Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why I think Ryan Braun is Innocent

We all know the grimy details of the Ryan Braun scandal by now, so I won't bother to rehash them here.  All I want to say is that I've been a Braun fan since he came up in '07 and started tearing the cover off the ball. I've always thought he was a great hitter and correctly predicted last winter that he would win the National League MVP award in 2011 (a decision I don't agree with, but I've already discussed that here and here).   When the news was released last Friday that Braun had won his appeal and would not have to serve a 50 game suspension in 2012 for violating baseball's drug policy, I was happy even though the announcement engendered a lot of controversy in the media.  The Hebrew Hammer seems to be one of those guys who respects the game, puts his work in, shows up to play everyday, and puts up some pretty good numbers along the way (comparing favorably to Jim Rice so far as a righthanded hitter).  In my heart I truly believed he was innocent and that he would be the first player to win an appeal.  It's still possible, maybe even probable, that Braun did in fact use performance enhancing drugs, but I'm going to make the case for his innocence.

-First and foremost, there's nothing in Braun's physical profile (six-foot-one, 210 pounds) to suggest PED use.  He's not a big, muscular dude with jacked arms (Mark McGwire) and an expanding hat size (Barry Bonds). His body hasn't grown much from his rookie year. If anything, he looks to be on the leaner side compared to many of his power-hitting peers like Adam Dunn, Albert Pujols, and Alex Rodriguez.  So where does his power come from?  Like Nomar Garciaparra and Hank Aaron before him, Braun has quick wrists that produce incredible bat speed and allow him to drive the ball.  His swing is short and compact, much like Jose Bautista's.

-Braun was a superlative player before he reached the big leagues; he wasn't one of those guys (like Joey Bats) that came out of nowhere and developed into an elite ballplayer.  The University of Miami star won a host of awards there and was selected by Milwaukee as the fifth overall pick in the stacked 2005 draft class--you may have heard of players such as Justin Upton (first), Alex Gordon (second), Ryan Zimmerman (fourth), Ricky Romero (sixth), Troy Tulowitzki (seventh), Andrew McCutchen (eleventh), Jay Bruce (twelfth), Jacoby Ellsbury (23rd), Matt Garza (25th), Colby Rasmus (28th) and Clay Buchholz (42nd), all in the first round! That's a veritable All-Star team right there, loaded with future MVP winners and Hall-of-Famers.  Seattle whiffed by taking Jeff Clement with the third overall pick, a catcher/first baseman who's failed to bat his weight (.223 against 225 pounds) in 363 career at-bats in the Show (that's why the Mariners suck).  That's the baseball equivalent of  Detroit picking Darko Milicic second overall in the '03 NBA draft ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh.  Getting back to Braun, he proceeded to annihilate minor league pitching in 2006, and despite a monster spring training the Brewers didn't promote him to the big league roster until May 24th.  He missed out on nearly 50 games, almost a third of the season, yet he still blasted 34 homers, knocked in 97 runs and paced the NL with a .634 slugging percentage.  I vividly remember supporting his candidacy for NL Rookie of the Year over Tulowitzki, who held several advantages by playing a great shortstop and contributing to Colorado's magical postseason run, but the numbers didn't lie and sure enough Braun narrowly topped Tulo in the balloting. But what if he had been penciled into the lineup on Opening Day with the Brewers?  He certainly deserved it, and it's hard to know what the organization was thinking.  What might his numbers have looked like with an extra two months of the season?  Here's the 162 game projection:

130 runs  209 hits  37 doubles  48 home runs  139 RBI  21 steals  410 total bases

Those numbers leap off the page, especially the 410 total bases, a feat that was almost impossible to accomplish between the 1930s and steroid era.  I don't care if he wound up with 40 errors that year (he made 26 at the hot corner and was moved to left field the following season) because it would have been the greatest rookie season of all time.  Better than Joe DiMaggio in '36, Ted Williams in '39, Fred Lynn in '75, McGwire in '87, Pujols in '01.  That stat line is eerily similar to Jim Rice's 1978 MVP season when the Hall of Famer scored 121 runs, compiled 213 hits, cracked 46 homers, plated 139 runners, and accumulated 406 total bases.  There's no doubt Braun would have won the award over Jimmy Rollins with those eye-popping figures. I'm willing to concede that there's almost no way Braun could have hit any of those numbers as a rookie, but he adjusted so quickly to major league pitching (he needed just one week to take off) that he probably would have been in the same area code for a few of them. 
Bottom line; the talent has always been there for Braun.  The former top prospect is no late bloomer.

-Braun has been a model of consistency throughout his first five big league seasons.  In every year except 2010 he's whacked between 32 and 37 home runs, and he's a lock to bat .300, drive in at least 100 runs, and pile up the extra base hits.  He's a tremendous all-around player who fills up the stat sheet in every category.  Check out how evenly distributed his career highs are:
113 Runs-2009
203 Hits-2009
45 Doubles-2010
7 Triples-2008
37 Home Runs-2008
114 RBI-2009
33 Steals-2011
.332 Batting Average-2011
.397 OBP-2011
.634 SLG-2007
1.004 OPS-2007
166 OPS+-2011
350 Total Bases-2009
83 Extra base hits-2008
7.1 bWAR-2011
He's never had a career year where he went off for more than 40 long balls or won a batting title.  Much like Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, he's a reliable offensive machine.

-Lastly, I know it doesn't mean much these days, but Braun seems like a genuinely good guy. He's not a total jerk like Bonds or A-Rod, he handles himself well off the field, and I think he has too much respect for the game he loves and plays for a living to cheat.  I don't know how his testosterone levels skyrocketed, and we may never know.  He's the only one who knows the truth.  Nevertheless, I am disappointed that his test result was released before his appeals process was complete.  It should have been kept private until a decision was reached, because when it comes to drugs and baseball the players are "guilty until proven innocent."  Everyone made snap judgments and jumped on the bandwagon, some went so far as to argue that he should be stripped of his MVP award.  Braun's declarations of innocence fell upon deaf ears, and now his once-pristine reputation has suffered irreparable damage.  This test result will always be a mark on his permanent record.  If he was clean all along then this couldn't have happened to a less-deserving player.  If he did cheat, it's not like he got off scot-free because the past two and a half months have been hell for him.  His punishment was watching his name get dragged through the mud for over two months, which is a lot worse than sitting out two months of baseball games.

I was right about Braun in 2007, and again in 2011.  I just hope I'm right about him now.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Who's in the Slam Dunk Contest?

The 2012 NBA Sprite Slam Dunk Contest won't feature reigning champion Blake Griffin (but then again it's pretty difficult to think of something more creative than jumping over a Kia).  Or LeBron James, arguably the best and most athletic player in the NBA.  "Superman" Dwight Howard won't be there, and neither will three-time champ "KryptoNate" Nate Robinson.

It was hard to get excited for the enthralling, high flying exhibition this year because none of the contestants are household names.  In fact, I bet there aren't too many fans that know all four participants.  I didn't until I googled them up ten minutes ago, but I think I just forgot their names (scratches head).

Wait, who's in the Slam Dunk Contest again?

Well we have Derrick Williams (favored by many to win), the second overall pick behind Kyrie Irving in last summer's draft.  He's just a 20 year-old rookie playing alongside Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio on the Timberwolves, but has settled in as a competent bench player.  He relies more on sheer athleticism than anything else, as most youngsters do, but plays a well-rounded game and could be a productive starter if given more playing time.  He needs to mature and develop as a player, but let's give him some rope before we start labeling him a draft bust.

There's Chase Budinger, the 23 year-old third year reserve on the Houston Rockets.  He's currently averaging under 20 minutes per game, but is actually a pretty decent offensive player. Budinger knocks down more than 40 percent of his treys, shoots 45 percent from the floor and hits 87 percent from the line.  Pretty good, right? But he doesn't hit the glass hard enough for a forward and provides little on defense.  A competent bench player, but nothing special.  I had heard of him, but I'm not really sure why.

But have you ever heard of Jeremy Evans? Me neither, and there's a reason for that.  The 24 year-old sophomore averaged under ten minutes per game for the Jazz as a rook, and has seen his playing time nearly sawed in half this year.  That's right, folks; he's averaging  a whopping 5.6 minutes per game (when he plays, which has only been every other game).  He's a glorified benchwarmer.  Where did they find this guy again?  According to his player profile he's much too skinny, weighing under 200 pounds despite being six-foot-nine.

Lastly there's Paul George, the 21 year-old sophomore for the Pacers.  He's found a nice niche as a starter on the team this year, earning 31 minutes per game, shooting 40 percent from downtown and averaging about a dozen points per game.  He's just one of many weapons on a balanced Indiana squad that includes David West, Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, and Darren Collison.

Even though this contest lacks star power, I still think it has the potential to be exciting.  After all, these guys want to make names for themselves with America watching, so their dunks should be extra spectacular.

NL West Preview

1st Place-San Francisco Giants
2011 Record: 86-76
2011 Pythagorean: 80-82
2012 Projected: 91-71
San Francisco had one of the best pitching staffs in baseball last year, and it's not hard to see why.  The rotation is stacked with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong (likely to regress, but Bumgarner could break out), and four of their six most used relievers kept their ERAs under 2.75 (surprisingly Brian Wilson wasn't one of them).  What betrayed San Fran's quest to defend their World Series title was an impotent lineup that suffered a devastating season-ending injury to Buster Posey in May, lost Pablo Sandoval for 45 games and saw Aubrey Huff scuffle after the front office handed him a two year/$22 million deal the previous winter.  Even if Huff doesn't bounce back, getting an extra 130-140 games combined from their star catcher and Kung Fu Panda should give the Giants just enough offense to get back over the hump.  Free agent addition Melky Cabrera could also help, too, even if he falls back to earth after his career year last season.  All this team needed was an extra bat or two last season, so I believe they can get back to the top of their division rather easily.
2nd Place-Los Angeles Dodgers
2011 Record: 82-79
2011 Pythagorean: 84-77
2012 Projected: 89-73
Their strong finish got lost in the PR firestorm created by the McCourts; LA went 41-28 in the second half and seemed to be gathering momentum just as the season was winding down.  James Loney, Juan Rivera and Ted Lilly all regrouped from dreadful starts to finish the year strong, providing hope that they can pick up where they left off in 2012.  Manager Don Mattingly has arguably the best player--Matt Kemp--and best pitcher--Clayton Kershaw--in baseball at his disposal, but both have to sustain their success.  Unfortnately, GM Ned Colletti's didn't do much to upgrade the roster this offseason (he made a flurry of moves, all for replacement level players) so there's a lot riding on big comebacks from Andre Ethier and Chad Billingsley, the latter of whom needs to step up and fill the void left by Hiroki Kuroda.  The bullpen endured a lot of turmoil last season after Jonathan Broxton blew up, so hopefully Javy Guerra is the answer and can provide stability in the ninth inning.  This roster is definitely top-heavy, and injuries to any of its key players will likely doom the team to another .500 season.  But I'm confident the Dodgers will play better with the McCourt thing behind them; the talent is there, they just need to put it together.

3rd Place-Arizona Diamondbacks
2011 Record: 94-68
2011 Pythagorean: 88-74
2012 Projected: 86-76
Three things helped turn the D-Backs from a 97 loss team in 2010 to a 94 win team in 2011; an MVP caliber season from B.J. Upton, the emergence of Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy as aces, and a renovated bullpen headlined by the resurgence of stud closer J.J. Putz.  Arizona has a balanced lineup and solid pitching, but neither rated as spectacular last year.  Overall the offense was just slightly above average and relied too much on Upton (if he gets hurt this year they're screwed), and the pitching rated below average in many categories despite sterling seasons from Kennedy, Hudson, Putz, and pleasant surprises from starters Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter.  I think Kirk Gibson's Snakes overachieved last year and benefitted from disappointing seasons by the Dodgers and Giants.  With both teams expected to be better this year, I'm guessing Arizona slips into the middle of the pack.  Kennedy is a surefire bet to regress, Putz isn't the most durable closer, and I think Trevor Cahill will struggle outside of the Coliseum in Oakland (Chase Field is much more favorable to hitters).  Arizona is still a dangerous team and could just as easily surpass 90 wins again, but I'm betting they won't.

4th Place-San Diego Padres
2011 Record: 71-91
2011 Pythagorean: 79-83
2012 Projected: 74-88
Offense will always be at a premium for the Pads as long as they call Petco home, but the organization does itself no favors by filling out the roster with light-hitting names like Orlando Hudson, Jason Bartlett, Chase Headley, Cameron Maybin, and Will Venable, all of whome slugged below .400 last year.  It's no surprised San Diego finished dead last in most of the offensive categories, and this pauctiy of scoring submarined what was actually a solid starting rotation--their 1-5 starters (Mat Latos, Tim Stauffer, Aaron Harang, Dustin Moseley, and Clayton Richard all posted ERAs under 3.90.  So it was nice to see them bolster the lineup with Carlos Quentin, who has enough power to smack 30 home runs if he can stay healthy for a whole season.  But one man can only do so much, especially when nobody's getting on base in front of him and he lacks protection behind him.  He will probably be a major disappointment out west, as the move from the homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field to Petco, perhaps the most pitching friendly park in the majors, should sap some of his power.  On the bright side, many of his teammates are still young and have growth potential.  As for their pitching, Latos was an ace in the making and the rotation will miss him, especially since he was the only real strikeout pitcher on the staff last year.  They received Edinson Volquez, a true wild card, in return.  Volquez enjoyed a great season in 2008, when he made the All-Star team, went 17-6, struck out 206 batters and compiled a 3.21 ERA, but that breakout is sandwiched between six seasons of ineffectiveness, DL stints, and streaks of wildness.  If he can keep his walks down and stay healthy, he's exactly the kind of pitcher who could thrive in Petco, but those are two big "if"s.  San Diego is expecting him to be their ace, but I think it's safe to say that Latos will have a more productive season in Cincy than Volquez will in Cali.  It will be interesting to see if both can take advantage of their new digs and boost their games to new heights.  Lastly, the bullpen enters 2012 sans its two top relievers--Heath Bell (free agency) and Mike Adams (traded to Texas last July).  Huston Street isn't as consistent as Bell, but when healthy he's one of the better closers in the league and should come in handy during all those 3-2 games. 

5th Place-Colorado Rockies
2011 Record: 73-89
2011 Pythagorean: 77-85
2012 Projected: 72-90
The Rockies are polar opposites of the Padres; they play in a hitter's haven, have plenty of offense, and can't find decent pitching to save their lives.  Colorado bucked the trend this winter by acquiring many older players such as Jamie Moyer, Michael Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro, Casey Blake, and Ramon Hernandez.  Among them, only Cuddyer figures to provide much value.  On paper their lineup looks formidable on paper, with MVP candidates Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki anchoring the heart of it, but their pitching looks worse than Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler."  Former ace Ubaldo Jimenez was traded to Cleveland last summer, and Jorge De La Rosa won't return from Tommy John surgery until midseason.  That leaves Jhoulys Chacin as the only "capable" starter (he led the league in walks allowed last year) on a team that finished second to last in the Senior Circuit with a 4.43 ERA last season.  It's a bad sign when Jeremy Guthrie, who's led the majors in losses during two out of the past three seasons, might be the best hurler in the rotation.  Oh, and the bullpen is just as discouraging.  This team will still put up enough runs to win some games, but in a division loaded with quality pitching they are the clear outliers.

Friday, February 24, 2012

NL Central Preview

1st Place-Milwaukee Brewers
2011 Record: 96-66
2011 Pythagorean: 90-72
2012 Projected: 94-68
No Prince Fielder? No problem.  Milwaukee vastly improved the left side of their infield, and Fielder's departure opens up a full-time gig for Mat GamelAramis Ramirez was one of the best bats available besides Fielder, Pujols and Jose Reyes, and as long as he stays healthy I think he'll do fine with the Brewers.  The loss of Fielder means the lineup is right-handed heavy this year, but I don't think scoring will be too much of an issue for the team that paced the Senior Circuit in home runs last season and could get 30 apiece from Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart.  But the Brew Crew will win the division again because they have the pitching to go with their hitting; Zack Greinke, Shaun Macum and Yovani Gallardo form one of the more underrated big threes in baseball, and Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson are reliable back-end of the rotation guys.  Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford are a lethal one-two punch at the end of gamesAnd in case you missed it, reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun won his appeal and will not serve a 50 game suspension for failing a drug test.  Losing him for two months likely would have cost the team multiple wins and perhaps a playoff berth, so having him available for the entire season is a crucial bonus.  Fun fact; the Hebrew Hammer swiped more than twice as many bases (33) last year than anyone else on the team.  Yeah, the Brew Crew can hit the ball a long way, but they don't run much.

2nd Place-Cincinnati Reds
2011 Record: 79-83
2011 Pythagorean: 83-79
2012 Projected: 90-72
I think this year's squad will play more like the 2010 version that won the NL Central instead of last year's sub-.500 disappointment.  Their offense (second in the league in runs scored) wasn't the problem last year, but their below average pitching was.  That weakness could be a strength in 2012, with burgeoning ace Mat Latos joining Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, and potentially Aroldis Chapman in the rotation (all of whom are in their mid-20s--besides Arroyo--and therefore still have some room to grow).  The Reds also snagged Ryan Madson on a one year/8.5 million dollar deal to fill the closer vacancy left by Francisco Cordero.  The lineup is a force to be reckoned with; Joey Votto is one of the best hitters in baseball, Jay Bruce could mash 40 home runs, Brandon Phillips does everything well, and Drew Stubbs, the NL version of B.J. Upton, could explode if he cuts down on his strikeouts (but Dusty Baker really needs to stop batting him leadoff after he whiffed 205 times last season).  Even if Scott Rolen breaks down again and Chris Heisey doesn't sock 20 homers, Cincy still has plenty of weapons capable of putting runs on the board.  Like everyone else, they just need their pitching to hold up.

3rd Place-St. Louis Cardinals
2011 Record: 90-72
2011 Pythagorean: 88-74
2012 Projected: 89-73
The defending World Series champs needed an epic collapse from the Atlanta Braves and every break along the way just to win the NL Wild Card last year, and they enter 2012 loaded with question marks.  How will the club adjust to life without Albert Pujols, the face of the franchise since 2001, and Tony LaRussa, the team's skipper since 1996?  Can brittle shortstop Rafael Furcal stay healthy and provide any value out of the leadoff spot?  Will Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran replicate their successful 2011 comeback campaigns? What can be expected of Jon Jay, Allen Craig and David Freese? Who will man second base? Can Adam Wainwright be the ace he was before missing all of 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery? How long can Chris Carpenter remain a top shelf starter?  How will the bullpen respond to stability? I think it's safe to say the Redbirds wildly overachieved last year considering Wainwright didn't start a game, Matt Holliday missed extended time and Pujols suffered the worst season of his prolific career.  The Machine is irreplaceable, but getting Wainwright back and adding Beltran to the mix should compensate for his loss.  The Cards still have enough hitting and pitching to get back into October, but this is a top-heavy team and there's just too much uncertainty to predict another World Series crown.  If Berkman and Beltran break down, the lineup will lose a lot of its punch, and if Wainwright and/or Carpenter can't stay healthy then they'll be in trouble.  The fate of this team rests in the hands of a few, which is always risky in this fickle sport.

4th Place-Pittsburgh Pirates
2011 Record: 72-90
2011 Pythagorean: 70-92
2012 Projected: 74-88
Pittsburgh was the feel good story in baseball for most of the summer; they were in the hunt for a playoff berth in late July and seemed to have turned their fortunes around after two decades of losing seasons.  With the Bucs playing the role of lovable underdogs, PNC Park was full again, the media jumped on the bandwagon and it looked like the team was a only a couple deadline deals away from getting themselves over the hump.  But anybody who paid attention could see they were clearly overachieving, that they were winning with smoke and mirrors, they didn't have the pitching nor the hitting to make a serious postseason run, and that they were nothing more than a flash in the pan.  Sure enough, the ax fell and they went 21-46 after my birthday, July 19th.  Now I don't think the Pirates are that bad, but there's no way they're as good as they appeared to be in the first half, either.  There's enough young talent here to be optimistic; Andrew McCutchen could be this year's Matt Kemp, and he's surrounded by a decent group of complementary players like Garrett Jones, Neil Walker, Jose TabataAlex Presley, and Pedro Alvarez, who needs to start making more contact if he wants to become the next Mike Stanton (otherwise Clint Hurdle will be forced to play Casey McGehee more).  The rotation is headed by two high-risk, medium-reward guys in A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard, but they're surrounded by mediocrity; Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton, and James McDonald will all probably regress somewhat.  I like the Evan Meek/Joel Hanrahan combo as the eighth and ninth inning firemen, but the bullpen is in serious need of a lefty reliever.  If everything breaks right (Bedard and Burnett stay healthy/return to form, McCutchen and Alvarez bust out), we could see the first Pirates team with a winning record since Barry Bonds led them to the brink of the World Series in 1992.

5th Place-Chicago Cubs
2011 Record: 71-91
2011 Pythagorean: 70-92
2012 Projected: 72-90
The Cubbies are like the New York Mets of the NL Central; they were serious contenders a few seasons ago but a bloated payroll combined with age, injuries, and bad signings prompted a swift fall into the cellar.  New team president Theo Epstein has a lot of work to do here.  He made a flurry of boring moves this winter (David DeJesus? Ian Stewart?), but failed to land the coveted Prince Fielder and admittedly it's gonna be a while before Chicago can compete with the top dogs in their division.  At least he has some young talent to build around, which is more than the Astros can say!  Starlin Castro is a star in the making, Bryan LaHair has potential at first, Matt Garza is a proven frontline starter, and Carlos Marmol could be the game's best closer if he improves his command.  I expect Ryan Dempster and Geovanny Soto to bounce back, especially since the latter is an every-other-year kind of player (and last year wasn't pretty).  The lineup will sorely miss the powerful tandem of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena at the heart of it, and will suffer from having to fill their spots with Marlon Byrd and Alfonso Soriano  Unfortunately the rotation is still a disaster, especially since it's relying on some combination of Paul Maholm, Randy Wells, Chris Volstad, and Travis Wood to make a lot of starts.  The bullpen is pretty weak, especially if Marmol can't limit baserunners. 

6th Place-Houston Astros
2011 Record: 56-106
2011 Pythagorean: 62-100
2012 Projected:59-103
Houston fielded the worst team in the majors last year and haven't done much to improve their fortunes.  They gave traded away their two best position players, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, at the deadline last year.  The duo left behind a lineup that's absolutely terrible and has the look of a minor league offense; full of uninspiring, mediocre young players.  Carlos Lee is the only "threat" there (as dangerous as a .261/.316/.431 hitter the past two years can be) and he'll turn 36 in June.  I have hope for J.D. Martinez, but honestly believe that nobody else wearing an Astros uniform will provide league average production.  I mean, Jed Lowrie? Jose Altuve? Jordan Schafer? C'mon.  And those are the guys at the top of the lineup.  The rotation isn't terrible but it lacks a true ace.  Wandy Rodriguez looked like he could be that guy a few years ago but he's plateaued as a streaky number two and Brett Myers, who was supposed to lead the staff after finishing tenth in the NL Cy Young race during a surprising 2010, suffered a demoralizing regression to the mean.  Expect both names to be floated around in trade offers during July. At least Bud Norris made great strides last year, and 2012 could be the season that the soon-to-be-27-year-old takes off.  I view him as a Brandon Morrow-type in that he has the stuff to be a top shelf starter, but needs to harness his control in order to do so.  In the bullpen, Brandon Lyon has to prove that he can stay healthy enough to be a full time closer again.  Mark Melancon will be missed.  There's just nothing to like about this team, and I'd be shocked if they managed to keep their loss total out of the triple digits.  The 'Stros blew up their team and started from scratch, which means a lengthy rebuilding process for the several more years.

NL East Preview

1st Place-Philadelphia Phillies
2011 Record: 102-60
2011 Pythagorean: 103-59
2012 Projected: 97-65
Expect more of the same from the best team in the majors.  Their once explosive lineup has not aged well with their three perennial MVP candidates all past their prime; Ryan Howard was already declining before injuring his achilles while making the last out of the 2011 NLDS and will miss at least a month (Jim Thome and Ty Wigginton will fill in), Jimmy Rollins hasn't been the same since his career year in 2007 and Chase Utley has suffered back-to-back injury plagued/disappointing seasons.  Philadelphia used to be in the conversation with New York, Boston, and Texas when it came to powerhouse offenses, but the Phillies have placed more of an emphasis on pitching while allowing their elite infielders to deteriorate.  But on the flip side, their outfield is looking pretty good.  Leftfielder John Mayberry could bust out, the multitalented Shane Victorino is probably the team's most indispensable player (he can hit anywhere in the lineup, plays a strong centerfield and does a little bit of everything), and rightfielder Hunter Pence is poised to be their most productive hitter with .300-30-100 potential in his first full season with the club.  Their extraordinary pitching staff returns mostly intact, with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels teaming up to form the most devastating starting rotation in baseball.  2011 breakout Vance Worley will replace Roy Oswalt as the number four starter, and Joe Blanton looks to bounce back from a lost year that saw him make just eight starts.  The team's most significant addition is in the bullpen, where new closer Jonathan Papelbon should be a great fit given his track record of success in Boston.  He's shown he can thrive in high pressure situations (read--the postseason) against challenging opponents in a hitter's ballpark with intense fans filling the stands, and should continue to be one of baseball's top closers.  He has a great setup man in Antonio Bastardo, too, so don't expect Philly to blow more than a handful of late game leads.  I know their 2011 season ended in disappointing fashion, but they still have to be considered World Series frontrunners once again.

2nd Place-Miami Marlins
2011 Record: 72-90
2011 Pythagorean: 72-90
2012 Projected: 89-73
The organization made up for years of penny-pinching with a free agent splurge that brought the talents of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell to South Beach (and they were talking to Albert Pujols, too).  The Fish underachieved last year because their two best players, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson, missed extensive time with injuries.  If they had been their healthy, productive selves, Florida probably would have been a .500 team, so adding the aforementioned three agents gives them a legitimate shot at 90 wins.  Reyes is a perfect table setter for HanRam and Mike Stanton (who could launch 40 homers this year) and I have a feeling that  be able to stay off the DL this year.  I like their rotation (especially now that Chris Volstad, with his ugly 84 ERA+ over his last 88 starts--has been jettisoned) but it will miss Javier Vazquez, who's reportedly considering retirement after a torrid finish last year.  Buehrle should thrive in his new digs, though, especially since he no longer has to pitch half his games in the homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.  This could be the year that Logan Morrison and Ricky Nolasco bust out, too, and a change of scenery is exactly what Carlos Zambrano needed.  This team is brimming with upside and youth, but that potential comes with a lot of risk, too.  Ramirez, Reyes, Johnson, and Zambrano all have some question marks, but the team is counting on them to help make the Marlins a relevant baseball team once again (you realize this club won as many World Series in a seven season span--two--as the Boston Red Sox have since 1919, right?).  If everything comes together and clicks, we're looking at two postseason contenders down in Florida.

3rd Place-Washington Nationals
2011 Record:80-81
2011 Pythagorean: 78-83
2012 Projected: 86-76
The Nats upgraded their starting rotation over the winter by trading for lefty Gio Gonzalez and signing Edwin Jackson (moves that signaled the franchise is ready to compete now, not in a few years like the Royals), a pair of quality arms to complement Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman.  Adding Prince Fielder would have given a similar boost to the lineup, but Washington should hit better simply by getting a full season from Ryan Zimmerman, bouncebacks from Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche, and continued growth from Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa up the middle (but they really shouldn't be hitting at the top of the lineup given their horrendous OBPs).  Hopefully Mike Morse isn't a fluke. Bryce Harper probably isn't ready to play a full season at the major league level, but if he tears up spring ball he deserves to start on Opening Day and will almost certainly get to see big league pitching this year.The bullpen, with Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, and Drew Storen, is absolutely filthy.  Like most, I'm bullish on the Nationals this year, but even if they fall short of expectations they have ample young talent to field competitve teams for years to come.  Their dark days as cellar-dwellers are history.

4th Place-Atlanta Braves
2011 Record:89-73
2011 Pythagorean: 85-77
2012 Projected: 84-78
Atlanta seemed to have the NL Wild Card sewn up all summer, only to let a postseason berth slip through their fingers during their September swoon.  The warning signs were there all along; mounting injuries, overachieving pitchers regressing to the mean, etc., so I was hardly surprised when they coughed up the wild card to the Cardinals down the stretch.  There's still plenty to like about the Braves heading into 2012, though.  They have a pretty deep lineup on paper that will look even better if Jason Heyward takes off, Martin Prado bounces back, Dan Uggla avoids a brutal first half and Freddie Freeman improves on a solid rookie season.  Their rotation is solid with Tim Hudson, Brandon Beachy, and Jair Jurrjens backing Tommy Hanson, who I expect to blossom into a bona fide ace this year.  And their bullpen, headed by NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, is the most untouchable in baseball.  But these Braves failed to improve themselves this offseason (aside from ditching Derek Lowe), deciding to stand pat while the Marlins and Nationals added multiple key pieces.  Chipper Jones, Prado, and Heyward enter the season with big question marks surrounding them, and Atlanta's offense was subpar in everything except for home runs last season, indicating they rely too much on the long ball to score runs.  The rotation lacks a strong southpaw starter--Mike Minor is not the answer--and I expect substantial regression from Hudson and Jurrjens.  Ownership seems too content to tread water even though they were only one piece away from making the playoffs last year.  If they had been aggressive this winter and added a C.J. Wilson or an impact bat, I think that would have been enough to get them over the hump.  You can always try to acquire such a player with a midseason trade, but by then it may be too late.

5th Place-New York Mets
2011 Record:77-85
2011 Pythagorean: 79-83
2012 Projected: 70-92
The Mets have completely fallen apart ever since they ditched Shea Stadium for Citi Field.  Injuries, age, poor investments and a lack of young talent has forced this once-proud franchise to rebuild from the bottom up.  There's just no hope for the near future.  The offense will have to adjust to life without Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes.  David Wright needs to recover from a poor 2011 and provide a big bat in the middle of the order.  He's the centerpiece of this team now, and they desperately need him to play like it. It would be really nice if Jason Bay could at least be an average hitter given his hefty price tag.  Ike Davis, Lucas Duda, and Daniel Murphy have showed that they can be productive regulars, but I don't think they're guys you can build a lineup around.  The starting rotation consists of Johan Santana, who missed all of 2011 and hasn't been himself since 2008, and a bunch of mediocre hurlers.  New York's only strength is their bullpen featuring closer Frank Francisco, setup man Jon Rauch, and middle relievers Ramon Ramirez and Bobby Parnell.  They'll be fine without Francisco Rodriguez, but a good 'pen isn't much use when the starters can't hold their own.  GM Sandy Alderson has trimmed over $50 million from last year's payroll, signaling a transition from a big market club to a mid-market one.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

AL West Preview

1st Place Los Angeles Angels
2011 Record: 86-76
2011 Pythagorean: 85-77
2012 Projected: 96-66
Pedestrian offense? The best hitter in baseball should fix that.  Need a lefty starter to inject some balance into your rotation? Enter C.J. Wilson, one of the most effective southpaws over the past two years who could be even better after leaving Arlington in his rearview mirror.  The Halos endured a rough offseason last year, whiffing on Carl Crawford, trading Mike Napoli (only to see him come back to haunt them with the Rangers) for Vernon Wells in an ill-advised attempt to make a splash.  It's no surprise they finished ten games off the pace in the AL West.  But that was then, this is now.  New GM Arte Moreno is at the helm, and on one day he committed nearly $320 million over fifteen seasons to two players.  LA boasts three legitimate aces in Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Wilson.  Ervin Santana is no slouch, either, and he's their fourth starter!  Wilson was hardly necessary considering the team topped the Junior Circuit in ERA and innings pitched last year, but I know they say you can never have too much pitching. I think it's safe to say the Angels have the deepest rotation in baseball, better than San Francisco's and Philadelphia's, and they're going to need it because the bullpen is nothing special outside of Jordan Walden.  On offense, Pujols anchors a lineup in desperate need of his prodigious power and on-base skills.  With Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, and Bobby Abreu all on the decline, a strong comeback season from Kendrys Morales is essential (especially if you believe in lineup protection).  Adding the Machine makes Rookie of the Year runner-up Mark Trumbo the odd man out right now, but since he's the only other Angel capable of swatting 30+ home runs Mike Scoscia really needs to find a place for him (and yes, I know he had more home runs than walks last year and posted a .291 OBP, but could the 1B/RF/DH'er man the hot corner a la Kevin Youkilis?).  So Los Angeles will probably still struggle to score runs at times, but their superlative pitching and extraordinary defense should be able to limit opposing offenses.  This team is far from perfect, though, and still might not have enough to overtake the Rangers in their own division.  Last year's Red Sox team proved that a powerhouse on paper doesn't mean anything.

2nd Place Texas Rangers
2011 Record: 96-66
2011 Pythagorean: 98-64
2012 Projected: 94-68
Texas secured its second straight American League pennant in 2011 and were heavily favored to capture the franchise's first World Series crown.  They were on the brink in Game 6, needing just one more strike on two separate occassions, but ultimately lost the game and were upset by the underdog St. Louis Cardinals.  What followed was a whirlwind of an offseason; they lost ace C.J. Wilson (team leader in wins, ERA, starts, innings, strikeouts--you get the picture) during free agency to the rival Angels on the same day Los Angeles inked Albert Pujols just six weeks after he abused Texas pitching in the Fall Classic.  For the rest of the winter the Rangers were the favorites to land Prince Fielder, the "other" marquee slugging first baseman on the market, but he wound up in Detroit.  Texas finally made a splash by acquiring Japanese hurler Yu Darvish, who's everything Daisuke Matsuzaka was supposed to be when he signed with Boston five years ago.  He should fill the void left by Wilson's departure.  Texas is also adding depth to their rotation by turning young closer Neftali Feliz into a starter and replacing him with Joe Nathan.  They are confident Feliz can make the transition based on the successful conversion of Alexi Ogando from the 'pen to a frontline starter last season, but the rotation has enough depth to survive if he falters (Matt Harrison, 14-9 with a 131 ERA+ last year, is waiting in the wings).  Their loaded lineup returns almost entirely intact, and when healthy it has enough firepower to rival Boston's offense as the best in baseball.  There are plenty of question marks, though; Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Adrian Beltre all missed approximately 40 games last year, Ian Kinsler is always an injury risk, and Michael Young is 35.  Mitch Moreland just doesn't provide enough offense for a first baseman, either, but could put up Freddie Freeman-type numbers in a full slate of games this year.  Mike Napoli is a forced to be reckoned with behind the plate, and shortstop Elvis Andrus is just 23 and seems to be maturing as a hitter.  Assuming Darvish doesn't go bust, this year's team is just as strong as it was last season and I wouldn't be surprised if they don't lose any ground to the Angels.

3rd Place Seattle Mariners
2011 Record: 67-95
2011 Pythagorean: 67-95
2012 Projected: 71-91
There's not a whole lot to get excited about if you're a baseball fan in the Pacific Northwest.  They have great defense, as always, but the M's sorely lack pitching and hitting.  That tends to be a recipe for disaster. I still don't understand the thinking behind the Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero trade (no AL team has hit worse than the Mariners over the past two seasons, so adding an impact bat was essential), because now the rotation is a mess after Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez.  It's never a good sign when Jason Vargas (career 4.53 ERA) is your second best starter, and Pineda seems like a future ace who could have formed a lethal one-two punch at the top of the rotation for years to come.  Great pitchers like that don't just grow on trees, you know, and the 22 year-old Montero can only do so much without a competent supporting cast, and I don't think he'll meet expectations this season.  I'm confident Ichiro Suzuki will bounce back somewhat (hit around .290)after last year's disappointment, and full seasons from the solid duo of Dustin Ackley/Mike Carp should help, but this team will struggle to score runs again in 2012. Justin Smoak and Miguel Olivo might hit 20 home runs, but neither gets on base enough for that to matter much, and Chone Figgins is useless.  Luckily for Seattle, Oakland has given away all its current talent and is poised to run away with last place.

4th Place Oakland A's
2011 Record: 74-88
2011 Pythagorean: 77-85
2012 Projected: 64-98
We've come a long way from those "Moneyball" glory days of ten years ago, when the A's ruled the AL West and made regular appearances in the ALDS.  But Oakland hasn't sniffed the postseason since 2006, and it's been a hard fall from the top.  Under the impression they didn't have enough to compete in the near future when he really just needed to add a couple impact bats, Billy Beane traded/failed to resign Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, Josh Willingham, and Hideki Matsui to kick off the rebuilding process.  The lineup won't hit much better than a Triple A club, the formerly deep rotation is now average at best (Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson must return to form and stay healthy), the bullpen lacks stability, and they just added Manny Ramirez to the mix.  These guys (raise your hand if you recognize half the names on the overhauled roster), the AL's answer to the Houston Astros, could lose 100 games and will serve as punching bags for the Angels and Rangers.  Hopefully the prospects Beane brought in mature and are ready to lead the team whenever it moves into the proposed new stadium in San Jose, but young talent has, is, and always will be frustratingly volatile in baseball.  For example, I fear that Cespedes, recently imported from Cuba, is far too raw to succeed in the majors and will be a surefire bust.