How (and when) did you find VFTB?
How (and when) did you find VFTB?
James Russell started the 2011 season as the second left handed pitcher in the Cubs’ bullpen behind all world setup man Sean Marshall. Less than a week later, the Cubs were down two starting pitchers and moved Russell to the rotation. That experiment did not succeed, to say the least. Russell was terrible in the rotation, going only 18.1 innings in five starts and posting a 9.33 ERA.
Upon his return to the bullpen, Russell was much more successful, posting a 2.19 ERA over 49.1 appearances. However, Russell’s peripherals as a reliever were not as strong as his results. Russell avoided walks out of the bullpen, giving a free pass to only 1.64 batters per nine innings. But he also did not post high strikeout totals as a reliever, with a 6.02 K/9 rate, and Russell is a fly ball pitcher (37.9% ground ball rate as a reliever). Unlike his time in the rotation, though, when 20% of those fly balls left the park, Russell was able to keep the ball in the yard as a reliever, posting a HR/FB rate 6.8%. This led to a FIP of 3.61 and an xFIP of 4.18 as a reliever. The difference in the latter two metrics is that FIP considers HR/FB rate, while FIP normalizes that rate and considers ground ball percentage instead.
So what do all those numbers mean? That James Russell has some significant improvement to make if he is going to fill Sean Marshall’s role. But, prior to 2010, Sean Marshall was not who he is now. To be able to become that, though, Russell will either have to strike more hitters out, induce more ground balls, or some combination of both.
But enough of looking at what James Russell could potentially become and what he would have to do to get there. What is he now? At the least, right now he is a solid left handed specialist who has had great success against left handed hitters out of the bullpen, less success against right handed hitters, and should probably never start a Major League game again.
With the Cubs starting the season with Russell as the one left handed pitcher out of the bullpen, it is possible that a massive proportion of the hitters he faces could be left handed. It would not be a surprise to see Dale Sveum wait to use Russell until late inning situations where the Cubs will specifically have to deal with a tough left handed hitter or two. And the NL Central only has one good team with two left handed middle of the order bats in the Reds’ Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. While the Cardinals will have switch hitters Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman in the middle of their order, Berkman is the only one it is really important to try to turn around to the right side of the plate.
Odds are strong that, at the least, Russell will continue to have success as a solid left handed specialist. But, if he can raise the strikeout rate, ground ball rate or both against right handed pitchers he could become special as a reliever in the same vein as Sean Marshall’s last two seasons. It is a very difficult jump to make, but Russell should stick in the bullpen long enough to get every chance to prove if he can be more than just a LOOGY.
OAKLAND ATHLETICS – (Last Year: 74-88) – The A’s off-season mystified a lot of fans, both those in Oakland and elsewhere. Starting pitchers Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez were sent away to Arizona and Washington, respectively, while closer Andrew Bailey, who’s been very effective when he’s managed to stay healthy, was packed off to the Red Sox. The set of young players received in return is too big too enumerate, but the major-league relevant pieces for this season include Josh Reddick, a young Georgian right-fielder with a cannon arm and power potential, Jarrod Parker, a starting pitcher with a blazing fastball, #2 upside, and Tommy John surgery in his past, Brad Peacock, another starting pitcher, though one with perhaps a tad less upside and a less sexy stuff profile, and Tom Milone, a crafty lefty with a bread-denting fastball and a ton on of polish.
Immediately after trading three of his four best healthy pitchers (Brandon McCarthy, last year’s league leader in FIP), Billy Beane embarked on a campaign to make the team respectable in 2012, re-signing Coco Crisp to play center, trading two mediocre pitchers to Colorado for Seth Smith, signing platoon outfielder Jonny Gomes, bringing in Bartolo Colon on a low-dollar one-year deal, and adding Manny Ramirez on a no-risk minor-league contract. In the midst of all this, Beane shocked the world by signing Cuban sensation center-fielder Yoenis Cespedes. This conflicts with the Crisp signing, which many speculated was designed to appease the players’ union and other teams by actually spending money on major-league players, but it looks for all the world like Cespedes fell into Oakland’s lap. They were reportedly the only team willing to give Cespedes a four-year contract with an agreement to let him become a free agent afterward, and with the Rangers and the Angels in the division, Beane probably feels that he has to gamble on a player like Cespedes when the opportunity presents itself if he wants to compete in 2014 and going forward.
That’s a lot of space just devoted to roster moves, but that’s what the A’s are all about. The on-field result is that the offense will probably be better than its reputation this season, assuming manager Bob Melvin can sort out all the moving pieces in the outfield and at first base/DH, while the pitching might just be ok, masked by a good outfield defense and an even better pitcher’s park. Still, the team will almost certainly not be good, as they’ve got a bunch of hitters who should be around the league average and very few who have star upside. They’re certainly not a threat to the Anaheim and Arlington-based squads in the division. Non-A’s fans might want to tune in to find out whether Yoenis Cespedes turns out more like Bo Jackson or Wily Mo Pena, and Jemile Weeks promises to be one of the most dynamic second basemen in the game, but I’d peg them as a 71-91 team when it’s all said and done. ~ Jason Wojciechowski (www.beaneball.org)
SEATTLE MARINERS – (Last Year: 67-95) – With Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson now on the Las Angeles Angels, the American League West appears to be a two horse race. For the Mariners and their fans, that means another season of playing the kids, assessing who might fit in long term, and losing ninety games. The difference between this year and 2011? High upside minor league pitching, a revamped bullpen, and the best hitting prospect the franchise has seen since Alex Rodriguez loom as a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
The big news over the off-season was the acquisition of Jesus Montero, and while there are some who question whether the move made the team better or simply turned over the roster, nobody is denying that Montero is going to rake. Montero joins Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker as top prospects, giving the Mariners one the best collections of high ceiling talent in the game. Beyond those four, questions about Ichiro’s career trajectory, Brandon League’s trade destination, and Justin Smoak’s ability to produce liven the conversation about the big league club.
While the M’s are a longshot to sniff October this season, prospects on the horizon and an intriguing crop of free agents available at year’s end suggest that the team has better days ahead in the near future. The bottom line is that the team’s priority should be developing the talent on hand as well as possible. If guys like Mike Carp and Casper Wells can build upon their successful 2011 campaigns, and if the team can find another diamond in the rough, Seattle could be in line to compete before too long. I predict 76 wins this season. ~ Brendan Gawlowski (www.proballnw.com)
LOS ANGELES ANGELS – (Last Year: 86-76) – The Angels made a pair of key moves this offseason to go from Wild Card contenders to legitimate World Series contenders, signing Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson, who just might add enough to push the Angels past Texas in the race for the AL West title.
With the added pop of Pujols in the lineup, as well as the possible return to glory for Kendrys Morales and the addition of CJ Wilson to the already sterling rotation, the Angels should find themselves playing into the middle of October this season.
In 2011 the Angels went 27-30 in the moderate AL West. In 2012, the Angels should be more competitive against Texas, again trounce the Mariners, and crush the Outfielders Athletics. Expect a significant boost in the win total there, as well as against the rest of the league.
On the whole, this is a team with tons of star power and plenty of depth. Anything short of a playoff birth will be a major disappointment, especially with the new playoff format. Come October, I expect the Angels to be 97-65 preparing to use Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and CJ Wilson to make it to the Fall Classic. ~ Hudson Belinsky (www.halosdaily.com)
The Texas Rangers have declined to comment on this silly prediction series. In all seriousness, I just couldn’t find a blogger that covers the team willing to write it and I know nothing of interest about the Rangers other than Josh Hamilton. Essentially my preview would be “blah blah blah Josh Hamilton. Blah Blah Blah, relapse. Blah blah blah, World Series.
Even in a game as unpredictable as baseball, there are constants. The Yankees will always be able to afford the biggest free agent names. White Sox fans’ pride in their team will always be disproportionate to the product on the field. Tommy LaSorda will always make himself the hero of every story. And every year, no-name players will surprise their teams in Spring Training and play their way into unexpected roster spots.
This year, the Cubs’ Spring Training surprise is Joe Mather.
Mather is a 29 year old journeyman who spent most of his career in the Cardinals’ organization. He’s also logged some time with the Braves and Rockies. Altogether he’s appeared in 126 games, and his stats are about what you’d expect from a guy who could never consistently crack a big league lineup.
That’s what makes the .412/.455/.745 (roughly) he’s posted this spring as a non-roster invitee such a surprise. In limited playing time, he’s had good success at the plate against righties and lefties, he’s shown some power, and he runs pretty well, too, swiping three bases so far.
But what makes him really valuable to this Cubs team is his versatility in the field–he can play all three outfield spots along with first and third. And manager Dale even hinted he’d consider playing him in the middle infield if need be. He’s got the ability to backup as many as five positions, and depending on how Ian Stewart, Bryan LaHair, and David DeJesus start off their seasons, he could see some significant playing time early in the year.
He’s essentially like a Blake DeWitt who isn’t an embarrassment in the outfield or at the plate. He’s a Jeff Baker who can hit righties, and hit ’em well. Dare I say it–he might even be a poor man’s Mark DeRosa.
And here’s where it gets interesting Cubs fans. If he can bring the hot bat with him to Chicago next week–and that’s a big if–then the trade rumors swirling around Marlon Byrd, Jeff Baker, and Blake DeWitt take on an instant credibility. I like Byrd, but none of those guys are vital to this Cubs team, especially if they can bring back anything of value in a trade. And when you figure there’s got to be a market for Randy Wells–who appears to be to the odd man out of our rotation–you might be able to package him with Byrd or one of our utility guys for something more than spare parts. It’s clear Theo and Jed have the long view in mind even as the season is about to start, and if Mather can keep it going he gives them plenty of flexibility.
We’ll see next week–next week!–whether he can be more than just a Spring Training surprise. In the meantime, expect an announcement from the Cubs–possibly as soon as today–that he’ll be on the 25-man roster. He’s earned it.
ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS – (Last Year: 94-68) – What a difference a year makes. Last March, informed opinion had Arizona slated for a third successive trip to the cellar in the NL West. Informed opinion proved wildly wrong, as the Diamondbacks won the division by a comfortable eight games over the reigning World Series champion Giants. Now, there’s no flying under the radar, and the team is trying to repeat, a difficult task in the NL West, which has only seen back-to-back wins by the same team three times since 1993. Most of the Arizona play-off roster is back, but they added another pitcher in Trever Cahill and signed outfielder Jason Kubel as a free-agent, so on balance, the team would seem a little stronger than last year, particularly in a rotation which, 1-5, is likely as good as any in the NL.
There are still some question-marks. SS Stephen Drew seems likely to miss the start of the season. and the offensive production drop-off from him to Willie Bloomquist is significant. Can players like Ryan Roberts, Gerardo Parra and Miguel Montero repeat the career seasons from 2010? Is Paul Goldschmidt the player Arizona has been missing at first-base? But in their favor, is that none of their rivals have apparently taken any major steps forward either this winter. The team has a lot of pitching depth, with young prospects like Trevor Bauer ready to step up in the event of injury or ineffectiveness, and with Kirk Gibson managing the team, you know they will be giving 100% at all times. They were perhaps somewhat lucky to win 94 games last season – their record in one-run contests was fortunate – but should still be the team to beat in the division. Prediction: 90 wins. ~ Jim McLennan (www.azsnakepit.com)
COLORADO ROCKIES – (Last Year: 73-89) – This offseason, it seems like the Rockies ditched statistical analysis all together. Every single move made – and there were a lot – was driven by a concept of team culture and accountability. Gone is a three win catcher with a .370 OBP. Apparently, Iannetta didn’t “get it” and neither did Seth Smith, Huston Street, Matt Lindstrom, Jason Hammel, or even Ubaldo for that matter. Now, the Rockies have a couple of nice prospects, Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, and a bunch of fly ball pitchers that probably are a bad idea considering Coors, even with the humidor, is still one of the most prodigious hitters’ parks in all of baseball. Oh, and they grossly overpaid for the aging Michael Cuddyer. It’s been a frustrating few months and only the slick deal to get Marco Scutaro has saved the offseason from being a total disaster.
However, even with Dan O’Dowd’s atrocious performance these past few months, the Rockies still have a chance to contend this year. Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez really are that good. Plus, the rest of the NL West didn’t exactly light it on fire this offseason. If Juan Nicasio can build off last year, Jorge De La Rosa can return from Tommy John, and Jhoulys Chacin can replicate what he did right at the beginning of 2011, the Rox could make a run at the division or the wild card. Still, I think too much has to go right. They’ll be competitive and fun to watch at home, but they’re probably going to be weak on the road again. My official prediction is 80 wins, slightly better than last year but not good enough to get in the playoffs. ~ Logan Burdine (www.blakestreetbulletin.com)
LOS ANGELES DODGERS – (Last Year: 82-79) – With a sale of the team scheduled to occur by the end of April, the Dodgers enter the 2012 season hoping to put an era of ownership chaos quickly behind them. Despite playing better than .600 ball for the final two months of 2011, pennant hopes have been kept in check for the time being coming off a treadmill-like offseason in which the most celebrated moves were contract extensions for Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. Hiroki Kuroda has gone to New York, and concerns linger over offense in a number of slots in the lineup.
However, the ifs upon which the Dodgers’ coming season depends aren’t completely implausible. If Dee Gordon, James Loney and Juan Rivera get off to decent starts, if Aaron Harang can essentially replace Kuroda, if the Dodgers can remain in contention until more of their promising young pitchers are ready, if new ownership is ready to attack the midseason trading deadline, it could be the Dodgers in the end hoisting an NL West pennant. And if nothing else, it will be interesting to see what Kemp and Kershaw do following their starmaking seasons of a year ago. ~ Jon Weisman (www.dodgerthoughts.com)
SAN DIEGO PADRES – (Last Year: 71-91) – The Padres revamped their roster with a flurry of activity this winter. Gone are Mat Latos, Aaron Harang, Brad Hawpe, Chad Qualls, and Heath Bell. Here are Mark Kotsay, John Baker, Hutson Street, Carlos Quentin, Yonder Alonso, Edinson Volquez, and Andrew Cashner.
On paper this team is better than the 2011 squad. Still, they have very little margin for error, and in order to compete for the NL West title (or even a wild card) San Diego will need to recapture the formula of 2010 – great pitching, good defense, just enough offense.
The bullpen should be up to the task. Street anchors the back. Cashner, Ernesto Frieri, and Luke Gregerson will work as set-up men. LOOGY Joe Thatcher is healthy, and Anthony Bass should return as the long man. The starting rotation, however, is full of question marks. Tim Stauffer and Cory Luebke should be as good or better than they were in 2011, but the rest of the rotation is recovering from off-season surgery. Heck Volquez had his 2 years ago and is still recovering. Clayton Richard’s and Dustin Moseley’s ability to throw six good innings per start will drive this season.
The defense has a chance to be great. San Diego desperately needs bounce-back years from SS Jason Bartlett and 2B Orlando Hudson. Both ranked at or near the bottom of the league defensively by Dewan plus/minus, after consistently being in the top third of the league for years. A league average effort from them is key for a team so reliant on shut-down pitching. Cameron Maybin (CF) and Will Venable (RF) can go get it as well as anyone in the league. Corner men Chase Headley (3B) and Alonso (1B) are solid, and Quentin should be fine in LF assuming he fully recovers from recent arthroscopic surgery on his right meniscus.
On offense, Quentin’s power will give them the thumper they lacked last season. The biggest question in the lineup is how will manager Bud Black get Jesus Guzman’s bat in on a regular basis. Guzman was the best Padre hitter (by OPS+) last year, and does not have a full-time position in 2012. The good news is he’ll be playing LF for 2 weeks until Quentin returns; the bad – where does he play after that?
Headley (who should hit leadoff and probably won’t), Maybin, and catcher Nick Hundley will key the attack. Personally I’m excited to see how Alonso’s gap-to-gap power plays at Petco; he could have a huge year.
It’s a better roster than last year’s, but it’s still 2 years away from really contenting. San Diego will need to catch lightning in a bottle to climb out of the NL West basement. ~ Mike Metzger (www.padrestrail.blogspot.com)
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS – (Last Year: 86-76) – The bulk of the Giants’ offseason activity consisted of the acquisitions of a pair of outfielders, Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, who are essentially solid everyday players with reasonable upside. They won’t be offensive saviors for a team that could use some serious offensive reconstruction, but their bats will certainly add something to the lineup. Cabrera, after all, hit .305/.339/.470 (121 OPS+) last year; a lot of that performance has been attributed to improved conditioning, and if that is in fact the case — to some extent — then the Giants have reason to be hopeful about the kind of contributions he’ll make in 2012 (as he’s in good shape this year as well). And as for Angel Pagan: his 2011 season certainly looked lackluster on the surface, but he was ultimately a touch below league average with the bat (93 OPS+), and he did happen to set career bests in BB% and K%. With the addition of these two, improved health, some better luck with runners in scoring positions, and a few hundred extra plate appearances for Brandon Belt, San Francisco’s lineup could certainly make the leap from “terrible” to “bearable.” If it does all work out with the lineup — and, of course, this is an “if”-laden team — they’re in okay shape.
The rotation, headed by Tim Lincecum, is still magnificent. He’s now compiled 200+ strikeouts in four consecutive seasons, recording a 144 ERA+ over that span. Matt Cain, meanwhile, is coming off what is arguably the best season of his career: 222 innings, an almost-career-high 2.84 K/BB, and just nine homers in total. That was good for a 2.91 FIP, which is by far the lowest mark he’s posted to date. Then we get to Madison Bumgarner, who finished fourth in the majors in FIP at age 21. As of now, he looks like a pretty solid candidate for the 2012 NL Cy Young Award, which says a lot for such a young guy. There’s a steep dropoff from here to the back of the rotation, where the Giants will probably hand most of their starts to Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito, and Eric Surkamp. Vogelsong is a longshot to repeat his 2011 success, but there’s little reason to believe he can’t be a solid #4 starter. Neither Zito nor Surkamp are safe bets to perform well, but the Giants should ultimately be able to get enough out of the fifth spot.
The bullpen is another strong point, and the Giants made sure to keep it that way this offseason, bringing back lefties Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt. Brian Wilson impressed during the Giants’ championship run (1.81 ERA in 75 innings in 2010), but he struggled last year while pitching through injuries (most notably, his K/BB dipped from 3.58 to 1.74). Needless to say, if he can regain some of that 2010 dominance, the Giants’ bullpen is in good shape. It’s impossible to discuss their ‘pen without mentioning the most talented of the bunch, however: Sergio Romo. He did a bajillion amazing things last year (seriously, I suggest you peruse his stats), but the simplest way to illustrate his performance is simply by noting the basics: 48 innings, 70 strikeouts, four unintentional walks.
There’s a lot of uncertainty throughout the roster, but the Giants (especially with the advent of a second wild card) have a pretty good shot at another postseason berth. ~ Julian Levine (www.sfgiantsnirvana.com)
CINCINNATI REDS – (Last Year: 79-83) – As everyone knows, this was a big offseason for the Reds. The acquisitions of Sean Marshall, Ryan Madson, and especially Mat Latos have remade the pitching staff. Equally notable, though not as much on the radar, are significant changes at left, short, and catcher. Zack Cozart will be the starting shortstop unless he falls on his face (and unless he does fall on his face, he’ll be an improvement over what they had last year). The other rookie on the team is top-prospect Devin Mesoraco who will take over at least half of the catching duties. The various projection systems like him a lot and he should be at least a league-average catcher. In left, Chris Heisey will share time with retread and Jocketty’s ex-Cardinal signing of the year, Ryan Ludwick.
Beyond the mostly-positive turnover, there are plenty of other reasons for Reds’ fans to be hopeful. The team underperformed in every sense of the word last year. They won 79 games while posting the run-differential of an 83-win team. Among position players, the Reds could easily see improvement at all three outfield positions, shortstop and third base, while they only figure to seriously regress at second as Phillips comes off his career year. On the mound, it’s impossible to overstate the disappointment that was the Reds’ rotation last year. Latos figures to be a huge improvement over Volquez and Wood who combined, threw roughly a season’s worth of innings.
In the end, the Reds are a team with very little downside. They showed last year how bad they can be and it wasn’t that bad. They’re better this year, and I’d be surprised if they don’t win at least 90 games. If you want me to take an exact number, I’ll predict the Reds to in 93 (and the division) in 2012. ~ Jason Linden (www.redlegnation.com)
HOUSTON ASTROS – (Last Year: 56-106) – It’s been a busy off-season for the Astros, though mostly with changes that will not be seen on the field. With the sale to Jim Crane completed, the tenure of Ed Wade finally and mercifully done, and the Astros on the precipice of moving to the American League, there is a massive upheaval in Houston right now. Unfortunately for the Astros, none of those moves are going to shake out to any success in the near future. They have made a number of small but nice and affordable moves, bringing in Jack Cust and Justin Riggiano to provide help off the bench, bringing in Chris Snyder to help with their banged up catching corp, and giving spring training invitations to Zach Duke and Livan Hernandez to compete for fifth spot in a very troubled rotation.
But the most important addition for this young team may be the return of catcher Jason Castro, who missed all of 2011 with an ACL tear. His bat hasn’t come around to major league caliber yet, but he’s strong defensively and the pitchers seem to respond well to him. He could be crucial in the attempted turnaround of the pitching staff, which followed a very good 2010 by being near-last in the league in every major category (ERA, WHIP, quality starts, shutouts) in 2011. The Astros are young all over the place except on the pitching staff. If they are going to not have the worst record in the league again, they need to get veteran performances out of Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and J.A. Happ. That’s a tough group to lean on and as much as I like Wandy, not a group very deserving of having a lot of faith placed in them. The Astros have a promising future with all of their youth, but I don’t think they climb out of the cellar this year. With a little more stability this year than last, they improve, but not by much. The second-worst season the Astros have had after 2011 was 65 wins, so that’s what I’m predicting. 65 wins and the Astros leave the NL Central as a last-place team. ~ Austin Swafford (www.astros290.com)
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS – (Last Year: 90-72) – For most teams, losing a player like Albert Pujols would seriously dampen the outlook of returning to the playoffs. But the World Champion Cardinals have enough remaining talent and new additions to make realistic the expectations of repeating a postseason berth. They signed Carlos Beltran, resigned Rafael Furcal and Lance Bekman and have ace starter Adam Wainwright returning to the rotation after missing all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery. That should be enough to offset the loss of Pujols and help them repeat or come close to a 90-win campaign.
The only questions will be health — Beltran, Berkman, Furcal, as well as regulars like David Freese and Allen Craig, who is already slated to open the season on the DL, all are far from money in the bank in terms of playing time. The rotation, with Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia leading the way, can be the best in the league, but again questions of durability and the loss of pitching coach Dave Duncan may take a toll. Win projection: 89. ~ Matt Philip (www.fungoes.net)
PITTSBURGH PIRATES – (Last Year: 72-90) – The Pittsburgh Pirates made some noise in 2011 as they were actually tied for the division lead as late as July 25th. They were 16 games out a month later. They went 19-43 from July 26th on. Alas they are moving in the right direction and GM Neal Huntington had himself a fine offseason in the hopes of again making some noise in the NL Central not just in 2012, but beyond. Perhaps the most important move was the most recent one as the team inked Andrew McCutchen to an excellent long-term deal spanning six years with a team option for a seventh. That move no doubt goes a long toward showing the fan base, the current team members and prospective free agents that this management team is serious about putting together a winner.
He shored up the rotation with the addition of a couple of guys who can actually miss some bats Erik Bedard (8.8 K/9) and A.J. Burnett (8.2 K/9), though the latter suffered a freak eye injury in Spring Training and could miss up two months of the regular season. Strikeouts were in short supply in the rotation last year as the Pirates finished dead last in baseball with a 5.6 K/9 as James McDonald (7.5 K/9) was the only starter to log a rate above 5.8. Both investments were cost efficient, too. Bedard came over on a 1-year, $4.5 million dollar deal while Burnett came over via trade for a couple of a low level prospects along with the Yankees paying $20 million of his remaining $33 million dollars over the next two years.
The team also added a handful of low-cost offensive players capable of moving the needle incrementally in 2012 including Clint Barmes who brings top level defense to shortstop and above average bat for the position (.698 OPS for Barmes, average OPS of .686 for NL shortstops in 2011). Casey McGehee was a well above average third baseman offensively for two years from 2009-2010 with a combined .291/.346/.477 line, a 119 OPS+ and 39 home runs. He fell off the cliff in 2011 with a .626 OPS and just 13 home runs in 600 plate appearances, but he gives the Pirates a viable insurance plan if Pedro Alvarez fails again in 2012. The Pirates registered a league-worst .263 wOBA out of their third basemen so betting on McGehee to rebound isn’t a bad idea.
On paper this team isn’t really a contender, but they have a chance to be markedly better than last year if things go according to plan. Things like: Alvarez meeting his potential or at least not being one of the very worst players in the game (56 OPS+), Burnett returning from his injury as soon as possible and pitching like the above average pitcher he has been over his 13 year career (105 ERA+), Alex Presley playing a full season on par with his 52 game sample last year (.804 OPS) and his last two years in the minors (.867 OPS in 948 plate appearances) and Jose Tabata playing like the three-time top 100 prospect that showed so much promise in the minors.
Help is on the way, too, as the Pirates logged five guys on Keith Law’s top 100 list (Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman) and six on Kevin Goldstein’s (Luis Heredia). The streak of 19 straight losing seasons may not come to a halt in 2012, but there is at least a reasonable chance for it to happen and even if it doesn’t, there is a bright future to actually be excited about both with current young stars and blue chip prospects who have sky-high ceilings. I predict 79 wins. ~ Paul Sporer (www.pittplank.com)
MILWAUKEE BREWERS – (Last Year: 96-66) – The Milwaukee Brewers return most of the key parts from a team that won 96 games and narrowly missed the World Series in 2011, with one key exception: Prince Fielder signed a huge contract with the Tigers this offseason and won’t be seen back at Miller Park in a Brewer uniform anytime soon.
Even with that departure, though, this team is still primed to compete again in 2012. The left side of the infield has been revamped with Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez replacing 2011 weak spots Casey McGehee and Yuniesky Betancourt, the rotation returns in tact and features a bit more depth, and the bullpen is very strong after the surprise return of Francisco Rodriguez left the Brewers with one of the game’s best setup men.
And, of course, having reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun for a full season is certainly a relief. I don’t think we’ll ever know the full story regarding what happened with his positive test, but he’s a player with nearly a decade of clean tests to fall back on so it seems unfair to let one test under questionable circumstances become a defining moment for him. I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he’s going to have a lot of pressure on him to produce given all the attention he attracted this winter.
I don’t think it’s fair to expect any team to win 96 games in back-to-back seasons, but on paper this is still a really good Brewer team. I’d pencil them in for something around 90-72, and I think there’s a strong chance that’s good enough to repeat as NL Central champs. ~ Kyle Lobner (www.brewcrewball.com)
When the 2011 season ended, every Cubs fan had a list of players and front office types they never wanted to see anywhere near the team again. Some lists were longer than others, but many of them–including mine–featured starting pitcher Rodrigo Lopez.
Lopez was a classic Jim Hendry pickup. The Cubs traded for him in May to help bolster an injury-ravaged starting rotation. After working out of the bullpen for most of June, he settled into the fifth spot in the rotation, making a total of sixteen starts. He was generally unremarkable–never so bad that he’d be dropped from the team, but never good enough to secure a long term job. And as a thirty-six year old journeyman, he was not the answer to any of the questions facing the Cubs at the end of the season.
So why are we talking about him now?
Because the Sean Marshall trade and the apparent promotion of Jeff Samardzija have left the Cubs with few options in the bullpen. And while Lopez never really had a shot to win a starting job, he seems suited to fill in as the Cubs’ long reliever/spot starter.
Think about it this way–I don’t necessarily want him taking the mound to start a game, but I won’t mind him taking the ball when Ryan Dempster can’t get through the second inning, or when Samardzija uses up his thirty-five pitches before the fifth. Someone has to eat those innings, and it might as well be Lopez. And with all the new faces we’re apparently going to see in the bullpen this season, it won’t be the worst thing to have a long-relief guy we know and (relatively) trust.
Would it be nice to have a better pitcher in that spot? Sure, but my guess is that if Randy Wells isn’t one of our starters, he’ll be trade bait. And no one wants to cement Travis Wood as a flameout in a thankless role when he could be getting useful experience in the minors. So who does that leave? That’s right–Senor Roster Vacuum Filler himself, Rodrigo Lopez.
Much like the rest of the 2012 Cubs, it could be better, it could be worse. Who else has Opening Day Fever?
PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES – (Last Year: 102-60) – As a 102 win team retaining most of their players, the Phillies had two primary tasks for this offseason: fill the vacant shortstop position, and hammer out an extension with star left-hander Cole Hamels. They accomplished the former, bringing back veteran Jimmy Rollins on a very reasonable 3 year, $33 million deal. They elected to table the Hamels issue with a one year, $15 million deal to avoid arbitration. Elsewhere, they made some formidable additions with deals that carried substantial risks. Jim Thome was acquired on the cheap, but in the National League he’ll be expected to carry the load at first base once or twice a week, and his back is cause for significant concern in that role. In place of the departing Ryan Madson, they inked one of the best relievers in the game in Jonathan Papelbon, but it cost them the largest-ever contract handed to a reliever, at a length of four or possibly five years. Ty Wigginton and Laynce Nix were brought on for positional depth in the infield and outfield, on the hopes that their bats can be passable for 200 or more plate appearances a piece.
Not surprisingly, the Phillies’ 2011 success was driven by the pitching staff. The frontline trio of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee provided 682 and 1/3rd innings of 2.51 ERA pitching, striking out nearly a quarter of the hitters they faced and walking less than 5 percent of them. The entire staff allowed just 529 runs, or 3.27 runs per game, 10th best among NL pitching staffs in the post-integration era. On the mound, the Phillies look to be elite again in 2012. Along with their top 3, Vance Worley will return and seek to build on his impressive rookie campaign, though he can expect his sophomore results to track more closely with his peripherals. The bullpen, now helmed by Papelbon, will otherwise be a carousel of young arms with varying potential and effectiveness. The most prominent of them, Antonio Bastardo, was one of the best young relievers in the league last season. He will join Mike Stutes, Michael Schwimer, Justin DeFratus, and David Herndon in a thrifty ensemble that should be more than sufficient in supplementing the elite starting rotation.
On the offensive side, the Phillies will fight a three front war against regression, injury, and ineffectiveness. Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino both had the best year of their careers last season with the bat, but the former will not repeat his .361 BABIP in 2012, and the latter faces the formidable challenge of sustaining the serious power surge he underwent in 2011. With Raul Ibanez bound for the Bronx, and Domonic Brown the apparent organizational pariah, John Mayberry, Jr. will likely see substantial starting time in left field. He must uphold his success from last season, a level of productivity that neither scouting nor statistics had portended in his prior major or minor league experience. On the health front, Chase Utley will be treated with renewed caution in the hopes that he can rebound from 2011 and approach his former output. Ryan Howard, already having experienced a set back in his recovery from Achilles surgery, is sure to be on the shelf for at least the month of April. And Jimmy Rollins always has the potential to miss some time. Placido Polanco will once again provide excellent defense on the left corner of the infield, but his bat has not been a factor for either of his previous two seasons with the Phillies. Philadelphia’s offense, in terms of runs per game, was slightly above average in 2011, which is more than enough to support a pitching staff of their caliber. But a bevy of injury risks and the inevitable decline attendant to having the oldest offense in the league bode poorly for them managing the same production in 2012.
With offensive regression and the improvements made by other teams in the division, one hundred or more wins doesn’t seem likely for the Phillies this season. They remain anchored by an elite pitching staff, though, and figure to post a win total in the mid-to-high nineties — favorites to once again win the NL East. ~ Ryan Sommers (www.crashburnallley.com)
NEW YORK METS – (Last Year: 77-85) – The New York Mets are facing a season based on low expectations. Ownership is in dire financial and legal trouble, which led to an historic reduction in payroll. No one in the organization is using the word “rebuilding,” perhaps because the correct term is “reducing;” it appears the Mets are cutting costs wherever and whenever possible.
Relievers Frankie Francisco, Ramon Ramirez, and Jon Rauch, and outfielder Andres Torres, were the most significant additions to the team. Torres slots into centerfield, an upgrade defensively over Angel Pagan. Francisco, Ramirez, and Rauch are expected to solidify the bullpen, one of the club’s weak spots in 2011. Youngsters Ruben Tejada and Lucas Duda have the tall task of filling big shoes left behind by Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. Team executives are hoping against hope that Johan Santana can return from shoulder surgery, Jason Bay can become a feared slugger again, and Daniel Murphy can play second base; even if all three things happen, the Mets are still likely to finish in last place.
Expect to see a Mets offense that can get on base but is unable to push baserunners across home plate and a defense that is fundamentally flawed and not equipped to assist a pitching staff that pitches to contact. Additionally, with the additional Wild Cards, the Mets may be the center of attention at the July 31 trading deadline, as they’ll likely be one of the few “sellers,” offering veterans such as Bay, Murphy, Mike Pelfrey, and David Wright. I predict 68 wins this season. ~ Joe Janish (www.metstoday.com)
ATLANTA BRAVES – (Last Year: 89-73) – I expect the team to win 91 games this year. They have been around that mark each of the past two years and ran into some very unfortunate issues toward the tail end of last season. They have a very similar roster in terms of key players heading into this year, and the only differences from this year’s opening day roster and last year’s will be Bourn in center, Pastornicky at short, and Mike Minor in the rotation right out of camp.
Frank Wren felt confident that the team that had an 8.5 game lead in September is good enough to make it to the playoffs, and I agree that keeping the roster in tact was a wise decision. They still have the ability to make trades during the year, which should help them solidify their roster mid-season. ~ Ben Duronio (www.capitolavenueclub.com)
MIAMI MARLINS – (Last Year: 72-90) – The Marlins excited the baseball world this past winter by inking three top-tier free agents: Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes & Heath Bell. Although the roster is unquestionably improved, the Marlins still find themselves with a tough hill to climb, especially when you factor in the improvement — at least on paper — of their division rivals, the Nationals and Phillies.
That said, there is expected to be a new atmosphere within the Marlins clubhouse, which has now been relocated to the new state of the art ballpark in Downtown Miami, and optimism in the Marlins front office has certainly been expressed.
A healthy Hanley Ramirez could go an especially long way in pushing the Fish over the .500 hump, possibly even netting a post-season spot. However, it’s a difficult division and the Marlins, who have little leverage need to take advantage of each and every game if they plan on competing this year. I predict 84 wins. ~ David Gershman (www.marlinsdaily.com)
WASHINGTON NATIONALS – (Last Year: 80-81) – For a team that has been mired in misery for the past half-decade, you might have forgiven the Nationals if they called it a day after finishing with 80 wins. The injury returns (Steven Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman), potential bouncebacks (Jayson Werth), and emerging superstars (Bryce Harper) alone would have likely made the team a game or two better in 2012. But instead of waiting one more season, the Nats went for it. They dealt 4 prospects for Gio Gonzalez, signed Brad Lidge and Edwin Jackson, and made an attempt to lure Prince Fielder to DC. Is that enough to make the Nats a playoff team?
Probably not. The Nats pitching should be fantastic. Strasburg looked like he returned to form in his brief stint at the end of last year and spots 3-5 are going to be manned by guys that would be a slot higher on most other teams. Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Lannan/Wang are not old, if not outright young, and likely to give the Nats decent innings. The bullpen was great last season, with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen manning the back end and Lidge or an emerging Henry Rodriguez could make it lights-out. In total, it’s likely to be one of the better staffs in the NL. The offense, though, could be an issue. With the failure to land Fielder or a productive CF, they are dependent on a lot of question marks to get better. Not only do they need a whole year from Zimmerman and a bounce back one from Werth, but they need Mike Morse’s 2011 not to be a fluke. They need Adam LaRoche to recover from his injury lost season. They need Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos to keep improving. They need Ian Desmond and whoever mans center (likely Rick Ankiel) to not be black holes in the lineup. Individually you might say each of these is likely to happen, but having most of them turn out in the Nats favor is a lot to ask. An early call-up of Bryce Harper could help, but unless he is everything immediately the team will need a lot to go right.
The second wild card is a godsend for this team as they just don’t have the base talent to improve another 10 games or so that they need to get the first one. Seven games or so? Now that’s doable. Still I see the team falling just short. I’ll say 85 wins right now, with the Bryce Harper 2013 season looking like the break through year for this squad. ~ Harper Gordek (www.natsbaseball.blogspot.com)