his strong walk rate, but he’s so bad at hitting for average that it drags his OBP down. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez was brought in strictly for his glove, while new catcher John Buck will run into the occasional fastball out of the eighth spot in the order.
The wildcard in all this is 32-year-old minor league journeyman and former Yankee farmhand Randy Ruiz, who figures to see some more action this season after hitting .313-.385-.635 (.428 wOBA) during a late season callup in 2009. You probably remember him hitting a homer off the rightfield foul pole against the Yanks in his first big league game of the season before doing this the very next day. He obviously won’t maintain that pace over a full season, but his minor league line of .304-.378-.531 in over 4,600 plate appearances is pretty damn good, so it’s not like he can’t hit. If Ruiz proves to be a productive hitter for Gaston, you could see him steal time away from Overbay at first base, or force Lind into leftfield so he can DH.
It’s likely the Jays’ will summon top prospect Brett Wallace from the minor leagues at some point, perhaps after they unload Overbay to a contender at the trade deadline. The lefty swinger is a .305-.384-.475 hitter in the minors and projects to be a batting title contender with gap power down the road. He can fake it at third base but is destined to play first, where the Jays currently have a bit of a logjam.
Toronto’s offense was pretty good as a whole last year, posting a .337 wOBA that was the sixth best in the league last year. They’re going to miss the the .354 wOBA that Marco Scutaro brought to the table in 2009, but considering that he’s bested a .316 wOBA only one other time in his eight year big league career, they shouldn’t have counted on him to repeat that kind of performance if he was brought back anyway. Lind is an offensive star and Hill is one of the better offensive second baseman in the game even if his 36 homer power doesn’t stick, but beyond that you don’t have much more than a few complementary players and a pair of lottery tickets in Snider and Ruiz.
For the last decade, fans in Toronto were able to sit back and watch the masterful Roy Halladay go to work every five days. With durability that makes you think he could pitch year round if they let him, Halladay has put up a 3.13 ERA (3.28 FIP) since Opening Day 2002, the best in the American League. It’s even more impressive when you consider that he’s spent basically two full seasons (64 starts, 453.2 IP) facing the Yankees or Red Sox.
But Halladay’s gone now, traded to the two-time defending NL Champs during the offseason for what amounts to three Top 100 prospects and close to $10M in salary relief.
Taking Halladay’s place as the Opening Day start is Shaun Marcum, who threw exactly zero big league innings last year as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Prior to going under the knife, he posted a 3.77 ERA in 310.1 innings from 2007 to 2008, but his FIP told a different story at 4.59. The gap is in large part due to an inordinate number of stranded runners (76.9% in ’07, 80.2% in ’08), so expect his ERA to climb over four if those runners are left on base at the league average rate of 71% or so.
Backing him up in the number two spot will be Ricky Romero, who is probably better known among Blue Jays insiders as “the guy they drafted instead of Troy Tulowitzki.” The southpaw had a solid rookie season last year, making 29 starts and throwing 178 innings of 4.09 xFIP ball. With a rock solid 2.03 GB/FB rate, he’ll look to cut down on the walks (3.99 BB/9) and give up fewer homers (0.91 HR/9) to take that next step in his age-25 season.
After Marcum and Romero, it’s really anyone’s guess how the rest of the Jays’ rotation will shake out. The one thing there is not is a shortage of candidates for those 3-4-5 spots. I don’t have a good way of sorting this mess out, so let’s go through it alphabetically.
The youngster of the bunch, 2007 first rounder Brett Cecil is another example of a college reliever the Jays have successfully transitioned to the rotation (Marcum and current Brewer Dave Bush are examples). The former University of Maryland closer made 17 starts for Toronto last year, and even though his 4.68 xFIP is an eyesore, the 23-year-old lefty misses bats with a low-90’s fastball, a hard slider, and a devastating split-change hybrid. All he needs is experience, and that will come with the typical growing pains associated with pitchers his age.
Dana Eveland, the well traveled southpaw who was acquired from the A’s during the offseason, has been superb during Spring Training and is a favorite to land one of those three open rotation spots. The problem is that he hasn’t been very good at all in the last few years, with his high water mark coming the form of a 4.55 xFIP in 29 starts for the A’s in 2008. Long story short, he doesn’t miss enough bats (6.45 career K/9), walks too many guys (4.62 BB/9), and gives up too many homers (1.39 HR/9) to do the starting thing long-term. Even with a rock solid 50.1% groundball rate, the AL East doesn’t figure to be kind to Mr. Eveland.
The ace in hole of all this starting pitcher nonsense is Dustin McGowan, who missed the second half of 2008 and all of 2009 after having surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and frayed labrum in his throwing shoulder. He was outstanding during his 2007 breakout season, finally free from the constant front office meddling that saw him bounce back and forth between the rotation and bullpen for the better part of his minor league career and prime development years. McGowan posted a 3.89 xFIP in 27 starts that year, then followed it with a 4.32 mark in 19 starts the next year before the shoulder injury put him down for the count. Neither the team nor McGowan are in any rush to get him back to the big leagues, especially after he experienced a little soreness in his surgically repaired joint earlier in camp, so he’s going to start the season on the disabled list and slowly work his way back. Of all the pitchers in this post, McGowan is the only one that offers true front of the rotation potential.
Righty Brandon Morrow, who came over from Seattle in a deal for Michael Kay favorite Brandon League, has been limited in Spring Training because of a sore shoulder. The poor kid has been Joba Rules’d more than Joba, bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and starting rotation since being drafted in 2006. In 15 career big league starts he owns a 4.42 ERA (5.23 FIP), and his numbers are predictably better when working as a reliever. The feeling at the time he was drafted was that Morrow would probably end up in the bullpen long term because of poor command and the lack of consistent second pitch, but a team like Toronto has nothing to lose by seeing what he can do as a starter. Presumably they won’t jerk him around like he was in Seattle.
Swingman Brian Tallet stepped into the rotation last season to provide 25 awful starts (5.41 ERA, 4.59 FIP), and has continued to be pretty dreadful this spring. He might win a spot based on incumbency, but his nothing about his strikeout (6.72 K/9), walk (4.03 BB/9), homerun (1.12), or ground ball rates (36.3%) portend future success. Considering that he’s lefthanded, breathing, and scheduled to make $2M this season, I suspect he’ll stick around as a reliever once the rotation experiment fails.
One guy who took himself out of the running for a rotation spot is yet another lefty, the 23-year-old Marc Rzepczynski. After posting a 3.70 xFIP in eleven starts with the big boys last season, Rzepczynski tried a barehand a line drive two days ago and broke a finger on his throwing hand. He’ll spend the next six weeks on the disabled list. Kyle Drabek, the centerpiece of the Halladay deal, will start the year in the minors and is unlikely to see any big league action, no matter how tempting it will be for the front office to call him up as a way of justifying the trade.
It appears as though Eveland, Tallet, and Morrow will start the year in the rotation (not necessarily in that order), and I’m sure Gaston is thankful that he’s going to have a damn good bullpen to back them up.
Starting at the back-end, Jason Frasor returns to the closer’s role after picking up eleven saves last year and cutting his already strong walk rate down to just 2.50 BB/9. He’s posted xFIP’s under 3.83 in four of the last five years, and is one of the more unheralded relievers in the game. Former closer and current setup man Scott Downs is in the same boat, being one of the best relievers in the game that no one talks about. The lefty has lowered his xFIP every year since 2006, and hasn’t topped 3.89 since he was a starter in 2004. Free agent signing Kevin Gregg will get some high leverage work despite not being very good; his career best 4.16 xFIP came just last year, when he served up one big fly for every five or so innings pitched.
Beyond the big two and a half at the end game, changeup ace Shawn Camp has enjoy his greatest big league success since joining the Jays in 2008, with an xFIP under four in over 100 innings with the club. He can go multiple innings if needed. Righty Casey Janssen had a sexy 2.35 ERA in 72.2 relief innings in 2007, but his 4.54 xFIP tells a different story. He missed all of 2008 and part of 2009 after having surgery to repair a torn labrum, so he’s a bit of an known for this season. The rest of the bullpen will be filled out by guys like Jeremy Accardo, Josh Roenicke (another part of the Rolen deal), and Merkin Valdez, who all throw hard but battle command issues.
With no clear cut ace, Toronto’s pitching is very much an unknown going into the season. They have some very interesting young arms with more on the way, but there’s not enough here to compete in the unforgiving AL East. Barring some sort of miracle, the Jays are likely to finish in last place in the division for just the second time since 1997.
Over the course of this week, Joe and Mike are previewing the Yanks’ AL East competitors. I got in on the action last week when Alex Belth of Bronx Banter asked me to join him and Cliff Corcoran on his SportsNet NY web-only video series Bronx Banter Breakdown.
In the third and final installment that we recorded on Friday, we discuss the state of the AL East. Cliff thinks the Red Sox are the Majors’ most improved team this winter, but I’m more worried about a looming Tampa team featuring a pair of guys playing for contracts. Check out the video below.
For those who missed the two other installments, the first piece examined the Yankee pitching while the second looked at the team’s offense. Thanks to Alex and Cliff for having me on, and be sure to check out Bronx Banter.