Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Double Feature Extravaganza! 2010 MLB Season Preview Parts 5 and 6: AL Central and AL East

Due to my attending the Anaheim Ducks-vs-Vancouver Canucks hockey game last night, I was unable to spend any time putting together Part 5 of our continuing preview of the baseball season. I was aiming to finish this 6-part preview today and so what that means is: a Double Feature! With the season starting tomorrow night and exhibitions already underway in the major league stadiums (Angel Stadium was packed last night as they played the Dodgers and I watched the Twins and Cardinals play a game at brand new Target Field earlier today) let's take one last look at what's to come.

AL Central
It's taken an extra game to decide the division in each of the last two seasons and it just might happen again this year as things are looking to be very tight between five flawed teams. Just like their cousins in the National League Central, this is the weakest division in the AL and it might only take 82 or 83 wins to come out on top. The new-look Twinkies are considered to be the favorite but the White Sox have assembled a pitching staff that can match up with anyone. Detroit, Cleveland, and Kansas City are all closely bunched together and if a few things were to go right, they can be in the mix too.

1. Twins
PECOTA: 81-81
My take: Over

The lineup looks great but do they have enough pitching to win the division? I think it'll be enough to just barely get them over the hump. A deeper lineup than they've had in recent years with the additions of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson to go along with Mighty Joe Mauer, Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau will scare the bajeebies out of their AL opponents and I think it'll be enough to supplement their unspectacular pitching. In the wake of closer Joe Nathan's injury they've decided to replace him through the trade wait, a closer-by-committee system! ah, forget it...they'll actually just hand the ball to 6-foot-11 behemoth Jon Rauch. The loss of Nathan is a big deal but I don't think Rauch will represent such a significant drop-off as to ruin the team's chances. Not with the lineup they've assembled. The rotation is nothing special but what it lacks in frontline production it makes up for in sheer quantity of capable contributors. 84 wins and another division title.

2. White Sox
PECOTA: 79-83
My take: Over
Kind of the opposite of the Twins, they've got a superb rotation from top to bottom and a pretty good bullpen to back it up (especially the fire-breathing monster that is Matt Thornton) but a lineup of question marks. Can Carlos Quentin stay healthy? Will Gordon Beckham improve on his solid rookie debut? Does Paul Konerko have anything left in the tank? Can Andruw Jones buy his soul back from the devil? Will Juan Pierre provide anything other than frustration?
The White Sox chapter in this year's Baseball Prospectus annual was actually so good that it kinda turned me into a bit of a Sox fan this year. It describes how, through trades and picking up other teams' developed prospects as well as over-the-hill veterans (like Andruw Jones this year), Kenny Williams has taken big gambles but  assembled a strong competitve squad these last few years and I'm curious to see if this year's gambles (Rios, Jones, Pierre, Mark Teahen) will pay off. Led by Mark Buehrle and Jake Peavy, the pitching is going to be wonderful and at least keep the team afloat. If even a few of those question marks turn out well though, they'll be fighting the Twins up until the final day of the season if not longer.

3. Indians
PECOTA: 79-83
My take: Under
An absolute disaster last year, the Tribe is generally looked upon as a rebuilding non-contender this year. But they might surprise alot of people. Just like the other imperfect teams in this division, they have the makings of a nice offense but zero pitching. They haven't really done much to try to improve their wretched run-prevention and they'll be depending on a front three of Jake Westbrook (missed all of 2009), Fausto Carmona (6.32 ERA last year), and Justin Masterson (reliever-turned-starter who walked 5.5 per 9 innings in '09). Reports out of Spring Training about the 26-year-old former 19-game winner Fausto Carmona are very positive and if the rediscovery of his ability to pitch well is indeed true, this team might actually hang in the race for a while on the strength of their lineup. That lineup is not only good but also young (aside from DH Travis Hafner, the projected starters are all 28 or under) and so there is plenty of break-out potential. There ought to be alot more excitement in Cleveland this year but I don't think they'll be in the mix for the division title. 76 wins sounds good.

4. Tigers
PECOTA: 79-83
My take: Under
An incongruent mix of expensive veterans and cheap youngsters, this team faded out of first place last year and I expect them to continue to fade in 2010. Justin Verlander had a terrific season last year (league-leading 269 Ks) but was worked like a mule, throwing 300 more pitches than any other pitcher in the majors, and more than any American League pitcher in the last 10 years. It'd be a nice surprise if he made it through this season without an arm injury and he's anchoring this team's strength, the rotation. Although it wasn't well-received in Detroit, I liked the trade GM Dave Dombrowski made in the offseason shipping out Edwin Jackson at his peak value and Curtis Granderson as he approaches 30 and bringing in a young centerfielder (23-year-old Austin Jackson) and a young pitcher with ace-level potential in Max Scherzer. The signing of Johnny Damon also makes sense although his production will probably suffer in their big ballpark. With all its pieces working properly, this looks like a .500-level team and, yes, that would be good enough to win this division. Because I imagine they'll have some injuries and old players being ineffective, they look more like a rickety old car sputtering along with shiny new rims and a sweet stereo system. They won't be in it for the long haul.

5. Royals
PECOTA: 77-85
My take: Under
Nobody is quite sure what it is the Royals are trying to do. They spent the offseason adding some more crappy veteran players (Scott Podsednik, Jason Kendall, Rick Ankiel) to a lineup that already had more than enough crappy veteran players. Ankiel and Podsednik might help out their atrocious defense but bringing them on board is really just a sad attempt by general manager Dayton Moore to get into the hip new fad of focusing on defense. While Podzilla has speed and Ankiel a great arm, neither player has ever been noted for above-average defensive performance and so it's another example of Moore's incompetence and ignorance of advanced metrics. If not for Zack Greinke, there would be no reason to ever watch this team play and even with Greinke there is no reason to believe they will be anywhere near competitive, even in a perennially weak division.

And now, the grand finale...

AL East
This is it, the main event, the Royal Rumble Battle Royale. We've got three teams vying for two playoff spots and those three teams are also the winners of the last three American League pennants. They've all made adjustments and are primed to do battle. (We also have a couple other punching bags, one of which might punch back sooner or later.) PECOTA's predictions for how things will turn out are included here but I must note that the CHONE projection system has a much different view, with the Yankees running away with the division again at 99 wins and the Rays left out of the mix with a mere 88 while the Red Sox draw the Wild Card to the tune of 93 victories. Here's what I think will happen:

1. Red Sox
PECOTA: 95-67
My take: Under
The Theo Epstein Era (or Dynasty) faces a new chapter. After a strong year in '09 followed by an early postseason exit, the young Sox GM sought to address the team's main and perhaps only weakness: it's defense. To address this need, he scooped up one of the one best fielding centerfielders (according to UZR or Ultimate Zone Rating, that hip "new" thing) from the last few years, Mike Cameron, as well as one of the baseball's best defensive third basemen, Adrain Beltre. Great pick-ups both, they've brought the team plenty of press (too much) about it's focus on defense and how they are finding a new way to win. What's being neglected is the fact that Beltre (three straight 25+ HR seasons before an injury riddled '09) and Cameron (.281 EqA last year) can both hit a little too as can Marco Scutaro, the new shortstop who finished last year with a 5.6 WARP (higher than the likes of Derek Jeter, A-Rod, and Justin Upton). One mustn't forget that those three will merely be the last three hitters in what will be a very strong Red Sox lineup. As a team, they had the 3rd-highest EqA in the AL last year and, even with the loss of Jason Bay, they've probably got a better lineup than the one trotted out on Opening Day of 2009.

With the addition of former Angels ace John Lackey, the rotation looks absurdly good. Lackey will slot in as their #3 starter behind Josh Beckett and the Sox' emerging ace, 26-year-old Jon Lester. The lefty Lester placed in the top 5 in both ERA and strikeouts last year and led the Sox team with a 5.5 WARP. They'll probably have the best back-end starters in baseball as well with the combination of Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka and the ol' reliable knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. To go along with that, their bullpen has a chance to be the best in baseball as well. The closer, Jonathan Papelbon, showed a tiny chink in his armor losing last year's deciding playoff game but he's still one of the most dominant hurlers in the game right now with a career 1.84 ERA in almost 300 innings. With that rotation, a strong defense behind it, and a deep lineup (the #9 hitter will probably be Marco Scutaro, he of the .379 OBP last year) this powerhouse squad will come out on top in an ultra-competitive AL East.

2. Rays
PECOTA: 91-71
My take: Over
One look at their roster and the depth is staggering. Going down the lineup:
-Shortstop Jason Bartlett is coming off a monster .320/.389/.490 season and, even with any expected regression, should still be good
-Carl Crawford is turning 28 and his 2010 season is basically one extended opportunity to showcase his skills and why he deserves a huge contract from a new team next season. Yes, the contract-year theory.
-Ben Zobrist is the new baseball sensation, bursting onto the scene last year with a reconstructed swing (tweaked for him by The Swing Mechanic) that knocked 27 homers while the versatile Zorilla played all over the field with splendid defense everywhere. He was neck and neck with Albert Pujols in WARP for a while even though Pujols batted 100 more times than he did. This year he'll play rightfield, secondbase and anywhere else Joe Maddon needs him to while putting plenty of runs on the board.
-24 years old, coming off a 33-homerun season, one of the best defensive players in the league last year, and primed for a monster season in 2010, Evan Longoria is "all that and a bag of chips" as BP says in this year's book.
-#5 hitter Carlos Pena led the American League in homeruns last year with 39 and, like Crawford, this is his contract year.

Need I go on? That's just the first five hitters in a lineup that does not have a weak spot. Catcher Dioner Navarro isn't a great hitter but his back-up Kelly Shoppach is and he'll probably get plenty of playing time from Joe Maddon, perhaps as part of a platoon. Pat Burrell had a bad year in '09 but, if he doesn't rebound, there's enough depth to plug another hitter in the DH spot.
I haven't even mentioned their rotation which consists of five young pitchers (oldest is 28, James Shields) that all have the potential to be an ace, especially the pitcher who will be their #3 guy: 24-year-old former #1-overall draft-pick David Price. The bullpen is a potential weakness but they've signed the reliably effective Rafael Soriano and the farm system is so rich with prospects that they can pick somebody up in a trade if need be. They're awesome but in this division they'll be the Wild Card team. Expect a tight finish, though, and plenty of exciting games against the Sox and Yanks.

3. Yankees
PECOTA: 90-72
My take: Over
The 103-win behemoth that ran through the league like an unstoppable force last year will be toppled. Adding Javier Vazquez and Curtis Granderson to an already awesome rotation and lineup sounds great but I think last year's run will leave the oldies like Derek Jeter (36 years old), Jorge Posada (38), Mariano Rivera (40) on the ground gasping for air in this year's Roller Derby-style race. GM Brian Cashman is a sharp fellow and he recognized the need to curtail the potential drop off if the aforementioned Yankee statues suffer setbacks and he went out and added more talent. He also let old-timers like Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon hit the road. But I think they're due for some nicks and scratches. Injuries and missed-time as well as obligatory regression. Granderson and Vazquez have hopped on board a presumed-powerhouse defending-champion looking to cruise through the season like a shiny new sports car on the highway. But the Orioles' dumptruck is letting out little rocks and pebbles that'll crack the windshield and scratch the paint on that sports car and the Rays and Red Sox are souped-up vehicles moving with greater urgency towards their destination. For the Yanks it's a tie for second-place with the Rays at the finish line (92 wins apiece), bowing out of the picture on a tie-breaker.

4. Orioles
PECOTA: 78-84
My take: Under
No, Matt Weiters did not solve world hunger or blast a pitch so hard that the Big Bang reoccurred, but he made a pretty strong debut for a 23-year-old catcher with absurd expectations and continued the process of trickling in prospects with star-level potential for the Orioles. This team is not ready to compete, their pitching rotation will mostly serve as a homerun-launching machine for the AL East beasts above, but they've come a long way and a deep lineup will make them respectable this year.

5. Blue Jays
PECOTA: 72-90
My take: Under
Unless Major League Baseball does something drastic like realigning the divisions, it will be more of the same for the Blue Jays for the foreseeable future. The new GM seems like another potential wiz-kid but he's got a long way to climb and he's already a few steps behind the Orioles who have assembled the pieces of a long-term contender the last few years while the Jays tread water. Adam Lind and Travis Snider both look like the real deal and maybe prospect Brett Wallace will turn into a nice player but that's about it as far as young hitters. The Jays have gained a reputation for having a seemingly endless supply of capable young pitchers but none of them have really amounted to much thus far and there's a Grand Canyon-sized gaping hole to fill now that Roy Halladay is gone. This year they'll be a pretty bad team with a good bullpen. I predict them to lose 100 games and trade off whatever they can, most likely the constituents of the pen.

Happy Baseball Everyone!

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