2012 Season Preview: AL Contenders

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

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

Detroit Tigers

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

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

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

(REUTERS/Darryl Webb)

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

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

(REUTERS/Darryl Webb)

Texas Rangers

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

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

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

Mailbag: Belt, Wade, Twitter, Big Base Stealers

I kinda took it easy this week, so only four questions. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar whenever you want to send us something, mailbag questions or otherwise.

(Jeff Gross/Getty)

Sam asks: The Dom Brown trade idea has been repeated ad nauseum, but what about another guy in a similar situation: Brandon Belt. The Giants don’t seem to want to play him, but he could definitely help the Yankees. Short term he relieves Ibanez of his duties and long-term he can play a corner OF spot, back up 1B and help the Yankees get under 189. The Giants SS situation is pitiful. Nunez seems like a reasonable start to a trade. Thoughts?

I love me some Brandon Belt. He’s kinda like a prospect version of Curtis Granderson in the sense that he was a solid prospect who made some mechanical adjustments to his swing and turned into a monster. He makes perfect sense for the Yankees as a left-handed power bat who can hit for average and is willing to take a walk, plus he’s shown he can handle a corner outfield spot over the last year even though his nature position is first base. The Giants have been jerking him around a bit even though he’s clearly one of the four or five best hitters in the organization.

The problem is this: Belt is their Jesus Montero, and we saw what kind of return it took to get Montero. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable comparison at all. Eduardo Nunez would probably be the second or third piece of the trade package, not the headline. The Giants could be in the market for some young arms with a Matt Cain extension looking more and more unlikely, so maybe a Manny Banuelos, Eduardo Nunez, plus a really nice third piece gets it done. Someone like Adam Warren or Brett Marshall. Maybe it takes someone more established like Ivan Nova instead of Banuelos.

I’d have no trouble dealing Nova/Banuelos, Nunez, and Warren/Marshall for Belt, but I’m not sure the Giants would bite. Aubrey Huff’s disaster contract will be off the books after the season, and the club will have some outfield openings with Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera due to hit free agency next winter. I love to see the Yankees land Belt at some point, but I don’t think he’s a realistic option right now.

Steve asks: It appears that both Clay Rapada and Cesar Cabral both could have solid value if they made the roster; Rapada destroys lefties and Cabral has been effective and has youth and potential on his side. Why not demote Cory Wade, who has options, and has been ineffective this spring?

Wade does have one option left, and I think it’s very reasonable to consider sending him to Triple-A to open the season. If the Yankees feel comfortable with Cabral’s ability to get out right-handers with his changeup, having three left-handers in the bullpen for a few weeks won’t be the worst thing in the world. I’m inclined to ignore Wade’s spring just because it is Spring Training, but he obviously has little margin for error given his soft stuff.

I do worry that Girardi won’t be able to control himself with three lefties to deploy, but sending Wade down is a definite option if the Yankees want a little more time to evaluate Rapada and Cabral. I just don’t think they’ll do it.

Richard asks: I’m looking for some good Twitter feeds to follow for baseball in general, and also fantasy baseball – can you make any suggestions/recommendations?

I’m going to tell you what I tell everyone else: look through who I follow and you’ll get an idea of the best baseball feeds out there, both real and fantasy baseball. Some of my personal favorite follows are @MLBDepthCharts, @2003BPro, @2003BA, @McCoveyChron, @BayCityBall, @MLBFakeRumors, @LookoutLanding, @BenBadler, @SamMillerBP, and @CloserNews. Of course, there’s also @RiverAveBlues as well.

Still my all-time favorite player. (Photo via NY Mag)

Jon asks: Is Justin Maxwell an aberration — a large man who can steal bases?

Now that’s a good one. Maxwell is listed at 6-foot-5 and 235 lbs. on the official site and he’s averaged 44.5 steals per 162 games in Triple-A. Let’s assume that translates into 30 steals over a full big league season just for argument’s sake. The number of players that large to steal that many bases in a single MLB season is … zero. It’s never been done. Dropping the weight requirement altogether gives us just five 30+ steal seasons by a player standing at least 6-foot-5. Alex Rios did it twice (2008 & 2010), Von Hayes did it twice (1982 & 1984), and Darryl Strawberry did it once (1987). If you reduce it further to 6-foot-5 and at least 20 steals, you still only get 29 instances in baseball history.

Tall base stealers are obviously very rare, making Maxwell quite unique. He is a crazy good athlete, that’s never been the problem, it’s just his inability to make contact. Injuries have hindered him as well, and I’m not just talking about last year’s shoulder problem. I’m pretty surprised there are so few tall base stealers, but I guess the Rios/Strawberry/Maxwell type of athletes who opt for baseball are few and far between.

3/29 Camp Notes: Nova, Soriano, Swisher

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

A little late, but here’s a recap of the day in Tampa…

  • Ivan Nova threw 7.1 IP and 94 pitches in minor league camp today, allowing three runs to the Blue Jays squad. It was good to see him get stretched out a bit, he’s had some long innings this spring and hasn’t thrown many innings. We overlook it, but the whole sitting down and warming up between innings thing is somewhat important. [Erik Boland]
  • Rafael Soriano also threw in a minor league game while Russell Martin did some work on the backfields. I assume everything went well since we haven’t heard otherwise. Same with Nick Swisher (groin). Bad news spreads fast, sadly. [Josh Norris & Chad Jennings]
  • D.J. Mitchell is scheduled to come out of the bullpen in tonight’s game as well as Saturday’s. game. The Yankees want to see how he does on a typical reliever schedule. His long-term future most likely lies in relief, but no harm in seeing how he takes to it now. [Jennings]

ST Game Thread: Phelps’ Big Chance

(Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com)

The Yankees ran Adam Warren out to the mound against the Red Sox last week, opting to have CC Sabathia pitch in minor league camp rather than face a division rival so soon before the season. They’re going to do the same thing tonight, except this time it’ll be David Phelps replacing Ivan Nova against the Orioles. With just one more turn through the rotation left before Opening Day, this is likely the last time Phelps will get an extended opportunity to impress the coaching staff in camp. Here’s the lineup…

SS Derek Jeter
DH Curtis Granderson
3B Alex Rodriguez
1B Mark Teixeira
LF Raul Ibanez
RF Andruw Jones
CF Brett Gardner
2B Eduardo Nunez
C Frankie Cervelli

RHP David Phelps

Available Pitchers: RHP Mariano Rivera, LHP Clay Rapada, RHP D.J. Mitchell, and LHP Cesar Cabral are all scheduled to pitch tonight. LHP Boone Logan, RHP Adam Warren, LHP Mike O’Connor, LHP Kramer Sneed, and RHP Kelvin Perez are also available if needed.

Available Position Players: C Gus Molina, 1B Eric Chavez, 2B Bill Hall, SS Jayson Nix, 3B Doug Bernier, LF Dewayne Wise, CF Justin Maxwell, and RF Chris Dickerson will replace the starters.

Tonight’s game starts at 7:05pm ET and can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

Minor League Notes: Pearce, Double-A, DePaula

Rafael DePaula is officially in the house. Also needs to straighten that front foot out.

Got some miscellaneous minor league notes to pass along…

  • The Yankees have signed Steve Pearce to a minor league deal. Pearce, 28, was once a big prospect for the Pirates but never got it going in the show. He’s a first base/corner outfield type with some right-handed pop. Only 5-foot-11 too. Pearce is a depth pickup, but I have to wonder what this and the Jack Cust signing means for the fed up Jorge Vazquez. [Josh Norris & Chad Jennings]
  • The Double-A rotation to open the season will be Shaeffer Hall, Graham Stoneburner, Brett Marshall, and Josh Romanski. The fifth starter is still being decided, and I have to think Craig Heyer is at least in the conversation. [Norris]
  • Rafael DePaula will start the year in Extended Spring Training, unsurprisingly. He hit 94 during workouts today. [Josh Norris]
  • Corban Joseph has been shut down with some kind of shoulder injury, likely putting him in jeopardy of missing the season opener. The Triple-A squad has enough infielders to survive the loss, but you obviously don’t want to see him get hurt. Kyle Higashioka will also miss about a month with a shoulder problem. [Chad Jennings]
  • The following low-level minor leaguers have been released: LHP Gavin Brooks, RHP Noel Castillo, RHP Cory Cowsert, RHP Joaquin Hinojosa, RHP George Isabel, RHP Ronny Marte, LHP Danny Martinez, and RHP Yobanny Reyes. I liked Brooks as a sleeper back in the day, but injuries ruined him. [Mike Ashmore]

[Photo via Josh Norris]

Craig Tatum & The Catching Picture

Craig Tatum is judging you. (Rob Carr/Getty)

The Yankees made a somewhat surprising move yesterday by claiming Craig Tatum off waivers from the Diamondbacks, surprising only because a third string catcher didn’t seem to be high up on the priority list. Sure enough, we later learned that incumbent third stringer Austin Romine had suffered a setback while recovering from a back problem that has kept him out basically all spring. The Yankees suddenly had a need behind the plate, especially since Frankie Cervelli isn’t exactly Mr. Durable.

Tatum, 29, is nothing special, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. There’s a reason he was on waivers, and in fact this is the third time he’s been claimed since October. The Orioles, Astros, and D’Backs have each deemed him expendable this offseason. Tatum does his best work on the defensive side of the ball, with Baseball America saying he’s “a solid receiver who frames pitches, blocks balls well and calls a good game” in addition to having “above-average arm strength” in their 2009 Prospect Handbook, the last time he made the annual. A .256 wOBA in 299 big league plate appearances is an accurate representation of his offensive ability.

It’s worth noting that Tatum is out of options and can’t be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers. I know he’s already been claimed three times this winter, but chances are he will clear the fourth time. Since the Yankees were awarded the winning claim from Arizona, that means Tatum went through the entire NL unclaimed as well as the entire AL since the Yankees finished with the best record in the league last year. New York was dead last on the waiver priority list, so he would have cleared if it wasn’t for them. Chances are he’ll clear whenever they try to send him down.

There’s not much to say about Tatum himself, but what is important is what he represents. Tatum is a reminder that catching depth has a way of disappearing quickly, just like pitching. Things looked great a few months ago when the Yankees had Russell Martin, Jesus Montero, Cervelli, and Romine at the upper levels, but now less than two weeks before Opening Day they’re down to Martin, Cervelli, Tatum, and a hobbled Romine. The herd has already been thinned out.

This is something that goes beyond the 2012 Yankees as well. Romine figured to be a somewhat important part of the club’s future following the Montero trade, especially since Martin is due to become a free agent after the season and the Yadier Molina contract has changed the salary¬† landscape. Now Romine is a question mark because of recurring back injuries. If he continues to have problems, the team’s long-term catching situation is going to be a real concern. It’s an important position, arguably the most important on the field, and the depth the Yankees appeared to have a few months ago has been compromised. Let’s hope for some positive catching developments this summer.

2012 Season Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

(AP Photo)

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

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

Starting Pitching

(Via Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bullpen

(Via Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

Offense

(Via Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense

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

* * *

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