Archive for Other Teams

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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Feb
26

2011 AL East Sleepers

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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.

Watch out for Adr--Ooh...(Getty Images)

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

Indeed. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

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

You know who broke his bat? Cliff Lee. Game 5 ALDS: 9 IP, 6H, 0R, 0BB, 11K. I hate you, Cliff. (Getty Images)

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

'09 PECOTA aside, dude has to be thrilled that he never had to catch Daniel Cabrera. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

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

He dropped the ball, and then his glove fell off. Then he picked the ball up and threw it into CF. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

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.

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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

Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/AP

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.

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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

Longoria will inflict damage on the AL East for years to come | Photo credit: Chris O'Meara/AP

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

Romero is trying to make Jays fans forget about Halladay | Photo credit: Mark Duncan/AP

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

We all hate him, but Youk has given the Yanks fits for years | Photo credit: Elise Amendola/AP

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

The Orioles young pitchers, including Brian Matusz, could make the AL East even tougher | Photo credit: Andy King/AP

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.

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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.

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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.

We’ve already previewed the Red Sox, Rays, and Orioles this week, so let’s wrap up this series by previewing the Yankees other division opponent, the Toronto Blue Jays.

Position Players

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.

Photo Credit: Darren Calabrese, AP

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.

Photo Credit: Winslow Townson

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.

Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP

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.

Pitchers

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.

Photo Credit: Jerry Lai, AP

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.

Photo Credit: Steven Senne, AP

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.

Photo Credit: Darren Calabrese, AP

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.

Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP

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.

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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.

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Years of futility have helped the Orioles rebuild their team. While the fans have suffered through 12 straight losing seasons, the front office has used that to its advantage. High draft picks have led to a number of marquee players in the organization, many of whom will play a prominent role in 2010.

Lineup

Photo credit: Gail Burton/AP

After appearing in the ALCS two years in a row, the Orioles finished below .500 in 1998. At 79-83 they had the 13th worst record in the league. They also lost a number of free agents, netting them six of the first 50 picks in the 1999 draft. Five were busts. The only one that panned out was No. 50, a shortstop named Brian Roberts. It took a while for him to develop, but he took over second bas full time in 2004, and broke out in 2005. Once the subject of myriad trade rumors, Roberts now appears entrenched in the organization. He begins a four-year, $40 million extension this season. Unfortunately for the Orioles it appears he’ll open the season on the DL, but once he returns he’ll slide into one of the top lineup spots and likely provide his usual production.

While the Orioles didn’t get much out of their first five picks of the 1999 draft, they took a key player in the sixth round. There they selected left-handed pitcher Erik Bedard. Heading into the 2002 season he was the No. 90 prospect in baseball, and answered by posting a 1.97 ERA at AA Bowie. He did face some injury issues, though, which kept him out for much of the 2003 season. By 2004 he was with the big league club for good. His value to the current lineup, though, came after the 2007 season. The Orioles, with Andy MacPhail at the helm, traded him to the Bill Bavasi-led Mariners for, among other minor leaguers, Adam Jones, George Sherrill, and Chris Tillman.

Photo credit: Rob Carr/AP

Jones, a supplemental first round pick by the Mariners in 2003, has shown improvement during his first two years in Baltimore. He came with high expectations as the No. 28 prospect in baseball heading into the 2007 season, and in 2008 he played full time for the Orioles. He wasn’t great, posting just a .313 wOBA, but his value was still in his potential. He came closer to fulfilling that last season, posting a .343 wOBA. UZR rates him as positive over those two seasons, though we’re still dealing with a small sample. If he stays healthy again in 2010 we could see big things from Jones atop the Orioles lineup.

With their No. 7 pick in the 2003 draft the Orioles selected Nick Markakis. He spent just three seasons in the minors, and played zero games at AAA, before breaking camp with the team in 2006. Markakis had a stellar 2008, posting a .389 wOBA, a 23-point improvement over 2007. That was mostly due to a spike in his walk rate, up to 14.2 percent. That dropped back down to 7.9 percent in 2009, though, and Markakis’s wOBA fell 40 points to .349. It was an all-around down year for him, as his ISO fell 25 points and his UZR ranked in the negatives for the first time in his career. It’s tough to keep down a hitter like Markakis, though. I expect him to rebound to somewhere around his 2008 production this season, holding down the middle of the Orioles lineup.

In the second round of the 2005 draft the Orioles selected outfielder Nolan Reimold, who raked his way through the minors. After mastering AA in 2007 and 2008 he moved onto AAA in 2009, where he posted a .530 wOBA. The Orioles saw it fit to call him up and give him 411 plate appearances, in which he posted an impressive .365 wOBA. Yet he won’t get the start in left this season, as he had a poor spring after undergoing surgery to repair his left Achilles tendon. While he’ll eventually take over, Felix Pie will get a shot at every day at-bats to start the season. He definitely showed improvement in 2009, and could become a valuable role player, or trade bait, for the Orioles down the road.

Photo credit: Rob Carr/AP

Matt Wieters was a more highly regarded prospect than Mike Moustakas, Josh Vitters, and Daniel Moskokos, all of whom went before him in the 2007 draft. But Wieters is a Scott Boras client, and the Royals, Cubs, and Pirates apparently didn’t want to pay his bonus demands. The Orioles took advantage. He didn’t sign in time to play in 2007, but he more than made up for it in 2008, posting a 445 wOBA in advanced-A and then a .472 wOBA in AA. That earned him the top spot in Baseball America’s Top 100 for 2009. The Orioles opened him in AAA but called him up after 163 PA, installing him as their primary catcher. He hit well, though he didn’t quite live up to the considerable hype surrounding him. Even so he posted a .330 wOBA. Watch for him to break out in a big way this season.

Sometimes players come back to you. The Orioles traded Miguel Tejada before the 2008 season, four years after they signed him to a six-year, $72 million contract. He finished out the final two years in Houston, where he hit well but seemingly dropped off defensively, especially last season. With no multiyear offers and no teams willing to play him at shortstop, he re-signed with the Orioles this off-season as their primary third baseman. A player the Orioles received in the Tejada trade, Luke Scott, figures to be the primary DH. He posted a .343 wOBA in his first year, followed by .355 last year. He’s a man without a position, though, because the Orioles’ outfield is filled with younger, more promising players.

First base presents an interesting situation for the O’s. They signed Garrett Atkins this winter, who has steadily declined since his .410 wOBA in 2006. That number fell to .368, then to .337, and finally to .291 last season. He played pretty poor defense at third, though with Tejada on board the Orioles moved him across the diamond. He might not last long as the starter, though. Michael Aubrey, whom the Orioles acquired from the Indians for a PTBNL last June, could make a case for playing time, perhaps acting as a platoon partner. The O’s could eventually turn to Brandon Snyder, their No. 6 prospect. After hitting very well throughout the minors he stumbled a bit at AAA, so he’ll get a chance to get up to speed there. There’s also a chance, though I’m not sure how great, that the O’s could call up their No. 2 prospect, third baseman Josh Bell, acquired from the Dodgers for George Sherrill, and move Tejada to first.

Pitching

Any rebuilding team needs to stock up on high-tier pitching prospects. The success rate from them is pretty low, so having a number of these pitchers means a greater chance that one or two will pitch in the bigs eventually. The Orioles feature a nice blend of veterans and youngsters, and as the year progresses they could perhaps insert another prospect or two into the rotation.

Photo credit: Gene J. Puskar/AP

Adding to the veteran presence atop the rotation, the Orioles traded for Kevin Millwood this off-season. They didn’t have illusions of him putting them over the top, of course. He was cheap, costing them just reliever Chris Ray and their Rule 5 pick, and he affords the Orioles more flexibility in developing their younger arms. For instance, with Millwood in the rotation the Orioles can afford to leave Chris Tillman in the minors to get a bit more seasoning. David Hernandez, who is a bit older and not as highly regarded a prospect, will take the final rotation spot. Again, the Orioles are lucky to have flexibility. I’ll save space here by pointing you to FanGraphs for more on the decision to start Hernandez in the rotation.

Jeremy Guthrie, formerly the staff ace, pitches behind Millwood this season. A 2002 first round pick by the Indians after being drafted in 1997 by the Mets and in 2001 by the Pirates, Guthrie did not live up to the hype in the minors. Out of options in 2007, the Indians waived him and the Orioles pounced. Guthrie rewarded them by improving his walk rate, which was the primary component in his revival. He posted ERAs of 3.70 and 3.63 during his first two years with the O’s, though those marks were out of line with his FIPs, 4.41 and 4.53. A spike in BABIP and fly ball rate led to more hits and home runs last season, and Guthrie’s ERA spiked to 5.04 against a 5.31 FIP. If he brings the ground balls back to his career level, though, he could see a bit of improvement in 2009, though I imagine he’ll be more around 4.50, as his FIPs from 2007 and 2008 indicated, rather than his mid-3s ERAs.

At my girlfriend’s sister’s rehearsal dinner last year I sat at a table with the bridesmaids and their dates. I didn’t know any of them, so I tried to work in a baseball conversation with the guy sitting next to me. Turns out he’s a huge Orioles fan and was impressed that I knew Brad Bergesen, who happened to be pitching that night against the Red Sox. (It was also the night that Joba dominated the A’s.) Bergesen, a fourth-round pick in 2004 and a high school teammate of Phil Hughes, came along slowly, but in 2008 he made great strides, leading to his call-up in 2009. A comebacker off the shin cut short his 2009 season, and a shoulder injury suffered while shooting a commercial caused a minor setback, but Bergesen has looked good this spring and will slot in behind Guthrie.

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

The Orioles shut down Brian Matusz in mid-September last year in order to keep him under his innings limit, which was apparently somewhere around 160. That also kept him under the 50 innings that would have erased his prospect status, so he checked in at No. 1 on the Orioles’ list this year. The No. 4 overall pick in 2008, Matusz signed late and missed the minor league season. His first full professional season, then, was 2009 and he cracked the Major League rotation. That should speak volumes about his potential. He features an above average fastball, curveball, and slider, and when an Orioles official said his changeup wasn’t up to par he made it the focus of his next start, throwing it more than 20 times. That’s a luxury he won’t have in the majors, though his above-average command of his other three pitches should help. The Orioles also laud his intelligence and intensity, which they think can help him top their rotation for years to come.

The name Mike Gonzalez might ring a bell for Yankees fans. During the 2006-2007 off-season it became clear that the Pirates would trade him, and rumors of a deal involving Melky Cabrera circulated. The Braves won out, though, sending Adam LaRoche to the Pirates and installing Gonzalez as their closer. That worked for 17 innings, after which Gonzalez underwent Tommy John surgery. He came back strong in 2008, minus a few too many home runs, and was even better in 2009. His walk rates in both seasons fell below his career average, and his strikeouts were above. Baltimore signed him to a two-year deal over the off-season, probably so he can actually hold down leads for the young pitchers. He might help out if the Orioles make a Rays-like run in 2011 as well.

The rest of the bullpen doesn’t appear strong at all. With Ray gone Jim Johnson will assume the primary setup role. He was excellent in 2008, throwing 68.2 innings and posting a 2.23 ERA and 3.38 FIP. That was completely unsustainable, though, as he allowed no home runs all year. That’s impressive, but most pitchers will allow home runs on about 10 percent of their fly balls. Johnson evened out and then some in 2009 with a 12.1 percent HR/FB. He does keep the ball on the ground and struck out 6.30 per nine innings. Behind him Mark Hendrickson will be the long man and Koji Uehara will slot in somewhere once he comes back from his hamstring issues. Matt Albers, Cla Meredith, and Alberto Castillo, among others, could get shots, but I don’t think the O’s are looking for the next big setup man among them.

Conclusion: Better than the Jays

The Orioles still have a way to go before they contend, though if they catch a few breaks they could make a run as early as 2011. After a dozen consecutive losing seasons, I’m sure their fan base can handle one more, especially with how this team is shaping up. They have two potential top of the rotation arms in the rotation to start the year and then have another who nearly cracked the Opening Day rotation. Beyond that their Nos. 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 prospects are all pitchers. If they head into next season with Matusz, Bergesen, and Tillman with one or two of those prospects in tow, we could see big things in 2011.

As for 2010, I’d say that unless something big goes wrong that the O’s will climb out of the AL East cellar and finish ahead of the Jays. I’ve done a lot of writing about the Jays this off-season, and while I do like their outlook, they’ve cleaned out the team for the time being. The Orioles have better hitting and better pitching in the current talent column, and really they have better future talent as well. The Jays are doing an admirable job in trying to correct J.P. Ricciardi’s mistakes, but with two financial powerhouses and two more well-run franchises residing in the same division they could find themselves in last place for a few years running. Hey, someone has to finish there.

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Mar
30

AL East Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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Over the next few days we will preview the teams the Yankees will play most frequently in 2010. Yesterday we took a look at the Red Sox, and today we continue on with the other AL East powerhouse, the Tampa Bay Rays.

Run Production

You might not have realized it, but the Rays had one of the game’s best offenses in 2009. They hit .263-.343-.439 on the season, and their .343 team wOBA ranked behind only the Yankees (.366), Red Sox (.352), and Angels (.346). The 803 total runs they pushed across the plate is probably a little light considering their strong peripherals, yet the lineup remains largely unchanged heading into the new season.

Photo Credit: Mike Carlson, AP

Tampa’s offense is built around a dynamic middle of the order. Third baseman Evan Longoria leads the charge as the three hole hitter, and his .380 wOBA from last season is especially remarkable when you consider that he was stuck in a brutal two month long slump that saw him hit .205-.311-.404 (.301 wOBA) from May 31st to July 31st. Longoria finished the year strong (.293-.373-.523, .372 wOBA) after the calendar flipped to August, and he’s not just going to be asked to anchor the lineup again, he’s going to be asked to do even more. At 24-years-old, he’s already a star and one of the most productive hitters in the game.

Backing up Longoria most of the time will be former Yankee farmhand Carlos Pena, who has enjoyed a career resurgence since joining Tampa prior to the 2007 season. He’s the definition of a three true outcomes player, as 48% of his plate appearances over the last three years have ended with a walk, a strikeout, or a homer. As he enters his age-32 season, the Rays are going to need just one more .250-.380-.550 season with 30+ homers out of Pena before he heads off into the world of free agency after the season.

Photo Credit: Mike Fuentes, AP

Pat Burrell was signed last offseason to complement Longoria and Pena in the middle of Joe Maddon’s lineup, but it ended up being career utility player Ben Zobrist who stepped up and broke out in a big way. Always a patient hitter who hit for decent power in the minors (.318-.429-.459 career hitter in the bush leagues), the switch hitting Zobrist refined his swing prior to the season with Jaime Cevallos (a.k.a. The Swing Mechanic). The result was a huge breakout that saw him hit .297-.405-.543 with the third best wOBA (.408) in the AL. Not yet in his arbitration years, Zobrist will join Longoria to form what might be the division’s most productive hitting tandem over the next half-decade.

The table for that trio will be set by Carl Crawford, who is inarguably the greatest player in franchise history. He’s bested a .360 wOBA in three of the last four years (he was hampered by a hand injury the one year he fell short), and we’re all well aware of his stolen base exploits. At 28-years-old there’s no reason to expect a drop off. Heck, he might even be in store for a huge year considering he’s up for free agency next winter.

Burrell’s fall from grace came harder and faster than anyone expected (.304 wOBA after topping .374 the previous four years), and everyone assumes the worst for 2010. He was brought in to help balance out a lefty heavy lineup, which seemed like a fine idea considering he averaged a .415 wOBA against southpaws from 2005 to 2008, though he managed to hit just .202-.336-.252 (.278 wOBA) against lefties last season. Tampa actively looked for a replacement DH this offseason despite owing Pat The Bat $9M this season. It seems like a pretty safe bet that the Rays will get better production out of their designated hitter spot this year, whether it’s Burrell who provides it remains to be seen.

Shortstop Jason Bartlett is unlikely to repeat his .364 BABIP and thus his .389 wOBA from a year ago, and a fall back to his previously below average offensive levels would be a big hit. After breaking out with a .387 wOBA in 2007, B.J. Upton hasn’t been the same since hurting his shoulder in 2008, and bottomed out at a .310 wOBA last season. The range of what he’s capable of doing in 2010 is as wide as any player in the game – I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he wOBA’d .310 or .390. Dioner Navarro’s .258 wOBA has essentially been replaced by Kelly Shoppach, who can swing and miss with the best of ‘em, but will also provide league average offense from the catcher position.

Photo Credit: Brian Blanco, AP

The last spot in the lineup will most likely be filled by Sean Rodriguez, who came over in last summer’s Scott Kazmir trade. Coming into the camp, the idea was that he and Matt Joyce would battle it out for either the second base or rightfield job with Zobrist occupying the other spot, but Joyce’s sore elbow and Rodriguez’s molten hot spring (.439-.484-.860 in a team high 57 at-bats) all but assures him of being in the lineup come Opening Day. He won’t maintain his spring performance into the season, obviously, though replicating the departed Akinori Iwamura’s .338 wOBA seems likely.

The bench will feature former All Star Hank Blalock, who is just a year removed from consecutive seasons of .361 and .383 wOBA’s. He’ll backup Longoria, Pena, and get some starts at DH against righties. Fourth outfielder Gabe Kapler was ever so slightly above average with the bat last season, doing most of his damage against southpaws (.394 wOBA). Prospect list veteran Reid Brignac may be the club’s utility infielder, or it could fall into the lap of Elliot Johnson. Neither will contribute much with the stick.

Of course, doing damage with the bats is just half of Tampa’s offensive game. Once they reach base, they make lots and lots of stuff happen with their legs. Crawford (60), Upton (42), Bartlett (30), and Zobrist (17) stole more bases by themselves than any other team in the league last year, and are likely to run wild again. Longoria and Rodriguez are both capable of double digit steals as well. According to Baseball Prospectus’ EqBRR, the Rays also generated another five and a half runs for themselves in non-stolen base baserunning situations, among the best in the league. Tampa Bay’s offensive game extends far beyond the batter’s box.

Run Prevention

While defense has taken baseball by storm as the new undervalued commodity, the Rays have been doing the catch the ball thing for years. Their 2007 squad was the worst defensive team in baseball that year, costing themselves 57.7 runs in the field, nearly ten runs behind the second worst team. That all changed in 2008 through a series of moves, including position changes (Upton to center, Iwamura to second), trades (Bartlett), and promotions (Longoria), and the end result was a team that saved 74.2 runs defensively, the best in the game. That 131.9 run (!!!) swing is the main reason the team went from 96 losses and 944 runs allowed in ’07 to 95 wins and 671 runs allowed in ’08.

Photo Credit: Tom Gannam, AP

Although not to the same extreme as the Mariners, Tampa’s defense remains their calling card. They saved 69.5 runs defensively last season, with Longoria and Crawford rated as the two best defensive players at their position over the last two years. Upton places second for his position despite his occasional lack of hustle. UZR hasn’t quite figured out first basemen, though Pena remains one of the game better defenders at the 3-position. Bartlett’s reputation as a defender greatly exceeds what the advanced metrics say, but he’s no worse than rock solid at short. That leaves second base and rightfield as the unknowns.

Zobrist led all big league position players with 8.6 WAR last season, thanks in part to beefy small sample size UZR’s. In 714 innings at second, he was +16. In 329.1 innings in right, he was +11.5. In 165.1 innings spent at all the other positions, he was -1.1.  He’s unlikely to maintain those kinds of ratings as the number of defensive innings grows, but he, like Rodriguez, came up through the minors with a reputation of being no worse than a solid glove man. Even we assume league average defense from that pair, Tampa will again boast one of the games best defensive clubs.

Of course, run prevention starts on the mound, and the Rays have the game’s best young rotation. Jamie Shields is the old man of the bunch at 28, and he’s followed by Matt Garza (26), Jeff Niemann (27), David Price (24), and Wade Davis (24). Those five will combine to make about $9.5M in 2010, or what the Yankees will pay A.J. Burnett for the first four months of the season.

Photo Credit: Steve Nesius, AP

Unsurprisingly, Shields will be the team’s Opening Day starter for the third time in three years. The changeup artist has made at least 31 starts and logged at least 215 innings every year since 2007, keeping his xFIP consistently under four. Just ten pitchers in baseball have eclipsed Shields’ 12.8 total WAR over the last three years, and he’s as safe a bet as anyone to give his team 200 above average innings.

Number two starter Matt Garza isn’t as much of a known quantity as Shields, but he’s been pretty much everything the Rays could have hoped for since acquiring him prior to the 2008 season. He added more than two full strikeouts to his K/9 last season (8.38), and is in position to toss up one strikeout for every inning pitched in 2010. Garza’s xFIP went from 4.48 to 4.21 last season, and natural development should have him close to four-flat this season. Many starters hit their stride in their third full season, so Garza’s a prime breakout candidate.

Niemann, the fourth overall pick the year the Yankees drafted Phil Hughes, finally stuck in the big leagues after battling arm injuries and at time inconsistency in his minor league career. The 6-foot9, 260 pound monster posted a better than league average ERA, FIP, and xFIP in 30 starts last season, and should improve upon his modest 6.23 K/9 with more experience. Like Shields and Garza, he’s a safe bet to not just repeat last season’s performance, but improve on it.

Following his bullpen exploits in the 2008 postseason, Tampa sent Price to the minors to start 2009 so he could work on his changeup. Although he made 23 more than respectable big league starts last season (4.49 xFIP), he often ran high pitch counts that taxed the bullpen. That didn’t last for long though, as Price got on a roll and completed at least six innings in nine of his last eleven starts. Again, we have another guy likely to improve on last season’s performance just through natural development.

Despite a rather poor spring (12-10 K/BB in 15.1 innings), Davis will break camp as the team’s fifth starter, relegating the incumbent Andy Sonnanstine to bullpen duty. Baseball America ranked the hard throwing righty the 34th best prospect in the game coming into the season after six dazzling September starts that featured a 3.54 xFIP and a complete game shutout of the Orioles. Expectations are high for the long-term, but right now he just needs to be the team’s fifth starter. Sonnanstine, who may have been dealing with a case of World Series hangover when he posted a 5.42 ERA and a 4.85 xFIP last year, will be the de facto long man.

Even counting Sonnastine, the Rays enjoyed great health from their starters last season. Shields, Garza, and Niemann all made at least 30 starts, Price chipped in 23 after being called up in May, and Kazmir also gave the team 20 starts before being traded. Given the general injury risk involved with pitchers, it’s unlikely that they’ll go through the 2010 season needing just seven starters again. Then again, you could have said the same thing about the 2008 season when they used just six starters. Sonnanstine would likely be the first to move into the rotation should a spot starter be needed, but Tampa also has Jeremy Hellickson waiting in the minors as one of the game’s top pitching prospects. Righty Aneury Rodriguez, acquired from the Rockies for Jason Hammel, provides more solid depth as well.

Photo Credit: Nati Harnik, AP

The biggest move of the team’s offseason was actually a series of trades that landed the team a bonafide closer in Rafael Soriano. After burning through the old and ineffective (Troy Percival, Jason Isringhausen), Maddon went with a closer by committee approach that saw J.P. Howell getting the majority of the saves and save opportunities. Unfortunately, Howell is already on the shelf with a fatigued shoulder, weakening the setup crew. Soriano is a given at the end game, having used his high-90′s heat and devastating slider to pick up 27 saves and post a 2.99 xFIP in Atlanta last season. Getting the ball to him could prove to be a bit cumbersome.

Veteran Dan Wheeler is death to righties (3.40 xFIP) but gets tattooed by lefties (6.51), while former Yankee Randy Choate is the exact opposite (2.56 vs. LHB, 4.92 vs. RHB). Grant Balfour plays the role of good fastball, bad control reliever, and is  more likely to repeat his 4.21 xFIP in 2009 than his 2.96 mark from 2008. Lance Cormier was a revelation in long relief last season, but Howell’s injury may press him into shorter, higher leveraged innings. Padres’ castoff Mike Ekstrom and Four-A’er Dale Thayer represent the replacement level up-and-down fodder. The wildcard is Joaquin Benoit, who signed a minor league deal after missing the 2008 season with shoulder surgery. During his last two healthy years, he struck out more than a batter an inning and kept his FIP close to three. It’s a good thing Tampa’s rotation is so strong and deep, because they’re going to need to soak up as many innings as possible to limit the amount of time the Balfours and Thayers and Cormiers of the world have to blow the lead before getting to Soriano.

The Rays have mastered the concept of player development and building from within, which is the only way they’re going to compete with the bullies of the AL East. You could make a pretty good rotation just out of the pitchers the Rays have traded away in the last two years (Kazmir, Edwin Jackson, Hammel, Mitch Talbot), and they have plenty more where that came from. With talk of a reduced payroll in 2011 and Pena, Crawford, Soriano, Burrell, and Balfour all set to become free agents after the season, this is probably the last hurrah for this Rays’ team as presently constructed. This current team is very, very good and could easily win 90 games and make a run at the division crowd, and don’t be surprised if they make a midseason move to get them over the hump.

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