Please check out the Hippeaux's weekly posts at SNY affiliate, It's About The Money.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hippeaux is Taking His Talents to...the Yankees!?!

After four seasons covering MLB with my own proprietary blend of sabermetrics, soul, and baseball humanism, I'm abandoning the neon and black.  Generating traffic in the blogosphere is no easy feat and I'm proud of the extent to which the SPH has grown.  I'm thankful to all those who have read, commented, and corresponded with me.  My writing and analysis have improved by virtue of this outlet and your feedback.  I look forward to our continued discussion of all things baseball.  However, it will be aided by a new venue.

Jason Rosenberg and his staff at It's About The Money have been kind enough to welcome me onboard.  Without the responsibility for single-handedly keeping a site functional and up-to-date, I hope my posts will be more consistently inventive...though they will also be considerably less frequent (right now I'm aiming for a weekly schedule).

Yes, IIATMS is a Yankee-centric blog, complete with a Yankee Stadium masthead and a pseudo-pinstriped design, so I understand that those readers fond of my spiteful rants about Jeter, A-Rod, and the rest of the Evil Empire may be disappointed by the new digs.  Get over it.  IIATMS is about much more than just the Yankees these days.  In truth, as its title suggests, it always has been.  In recent weeks, Larry Behrendt's multi-part series on the 2011 payroll numbers has provided a variety of insights into the game's constantly evolving fiscal structure.  Josh Weinstock recently wrote an analysis of Phil Hughes' curveball which not only sets a high bar for sabermetric research, but also offers fascinating insight into the psychology of a young, struggling pitcher.  Brien Jackson attacks the conventional wisdom of "pitching to contact" through the specific example of Francisco Liriano.  Chip Buck expanded upon his observations by looking a contact rates.  And, as my first contribution to IIATMS, I added my two cents.  I love this stuff and I'm proud to be party to it.

The Sporting Hippeaux will remain up (if for no other reason, so I can access my own archives) and I may occasionally post a rant if I don't think it's appropriate to the tenor of my new home, but in all likelihood, this could be my final post.  It's been a blast.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tout Wars Mixed 2011, Part II: Going to the Well Early and Often

The Tout Wars auctions were held this March in the beautiful New York headquarters of MLB Advanced Media, atop the Chelsea Market, overlooking the Hudson River.  MLBAM is responsible for the maintenance of the wildly successful and, as well as contributing to the MLB Network, now in its third season.  Their offices are befittingly sleek and state-of-the-art, but not free of the tendency towards corny fanboyism which seems a requisite for the baseball-obsessed.  The decor tends towards red, white, and blue.  There's enough figurines and signed memorabilia to make an Applebee's manager envious.  The central conference room forgoes the corporate chic of sharp lines, plate glass, steel, and leather for corrugated pine and aluminum.  From the outside it looks a little like an inverted waffle cone.

Inside, on this particular morning, it was crowded.  Fifteen participants in the Mixed League auction were joined by an auctioneer, several Baseball HQ employees, and a variety of interested observers, including fantasy baseball celebs like Ron Shandler and Lawr Michaels.  As you might expect, there were nearly as many screens as people.  In addition to a 50-inch flatscreen which adorned the front of the conference room, on which the official results were being entered, each participant had a laptop, as well as, in many cases, a Blackberry.  The final minutes of draft preparation produced a clicking cacophony.  Several owners put the finishing touches on customized draft software which, from what I could tell, as the draft unfolded, automatically updated their pricing structures to compensate for increasing positional scarcities and cycles of inflation and deflation.  Fancy stuff.

Thirteen people were crowded around the table at the center of the room, amidst them a nest of adapters, ethernet cables, auxiliary mice, and power strips.  Against the far wall, two apparent luddites rested their elbows on the small table they shared and looked on, seemingly bemused.  Nando Di Fino of the Wall Street Journal and Gene McCaffrey of Wise Guy Baseball chose to manage their auctions using that classic technology, pen and paper.  Coincidently, they both also went with a classic strategy, familiar to most as "studs and scrubs."

Nando, a stubbly, gregarious, and newlywed twenty-something treated McCaffrey, a grizzled fantasy veteran whose work is frequently spoken of in the hushed tones of acolytes, with the appropriate reverence.  Afterwards he told me McCaffrey's presence was perhaps his favorite aspect of the day.  As the auction proceeded, a copy of Wise Guy Baseball 2011 circulated the outer rim of the room and was perused with considerable interest.  But, respect did not keep Nando from bidding aggressively on many of the same players as McCaffrey in the early going, as both were extremely active.  By the time the first break came around, five rounds into a twenty-nine round auction, both McCaffrey and Di Fino had spent more than $200, far more than anybody using a computer.  Here's what they had to show for it:

Nando Di Fino:

1B Mark Teixeira $37
3B Evan Longoria $36
OF Josh Hamilton $29
SP Felix Hernandez $28
2B Dan Uggla $27
SP Jered Weaver $18
SP Zack Greinke $18
2B Chase Utley $11

Gene McCaffrey:

1B Adrian Gonzalez $37
2B Robinson Cano $31
SP Cliff Lee $23
SP Josh Johnson $20
RP Brian Wilson $20
OF Colby Rasmus $16
SP Matt Cain $15
SP Chris Carpenter $14
C Matt Wieters $10

I'll touch on their specific choices a little later, but for now I'll merely observe that each netted at least two players who would likely be "first-rounders" if this were a standard snake draft.  Also, in a year when the conventional wisdom was to "wait on pitching," because frontline pitchers are more plentiful following the so-called "year of the pitcher," both team have at least a trio of Aces.

Di Fino says, "I wasn't crazy about players in the middle rounds.  I liked a lot of second/third round type players, than liked a lot of 14-20th round players.  I just didn't care for the players in between.  There were literally two sheets in the middle of my draft pack that had no highlighted names.  Just a bunch at the start and a bunch at the end."

Obviously, at an auction, you can't predict when players will come off the board quite as effectively as you can at a draft, but it is still true that the best players usually go early.  In Tout Wars Mixed, only one player went for $30 or more after the first break.  Five rounds later, nobody was willing to spend as much as $20 on any one player, as pretty much all the premium talent was gone.

McCaffrey argues that mixed league auctions don't abide by a consistent, "rational" pricing structure, because there are so many more or less replacement level players available at the bottom of the player pool.  The depth of the player pool doesn't mean, as many players believe, that you should save money because there will still be big-league regulars and mid-range talent available in the late rounds, but rather you should be willing to bid even higher on uncommon talent and consistent production, because several decent players will simply "fall to you" at the end of an auction.

As you can see, though the tenor of their explanations is different, their rationales are pretty similar.  Both McCaffrey and Di Fino sat quietly through much of the middle of the auction.  Though they had the fullest rosters after five rounds of nominations, both were still unfinished we the auction reached round 25.  The players which "fell to them," costing $1 apiece, looked like this:

Di Fino:

C Jeff Mathis
C Chris Snyder
1B Matt LaPorta
1B Justin Smoak
OF Jonny Gomes
SP Brandon Webb
RP Joel Peralta


C Josh Thole
1B/OF Garrett Jones
2B Freddy Sanchez
OF Seth Smith
SP Brandon Beachy

While you may not get excited about any of the above, all of the position players begin the season with guaranteed playing time and several, especially Smoak, LaPorta, Beachy, and Smith have considerable upside.  It's very hard to predict that Smith or Gomes, playing nearly everyday in good lineups and hitters parks, will be worth substantially less than Jason Kubel ($11), Bobby Abreu ($10), Raul Ibanez ($6), and Nate McClouth ($6).

Though their strategies were similar, the early returns are very different.  Nando was willing to roll the dice on injury-risks with high upside.  To be fair, it's way too early to judge any team accurately, but Nando's D.L. is damn full with Longoria, Hamilton, Greinke, Utley, Webb, and Manny Ramirez all shelved.  McCaffrey on the other hand has had some good luck.  His lynchpins, Cano and Gonzalez, have picked up right where they left off.  Pablo Sandoval has started strong, as has Carlos Quentin, following down years.  The routinely unexceptional Seth Smith has been on fire.  Alexi Ogando and Brandon Beachy both made their teams' rotations, somewhat unexpectedly.

Is he lucky or good?  I'd bet on the latter.

Coming Soon...Interview and Analysis with Scott Swanay, The Fantasy Sherpa.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Payoff Part Deux (Milwaukee Brewers)

In case it hasn't already become clear, you can expect to see a lot of Brewers coverage this season.  The Crew, who have been among my favorite franchises ever since Doug Melvin took over as GM, have an especially high Narrative Likability Factor in 2011.  As I discussed this offseason, with the free agency of Prince Fielder imminent, the Brewers are "going for it," as was clearly evidenced by the mortgaging of the farm system for the short-term services of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.

One of the reasons to root for Milwaukee in 2011 is that, led by Melvin, the Brewers are among the franchises who have been "doing it right" according to the conventional wisdom regarding success in smaller markets.  The core of the team is homegrown.  With the exception of the ill-timed signing of Jeff Suppan, Milwaukee has avoided buying up free agents at a premium, instead extending young players from their own system at discount rates (Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo, etc.) and handing out low-risk deals to veteran role players (Randy Wolf, Trevor Hoffman, Nyjer Morgan, etc.).

As a result, the Brewers not only have an impressive cast of talent, but they have an identity, as most of the core players have been together since they were minor-leaguers.  That identity isn't only good for clubhouse camaraderie, but is also appealing to the fan base, which has quietly become one of the most supportive in the National League.  Since Melvin took over in 2003, Brewers attendance has gone from 50% of capacity to over 80% of capacity, an increase of nearly 15,000 fans per game. 

As was revealed by the Opening Day payroll numbers released earlier this week, Melvin's strategy for building a contender in Milwaukee has emphasized commitments from ownership, as well as deft drafting and player development, timely acquisitions, and improved marketing.  The 2011 Brewers represent the largest percentage increase in payroll of any team in baseball since 2004, which happens to be Melvin's second year on the job.  Unlike ownership in many other markets, the Brewers owners met improved support from the community with a deeper investment in the long term competitiveness in the team.  Milwaukee's $85.5 Million Opening Day payroll puts them in the middle of the pack (#17) among all MLB franchises, but it represents a 211% increase since '04.  Melvin grew this payroll gradually (in step with attendance) until he reached the plateau he's maintained pretty consistently since 2008.

Pundits like myself can commend Melvin all we want for his personnel decisions and his deft economizing, but the fact remains, he is nearing the point where he will be judged by his results.  As fun as this collection of Brewers players are to watch, they've got only two winning seasons and one playoff appearance during Melvin's tenure.  With the face of the franchise in his final season, it's imperative the Brewers improve upon that record.  During the Opening Weekend against the reigning NL Central champs, the Cincinnati Reds, you could see that the pressure was on.  The Brewers hit just .223 against the Reds, with an abysmal 26/5 K/BB ratio.  Their bullpen got roughed up, including a painful three-run walkoff homer against closer John Axford on Opening Day.

But the Brewers bounced back in a major way this week, taking three in a row from Atlanta, another presumed NL powerhouse.  Gallardo asserted his Ace status by stopping the losing streak with a dominant complete-game two-hitter and Axford netted saves in back-to-back appearances.  The Brewers need to carry this momentum forward, as their performance in the season's first two months will say a lot about this team.  They will have to face Atlanta and Cincinnati again, as well as Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Los Angeles before Greinke's anticipated return.  If they can stay above .500 during this opening stretch, Greinke's comeback could provide them with a little confidence going into interleague play.

(Greinke is due back sometime around the middle of May.  Considering his injury is similar to that which delayed the start of Cliff Lee's season in 2010, I don't worry too much about his ability to stay on the field and pitch well once he returns.  Lee, after all, was one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball last year, despite his late start.)

The biggest challenge for the Brewers comes in June, when they open a 15-game tussle with some of the best teams in the American League.  The schedule-makers did not do Milwaukee any favors.  They will face the Yankees and the Red Sox on the road, as well as the Rays at home, and their "interleague rival," the AL Central Champion Twins, home and away.  Four AL teams, all of which won 85 or more games in 2010 and all of whom are expected to perform at close to that level, if not better, in 2011.  Compare that to Cincinnati, who gets the Yankees at home, skips the Red Sox entirely, and gets to play their rivalry series against the lowly Indians.  Or the Cardinals, who somehow manage to avoid both New York and Boston, plus get six games against arguably the worst team in all of baseball, the Royals.  It would be a substantial accomplishment for the Brewers to get near .500 against their AL opponents, while their primary rivals will have a significantly easier time of it.

It's important to note that, even when the Brewers lose Fielder to free agency this coming offseason, they will not be going back to the drawing board.  Somewhat ingeniously, Melvin has gotten Braun, Weeks, and Gallardo under team control through 2015.  Greinke, Marcum, and Corey Hart remain under contract through at least 2012.  As such, it would be a mistake to argue that if they miss the playoffs in 2011 their window will absolutely be closed.  However, their is no reason to believe the Reds will be getting any worse, while 2012 will bring the Cubs some much-needed salary relief, they could be major players in the free agent market this coming winter.  While the NL Central is already a rather deep, competitive division, it could get even tougher in coming years.  Yet another reason Milwaukee's management clearly feels their time is now.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Opening Statements

The season is but a week old.  It's best not to overreact to half a dozen games.  As things stand, the Royals, Orioles, and Mets are all division leaders.  Something tells me that's not the way things are going to play out.  However, we spend the Hot Stove season pouring over payrolls and depth charts, imagining how Carl Crawford will look fielding a line drive off the Green Monster.  During Spring Training we watch odd melanges of half-assed veterans, anxious invitees, and youngsters playing out of position and hitting against  pitchers who may or may not have permission to throw their curveballs.  So, there really are instances when a team takes the field on Opening Day and you say, "Eureka!"

Nowhere was that response more pervasive than in Arlington this past weekend.  Certainly, I expected the defending American League Champions to be contenders again, but watching the Rangers club their way past the prohibitive AL favorites (Red Sox) I was reminded that last year's team may have only scratched the surface of its potential.  The Rangers have 30 extra-base hits in five games.  A significant portion of that damage has been done by Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler, two of the more injury-prone players in recent history, so there is a high likelihood that the Texas lineup will not be able to maintain its current depth for 162.  Nevertheless, every reporter who overhyped the Michael Young fiasco, bemoaned the departure of Cliff Lee, criticized the Adrian Beltre contract, or in any way contributed to the general impression that the 2010 Rangers were a fluke did his own team a considerable disservice.  Last season, the Rangers were dogged by controversy throughout the offseason and Ron Washington used it to spur them to an unprecedented performance.  It might've been difficult for them to re-harness that energy were they treated as the AL's foremost powerhouse.  But they weren't.  And after another offseason filled with criticism and second-guessing the Rangers are again playing with a chip on their shoulders.  They reminded us that even if they aren't the best team in the American League, they are at least in the conversation.

A similar situation has developed in Cincinnati.  The Reds dominated their division in 2010.  And, like the Rangers, their team has youth, depth, and payroll certainty, making it very likely that their best years are still ahead of them.  For some reason, however, punditry has favored the Cardinals this preseason, despite the fact that they lost their Ace and did very little to improve the problems which caused them to fall back of the Reds last year.  It pains me to say it, but the Cardinals just aren't a very well-constructed baseball team right now.  The real threat to a Cincinnati repeat in the NL Central is the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Reds made the first statement in a season-long battle by sweeping the Brewers on Opening Weekend.  Their underrated workhorse, Bronson Arroyo, the "Mark Buehrle of the National League," shrugged off his spring bout of mononucleosis to throw a seven-inning gem on Sunday afternoon, following two close games, one which the Reds won on a walk-off homer by Ramon Hernandez.  The Reds drew first blood, which means very little in the long run, but it should act as a reminder that they feature premier performers on both sides of the ball, something which few NL teams can boast.

A strong finish to 2010, an acclaimed manager, an active offseason, a vaunted farm system, and now a 4-0 start have made the Orioles a favorite darkhorse in the American League.  However, I'm more impressed by their AL East rival, the Toronto Blue Jays.  One could argue that both teams are vying for, at best, third place, but the increased parity in the division makes it possible that a few breaks could make it possible for one of these teams to sneak into the Wild Card race.  Ricky Romero's manhandling of the Twins furthered the impression that he could be the breakout pitcher of 2011.  (You can see more on Romero in my "21st Century Cy" post from the preseason.)  And, in the early going, the Jays have continued the power display of 2010, but with more balance (.304 AVG, .371 OBP, 17 BB, 19 K, 3 SB).  Obviously, it's a small sample size and we should not underestimate the fact that Twins are 6-20 against the Blue Jays since 2008.  It's clearly a good matchup for Toronto to open with, but I think the Jays will make everybody uncomfortable in 2011, especially when playing in the, Rogers Centre.  They've got an imposing, circular lineup and an frightening young pitching staff.  They could be erratic, but Romero, Kyle Drabek, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Cecil are all guys with incredible "stuff."  No lineup looks forward to facing a stretch of pitcher like this, any one of whom could show up and be completely unhittable.  Whether they win 80 or 90, this is going to be a fun team to watch in 2011.

I think the fans of the D-Backs have a lot to look forward to.  The team is building around Justin Upton, Ian Kennedy, Chris Young, and Daniel Hudson.  And everything about Kirk Gibson seems perfectly suited to this process.  However, as the D-Backs opened their season in Colorado we witnessed the difference between a team with lots of a potential and a team who's realized that potential.  Following the surprising runs by the Giants and Padres in 2010, it's ease to forget that the Rockies were the favorites for much of the season and have been to the playoffs twice in the last four years.  They are an efficient, well-oiled ballclub.  They take extra bases.  They turn double plays.  They limit baserunners and longballs.  They've got a deep bullpen and an impressive bench.  There are two other good teams in their division, the Giants and the Dodgers, both probably have deeper rotations than the Rockies, and in the NL West, the deepest rotation has, in recent years, usually been the key to victory.  But unlike the Giants, who are defensively challenged and the Dodgers, who trot out players you thought were retired (and probably should be) at three or four positions everyday, the Rockies are above average in every aspect of the game.  Is a well-rounded team better than one which absolutely dominates one aspect of the game?  Not necessarily, especially when that aspect is starting pitching.  But those that believe that NL West race is all about the L.A. v. S.F. rivalry are ignoring an elephant in the room.  

Saturday, April 02, 2011

My Broke-Ass Ouija Board Says...

NL East:

Thanks in large part to the foresight and creativity of a front office led by CEO David Montgomery, former GM and advisor Pat Gillick, and current GM Ruben Amaro, the Phillies have been to the playoffs in four straight years and, following an offseason which featured the surprise return of Cliff Lee, they are the prohibitive favorites in the National League once again.

However, they've had a rough spring.  First, they lost the services of their promising rookie outfielder, Dominic Brown, to a wrist injury which will probably cost him at least half the season.  Also, their brittle closer, Brad Lidge, has been sidelined for at least a few weeks.  And, most importantly, the team's best hitter and defensive whiz, Chase Utley, is beleaguered by an injury for which there is, at this point, neither a confident diagnosis or a timetable for return, fueling speculation that the five-time All-Star may be out for the season, if not longer.

With Jayson Werth, the Phillies most productive hitter in 2010, now playing for a division rival, there are now some gaping holes in Philadelphia's lineup, which not so long ago was the best in all of baseball.  They opened their season yesterday with Jimmy Rollins and his 737 OPS since 2007 hitting third, while the 38-year-old Raul Ibanez provided protection for Ryan Howard.

But, while the Phillies offense may be a shadow of its former glory, the rotation is being heralded as one of the greatest ever.  That may be presumptuous, but the Phillies do have a quartet of Aces and arguably the two best starting pitchers in the game, Lee and Roy Halladay.  Teams like San Francisco and San Diego proved only a year ago that a deep, dominating rotation can take you a long way, especially in the National League.  And, despite its growing flaws, nobody's comparing the Phillies lineup to the Padres.

The Braves, who eeked into the playoffs as a Wild Card last season, have been a somewhat popular pick this preseason to upset Philadelphia.  Their viability depends upon the progress of some very young players on whom they are depending heavily: Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Beachy, and Mike Minor.  Although I'm willing to admit this is a frightening collection of talent, I'm not sure we can expect it to avoid the inconsistency which is generally expected from young cores.  If they are to do so, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, and Nate McClouth will need to be healthy and productive...

I would, in fact, observe that the Florida Marlins are a team composed very similarly to the Braves.  They've got tons of talent on both sides of the ball, but much of it is not yet established at the major-league level.  What the Marlins have that the Braves do not is a proven stud in his prime hitting in the middle of the lineup.  I think this gives them a minor advantage, although I could see either team winning anywhere from 75 to 95 games with a few good breaks.

Philadelphia Phillies 91 W
Florida Marlins 86 W
Atlanta Braves 85 W
Washington Nationals 66 W
New York Mets 62 W

MVP Candidate: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
Cy Young Candidate: Roy Halladay, Phillies
Rookie of the Year: Craig Kimbrel, Braves
Comeback of the Year: Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
Breakout Candidates: Logan Morrison, Marlins; Anibal Sanchez, Marlins; Ian Desmond, Nationals

NL Central:

The Brewers are a "wild card" team in every sense of the word.  They have an extremely high Narrative Likability Factor (for me, they are this year's version of the 2010 Rangers).

In last year's preview of the NL Central there were a few predictions on which I can hang my hat.  First, while everybody else was picking the Cardinals to run away with the title, I noted that they were "not as complete as some would have you believe," lacked "a whole lot of compensatory depth," and that "the Cardinals lineup looks a little tepid."  Correct on all counts.  Thank you.

I also noted that "the real Wild Card here is the Cincinnati Reds" and that "they could become an NL version of the '08 Rays."  Again, not terribly far off.

Unfortunately, the team I expected to outperform both the Cardinals and the Reds was the Milwaukee Brewers, who finished back of both, in third place.

The Brewers major problem was a familiar one: starting pitching.  They addressed it in a major way this offseason by trading for both Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.  As I wrote a few months back, these trades signal Doug Melvin's intention to "go for it" after nearly a decade of patient building.  Melvin mortgaged the farm for two front-line starters to slot in between Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf.  Next offseason he faces the possibility of losing two of his offensive lynchpins, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart, potentially pressing the reset button on all his work and progressively raised expectations.  To retain his job, I think Melvin needs a playoff appearance, at the very least.  

Surmounting Cincinnati is, however, no mean task.  The Reds were the NL's offensive powerhouse in 2010.  There's no obvious reason why that should change.  In addition, they seem to have an army of high-upside young pitchers.  This is a team built to win not only now, but for many years to come.  The Reds have pretty much their entire roster under control for at least the next two seasons, with several key players wrapped up into the middle of the decade.

Cincinnati Reds 97 W
Milwaukee Brewers 93 W
Chicago Cubs 82 W
St. Louis Cardinals 74 W
Pittsburgh Pirates 70 W
Houston Astros 63 W

MVP Candidate: Prince Fielder, Brewers & Ryan Braun, Brewers
Cy Young Candidate: Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
Rookie of the Year: Aroldis Chapman, Reds
Comeback of the Year: Carlos Zambrano, Cubs
Breakout Candidates: Jay Bruce, Reds; Johnny Cueto, Reds; Colby Rasmus, Cardinals

NL West:

From my perspective, this is the toughest division to call in 2011.  It's hard to argue with the reigning World Series Champs, who have a dynamic young core and the potential to get better via the resurgence of Pablo Sandoval and the ascendence of Brandon Belt.

That said, we should remember that prior to 2010, this division was considered a two horse race between the Rockies and the Dodgers.  Each of those teams also possesses an impressive stable of young talent entering their primes.  As such, the NL West features three teams with established identities, but who still have plenty of upside and who are hungry to prove themselves.  The Giants will have a hard time shaking the label of "fluke," given their status as an extreme underdog going into the 2010 playoffs.  The Dodgers, after getting to the NLCS two years in a row with basically the same team, are eager to shake off the bad taste of 2010, only their second losing season in the last 11 years, during which the McCourt Divorce dominated the headlines.  And the Rockies, who always play with a chip on their shoulders, feel as though they have the makings of a dynasty, having locked up Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Ubaldo Jimenez through at least 2014.  

Whatever I choose, I feel I've got a strong chance of being wrong.

Colorado Rockies 93 W
Los Angeles Dodgers 90 W
San Francisco Giants 87 W
Arizona D-Backs 76 W
San Diego Padres 63 W

MVP Candidate: Justin Upton, D-Backs
Cy Young Candidate: Chad Billingsley, Dodgers
Rookie of the Year: Brandon Belt, Giants
Comeback of the Year: Pablo Sandoval, Giants
Breakout Candidates: Ian Kennedy, D-Backs; Jhoulys Chacin, Rockies; Dexter Fowler, Rockies; Brandon Allen, D-Backs

Friday, April 01, 2011

My Broke-Ass Ouija Board Says...Don't Bet On A Darkhorse In The American League

AL East:

For a decade, the AL East was an annul two-horse race between the Yankees and Red Sox.  In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays force there way into playoff picture.  Now, with the Blue Jays and Orioles both fielding impressive young rosters for whom winning records are very realistic, nobody looks forward to visiting any of these cities.  The vaunted East is not far from being a wide-open competition.

But not this year...

I think the Jays and Rays will both be better than .500 teams, and I expect Buck Showalter's "Baby Birds" to have their best season since 2004, but when all is said and done, the Yankees and Red Sox will again be headed for the postseason.

Following an active offseason, in which Theo Epstein brought in a pair of premier hitters, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, to add to a lineup which already promised to be buoyed by the returns of Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury, the BoSox are the odds-on favorite not only to win the East, but also the AL Pennant, and the World Series.  They've got a loaded lineup, a deep rotation, and a dynamic bullpen.

The Yankees are far less complete.  They have only once truly dependable starting pitcher.  They have a very uncertain catching situation.  And they depend upon an aging core, several of whom are coming off down seasons.  Still, they've got an abundance of talent, especially on offense, and while it would hardly surprise me if they caught a few bad breaks and fell back of the Rays and/or Jays, I'm having a hard time talking myself into making that prediction.

Boston Red Sox 97 W
New York Yankees 91 W
Toronto Blue Jays 89 W
Tampa Bay Rays 87 W
Baltimore Orioles 78 W

MVP Candidate: Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox
Cy Young Candidate: C. C. Sabathia, Yankees
Rookie of the Year: Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays
Comeback of the Year: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox
Breakout Candidates: Ricky Romero, Blue Jays; Adam Jones, Orioles; Brian Matusz, Orioles; Brett Cecil, Blue Jays; Matt Joyce, Rays; Sean Rodriguez, Rays; Jed Lowrie, Red Sox

AL Central:

Many will bet the chalk in the AL Central.  The Twins had an impressive 2010 campaign and none of their divisional opponents made big splashes this offseason.  The Twins do have a few things to hang their hats on.  They've got a plethora of power-hitters.  They've got a three-time batting champ.  They've got arguably the best pitcher in the division.  They've also got some serious uncertainty at the back of the rotation.  They've got unproven players at three infield positions.  And their cleanup hitter is still recovering from a concussion he suffered nine months ago.

Chicago relatively quietly improved themselves this offseason.  Their big move was the addition of free agent, Adam Dunn, who give them a consistent power source to slide into the lineup between Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin.  They bolstered their bullpen with the addition of veteran relievers, Jesse Crain and Will Ohman.  They added an inexpensive high-upside outfielder in Lastings Milledge.  And they brought back clubhouse leaders Konerko, A. J. Pierzynski, and Omar Vizquel.

More importantly, however, the Sox have plenty of depth in their rotation and a handful of young players who could make much bigger contributions in 2011.  Foremost among these is Gordon Beckham, the 24-year-old second-baseman who struggled mightily in the first half of his sophomore season, but made adjustments and hit .310 in the second half.  The White Sox could also get substantial contributions from rookies Chris Sale and Brent Morel, and sophomores Sergio Santos and Dayan Viciedo.

I often preach the importance of depth in the marathon season.  The White Sox have it.  The Twins don't.

Chicago White Sox 92 W
Minnesota Twins 86 W
Detroit Tigers 77 W
Cleveland Indians 70 W
Kansas City Royals 62 W

MVP Candidate: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
Cy Young Candidate: Francisco Liriano, Twins
Rookie of the Year: Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Twins
Comeback of the Year: Jake Peavy, White Sox
Breakout Candidates: Max Scherzer, Tigers; Gordon Beckham, White Sox; Kila Ka'aihue, Royals; Asdrubel Cabrera, Indians

AL West:

Sure, they'll miss Cliff Lee.  But the rumors of the Rangers demise have been greatly exaggerated.  Remember, Texas was five games up in the West and playing at a .581 clip before Lee ever threw a pitch for them in 2010.

The ever-optimistic Angels fans will rally behind their solid rotation and their improved bullpen depth, but the Angels ability to score runs remains in doubt, especially with Kendrys Morales remaining on the D.L. to begin the season and still no long-term solution at third base.

The major threat to a Texas repeat is actually the Oakland Athletics.  Billy Beane helped move his offense towards respectability by adding David DeJesus and Hideki Matsui, but the A's still don't possess a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter.  However, teams like the Giants and Padres have proven that mediocre offense can be overcome by superlative pitching.  The A's have potentially superlative pitching.  If the rotation keeps Oakland in the race into July, expect Beane to chase impending free agent rentals.

Texas Rangers 91 W
Oakland Athletics 87 W
Los Angeles Angels 75 W
Seattle Mariners 68 W

MVP Candidate: Josh Hamilton, Rangers
Cy Young Candidate: Jered Weaver, Angels
Rookie of the Year: Chris Carter, Athletics
Comeback of the Year: Chone Figgins, Mariners
Breakout Candidates: Brett Anderson, Athletics; Julio Borbon, Rangers; Jason Vargas, Mariners