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LBS 2011 MLB Preview: AL Central

March 7, 2011 1 comment
SURPRISE, AZ - FEBRUARY 25:  Pitcher Luke Hochevar #44 of the Kansas City Royals poses for a portrait during Spring Training Photo Day on February 25, 2007 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

LiveBall’s Previews of the 2011 MLB Season begins right in it’s own backyard with a look at the American League’s most tightly packed division, a worst to first description of all the contenders.  And, yes, the Indians and the Royals as well.

5) Cleveland Indians (projected finish: 66-96)

The Indians’ second rebuilding project since their appearance in the 2007 ALCS began much earlier than expected, and was officially brought in by the seemingly natural front office progression of the promotion of hotshot candidate Chris Antonetti to the role of General Manger, with former GM Mark Shapiro taking on the title of “President of Baseball Operations.”  That doesn’t make it immediately clear who will be doing what, but the Indians message for their fans is clear: it’s Antonetti’s show now.

Cleveland’s best asset is its deep farm system, although they lack the bevy of top prospects of the next team on this list.  They have two proven major league regulars in OF Chin-Soo Chu, and OF Grady Sizemore, another to-be regular in second year C Carlos Santana, and then will rely on whatever contributions slow-to-develop OF/1B Matt LaPorta and longtime DH Travis Hafner can give them.

That’s a decent core to build a team around, but unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Chu, Sizemore, or Hafner will be around for the next AL Central-contending Indians team.  LaPorta is increasingly less likely to develop as a power hitter as the weeks pass, and while Hafner rebounded in 2010 for his best season since 2007, he’s 34 now.

The Indians don’t have much by way of pitching, with the erratic Fausto Carmona at the top of their rotation, and the bullpen unsettled, to put it kindly.  This is a problem when you consider the lacking quality of the Indians’ team defense, notably at the hard to fill positions of centerfield, and shortstop.  Former Red Sox prospect Justin Masterson still has some potential to help the rotation, but the rest of the help may still be a year away.  The race for worst pitching staff in the AL Central between the Indians and Royals could be as fascinating as the farm-arms race that will occur between the two clubs in years to come.

4) Kansas City Royals (projected finish: 71-91)

Its going to be just one more year of bad baseball in Kansas City, although the real question is whether or not the product that follows 17 years of bad baseball was worth waiting for.  That’s hard to say.

The Royals could have competed in 2011, but would have needed to hold onto RF David DeJesus, and RHP Zack Greinke to do so, and probably would have needed to add a pricy bat or arm in free agency, and even then, the Royals would only have been a fringe contender for the AL Central.  That would have been more costly when you factor in the additional cost of keeping Greinke happy: holding on to veterans signed last year instead of shedding salary at the trading deadline of a non-competitive team.  Instead the team made the wise “money” move, and traded DeJesus and Greinke for whatever they could get, essentially ending the team’s hopes of competing this year before spring training started.  On the bright side, payroll is down under $35 million this year (thanks to the unexpected retirement of Gil Meche and his $12 million), and only Billy Butler has a guaranteed contract beyond this season.

The teams best player is closer Joakim Soria, but the real reason to expect the Royals to be better than last year despite losing their top position player and best pitcher is the quality of the teams defense.  The Royals were horrid last year at preventing runs in games not started by Greinke or Bruce Chen, and they were horrid despite some defense-independent pitching improvement from third starter Kyle Davies.  Brian Bannister has been jettisoned to Japan, Chen has been resigned, and the Royals added former Rockie left-hander Jeff Francis to replace Greinke.

The team defense will be the reason for improvement in the run prevention unit.  Going from Yuni Betancourt to Alcides Escobar at short is a two or three win upgrade, essentially the difference between Greinke and Francis.  Third base will be a defensive strength, at least until Mike Moustakas arrives in the majors (a day which no Royals fan is dreading), as will second with a continuation of a Chris Getz/Mike Aviles platoon.  First base will be average at best, but an Alex Gordon, Mitch Maier/Melky Cabrera/Lorenzo Cain, Jeff Francouer outfield has the potential to be the best defensive outfield in years for KC.  And that’s without stalwart defender DeJesus.

No matter what, an offense with Francouer, Jason Kendall, Melky Cabrera, Getz, Escobar, and possibly even Pedro Feliz is going to struggle to simply not be the lowest run producing offense in the AL (but thanks for trying, Seattle), and the bats the Royals will rely on this year don’t have a particularly impressive MLB track record (exception: Butler).  That’s why its a minority prediction to suggest the Royals will actually be closer to .500 than to 100 losses.  But improved team defense will make the rotation look better, and as long as Joakim Soria is healthy, the Royals will win a disproportional amount of close games, making this a justifiable prediction.

3) Detroit Tigers (projected finish: 79-83)

There’s plenty of optimism coming out of Lakeland this spring, if for a moment, we can ignore the fact that the team’s best player Miguel Cabrera has a serious issue with alcohol.  The latest bout isn’t career threatening, necessarily, but while similarity scores view him as a player who will be a star into his late thirties, that’s the kind of projection that could be cut short by alcohol abuse.  Cabrera was named the best hitter in baseball by LiveBall Sports last July, in the midst of Albert Pujols’ one seemingly human season in the last eight.  Cabrera hit better than Pujols in 2010, though not quite better than AL MVP Josh Hamilton, although their batting runs above average were practically identical.

The argument is not that Cabrera is the best player in baseball, as he’s a well below average defender at a non-premium position.  Pujols is a great defender, and a far superior baserunner as well.  Cabrera is the most dangerous player in baseball with a bat in his hands.  And alcohol threatens to shorten his run of dominance with the bat.

The Tigers will enter 2010 with the division’s best rotation, including Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Brad Penny, and Max Scherzer, and they will have plenty of firearms in the bullpen as well.  Whether they actually finish the year with the best rotation in the division depends on the quality of work of White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, and the health of all these flamethrowers the Tigers employ.

The team’s biggest offseason acquisition was Catcher Victor Martinez, a legitimate middle of the order bat, if not the best defensive catcher on the team (that would be second year man, Alex Avila).  Both figure to see more than 350 PAs this year.  CF Austin Jackson and RF Magglio Ordonez will make up two thirds of the Tigers starting outfield, and Brandon Inge returns as the regular third baseman, but the rest of the lineup will be a series of unimpressive platoons and week-to-week sketch ups by manager Jim Leyland.  Inge and Jackson are both excellent defenders, and supersub Don Kelly’s glove will play at any position, but this is not a great defensive team, and Martinez won’t do anything to solve those issues.  Put simply, the bats must rank near the top of the AL for Detroit to win the AL Central.

2) Chicago White Sox (projected finish: 86- 78)

The White Sox should be better than last year for the same reason the Royals should be better than last year.  They made one huge improvement at the weakest position on the team.  Some of the plate appearances that were engulfed by Juan Pierre this year will belong to Adam Dunn, who should make his home nicely in the bandbox that is US Cellular Field.  A second improvement should come from rookie 3B Brent Morel, who if not an offensive improvement, will certainly provide defensive improvement to Mark Teahen and Dayan Viciedo.

The rotation of John Danks, Mark Buerhle, Gavin Floyd, Jake Peavy, and Edwin Jackson offers the deepest rotation in the AL, with the most potential upside of any rotation west of Tampa/east of Oakland.  Peavy, Floyd, and Jackson all offer value that is more speculative than the established contributions of Buerhle and Danks.

Unquestionably, however, the strength of the White Sox in the infield gives way to one of the thinnest outfields in the majors.  Left to right, the starters are Pierre, Alex Rios, and Carlos Quentin.  Quentin can’t play the field very well, but the Dunn acqusition makes him a full timer out there.  Rios was above average in center last year, but is still stretched kind of thin in center.  He’d offer more defensive value in a corner.  Pierre at least won’t be playing any DH this year, and played a good left field last season, but it’s not a position his bat can handle.  Teahen should see playing time in both left and right field.

If the staff and bullpen goes through the expected development and has the Sox competing near the top of the league in most pitching candidates, the Sox could be big-name buyers at the deadline on an outfielder.  They should be in this race longer than the Tigers, but without additional help in the lineup, the White Sox are destined to come up short, and in a worst case scenario, could find themselves selling at the deadline.

1) Minnesota Twins (projected finish: 90-72)

The Twins remain one of the best teams in baseball.  They were able to retain key contributors Jim Thome and Carl Pavano from their free agent class.  There are only two troubling things about this Twins team: first, that Justin Morneau still isn’t asymptomatic from a concussion suffered last July.  Secondly, that without Morneau, the Twins will play a very, very watered down group of infielders, one that will be tough to win with.

The Twins have had a long standing issue with outfield defense.  Last year, the trio of Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Delmon Young combined to produce -29 UZR (runs), a staggering figure for guys playing in three positions.  The trio is back this year.

Minnesota was able to mitigate that a bit with excellent infield defense from JJ Hardy, Danny Valencia, Nick Punto, Orlando Hudson, and a great first half with the glove from Morneau.  Of the five names, only Valencia is likely to be good to go on opening day.  Gone are Hardy, Punto, and Hudson.  Japanese signee Tsuyoshi Nishioka will take over at the keystone.  Alexi Casilla is sliding over to shortstop, the only position on the diamond where his bat profiles.  His glove may project there after all, but the Twins ask so much out of their infield defenders to make up for that outfield defense.  They also must rely on Denard Span to have another strong year with the glove in center.

The Twins might have jettisoned their role contributors while holding onto dead weight, such as Cuddyer.  That’s the concern with them.  But an offense that produced enough runs to be at the top of the AL last year — led by all-world catcher Joe Mauer — should pull off the same feat again with even greater ease this year.  The Minnesota pitching staff is unimpressive on paper, but very underrated as a group.  Joe Nathan returns in the closer role this year, strengthening the entire bullpen.

My Twins projection is depressed a bit not because the team won’t be improved at all, but because the White Sox, Royals, and Indians are all improving, and part of the effect of 94 wins by the Twins last year were simply poor in-division competition from teams that weren’t the Detroit Tigers.  The four game margin of victory in the AL Central probably understates how the Twins won’t have to make a deadline trade to win this division comfortably.

Zack Greinke Trade Makes the Brewers, but Does it Break the Royals?

December 20, 2010 Leave a comment
July 21, 2010: Starting pitcher Zack Greinke  of the Kansas City Royals delivers a pitch during a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. The Royals won 5-2.

The arms race is on in the National League, although the participants aren’t exactly numerous.  It’s the Phillies, it’s the Brewers, and it’s everyone else.

Just a week after Cliff Lee re-joined the Philadelphia Phillies for nine figures of charity, the Kansas City Royals traded their ace, Greinke, to the Brewers for a package of players including OF Lorenzo Cain, RP Jeremy Jeffress, and SS Alcedies Escobar.  Greinke will make $27 million from the Brewers over the next two seasons before becoming a free agent in November of 2012.

It’s a no-brainer trade for the Brewers.  Some may question the wisdom of acquiring SS Yuniesky Betancourt in the same deal to be their starting shortstop: you now have to find a way to generate last year’s run production with Carlos Gomez in CF and Betancourt at SS.  That’s not going to be easy.  But with Greinke, the Brewers sport a rotation that rivals the Phillies for the best rotation in the National League.  They already had an ace-type in Yovani Gallardo, and Greinke gives the Brewers a pair of aces.  When you talk about having Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, you certainly have to think you have the best front-of-the-rotation in baseball.  Greinke and Gallardo, if nothing else, have to be in the same discussion.  The acquisition of Shaun Marcum from the Blue Jays gives Milwaukee another front-line starter who, in the opinion of this writer, is better than National League-lifer Roy Oswalt.  While Randy Wolf is not going to provide the quality of Cole Hamels at his best, he’d be a no. 3 pitcher anywhere else.

Only the A’s and Giants may feature a rotation stronger than either the Brewers or the Phillies.  I don’t think the Rays or Twins or Tigers or White Sox — who all have strong and deep pitching rotations — quite qualify.  The edge for the Phillies over the Brewers this year will come by way of an established offense.  The Brewers are looking strong on offense again this year, but it’s a lot of speculative value: Prince Fielder should rebound, Mat Gamel and Casey McGahee should continue to produce.  Maybe Betancourt will hit more like he did in 2010 instead of his 2009 disaster season.  Gomez could still develop into a competent bat-handler.  2-6, the Brewers can absolutely clobber the baseball.  But this is not a great defensive team, and the Phillies are almost certain to be healthier than last year, even once you account for the fact that their lineup is aging.  The Brewers should be considered the favorite to win the NL Central in 2011, and in a playoff field, we’ll get to see the strength of another young, top-loaded rotation in baseball.

The other part of this trade is from the Royals perspective, where the haul received might only partially off-set what Greinke put the Royals through over the last five months.  This isn’t a particularly strong group of prospects.

What can be said in defense of this trade for the Royals is that 1) I firmly believe the timing was right: Greinke couldn’t pitch for the Royals again unless they were willing to let him walk at the end of the 2012 season in free agency.  2) If the Royals were going to trade with the prospect-depleted Brewers, they could not have done better than they did.  One exception is if the Royals had acted sooner and were able to acquire 2B Brett Lawrie, prior to him being dealt to the Blue Jays for Marcum.  The Royals recouped some value in terms of salary relief from Betancourt, saving $4 million of the $6 million he was owed.  In total, the Royals paid Betancourt $3 million for a season and a half, roughly breaking even on their investment.

I think, though, that the Brewers only made sense as a Royals trading partner from the Brewers perspective.  The Royals could have done better.  The centerpiece of this trade, if you want to call it that, is Escobar for Betancourt.  Big upgrade for the Royals, no doubt, but this was a Zack Greinke trade after all.  If this trade is to be profitable for the Royals, they will need to be able to look down on their division in 2013, and say that Escobar is an equal or better player to the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus.  I’m not optimistic.  Lorenzo Cain was a trade-able piece that the Brewers didn’t value very much, but knew the timing was right to sell on him.  He fills a need for the Royals, but doesn’t provide much value.

The Royals were able to grab the top two pitching prospects in the Brewers system, but the Brew Crew might actually be happy to be rid of the Jeremy Jeffress headache.  His upside appears to be a major league closer, leaving the Royals to gauge the future value of their current closer, Joakim Soria, by far their best pitcher.  Jeffress has two substance-abuse positive tests, and suspensions.  What strikes me about him is that it’s not clear that the Royals really even want him or think they can turn him into a star, but he’s the only player that would help get the Royals value.  The final piece is a really nice pitching prospect named Jake Odorizzi, who is about three years away from major league action.

Again, Escobar is THE prospect in this deal, and he fills the biggest need, and has likely the best upside.  He had a .288 on-base percentage for the Brewers last year.  That’s why this trade is less than exciting for the Royals.  I don’t doubt Escobar can be great someday, and I don’t doubt that he’s going to on-base over .310 this year.  But what the Royals lost was much more significant.  They traded their best player for some up the middle help.

I think, in the short term, this does break the Royals.  Billy Butler has three years remaining as a Royal, pending a contract extension.  He’s likely to remain in Royal blue though 2011, and then all bets are off after that.  He could be the next piece to fall.  I don’t see the Royals moving Joakim Soria anytime soon, as his contract sheds some light on a potential move to replace Greinke in the Royals rotation: there are 2012 bonuses built in for innings pitched, as well as games finished.  Plus, in trading Greinke now, the Royals were also smartly selling off some injury risk, which reports are were a fear of GM Dayton Moore in light of a season-ending David DeJesus injury that cost him a midseason trade last year.  The Royals have no such risk with Soria: most of his contract is built in in the form of contract options.  He’s team controlled through 2014, but the Royals can really stretch Soria out this year as a front line starter with very limited financial risk.

At the conclusion of the 2011 season, the Kansas City Royals will go practically overnight from one of the worst teams in baseball to one of the most promising.  The total amount of prorated salary the Royals have committed to major league contracts after 2011 is $4.5 million.  That’s for three pitchers (Joakim Soria, Aaron Crow, Noel Arguelles).  They had $15.5 million more committed prior to this trade to Betancourt and Greinke.  A majority of the Royals roster in 2012 is expected to be of cheap, home-grown players.  This isn’t rebuilding: it’s starting from scratch.

Which is why Greinke wanted nothing to do with the Royals anymore.  Paraphrasing his own words, Greinke had already been through two Royals rebuildings (2004 under Allard Baird, and again in 2007 under Dayton Moore).  Both GMs gave it the old college try, but could not find improvement that would satisfy their ace.  It was the humane thing to trade him, and the Brewers are a great situation for Greinke.

The loser here is the Royals.  There would have been other trade partners who would have offered the Royals more value than Moore got from the Brewers.  I think the Braves had more to offer, and so did the Rangers, among others.  The Brewers gave Moore as much as he needed to be willing to deal his ace.  This won’t go down in history as an epically bad trade.  But the Royals didn’t need to avert a conflict with their star so much as they needed to finally win something.  They are not the winner in this deal.  Greinke is.

Hillman’s use of Soria Reeks of Fear

July 19, 2009 1 comment

The Kansas City Royals are, pending today’s result, 0-5 against the Tampa Bay Rays this season.  That’s not all that surprising, in itself.  But what if I told you that, the Royals led three of those games at the end of seven innings?

The Royals have taken one run leads into each of the last three matchups with the reigning AL Champs, and they’ve blown saves all three times.  Most significantly, they haven’t been able to get the game to closer Joakim Soria, who was available to pitch in all three games.

Let’s assume that Soriawould have started the ninth inning in any situation where the team had a lead.  That might have been a stretch in the first game (June 3), becuase he would have pitched back to back days after coming off the DL.  It’s reasonable to expect that from the highest payed player in the bullpen, two consecutive pitching days, but you could make an argument that it’s not worth the potential risk.

Anyway, how often should a team be expected to get to the ninthinning witha lead when taking a one run lead into the eighth?  At least two out of three times is reasonable, no, the status quo.  It’s expected that most games that get that far should be converted into saves by the closer.  But you could argue that the Royals should actually be better than the status quo given the tool of Joakim Soria in the bullpen.

Blame for the failures of the team in this situation falls on both the players who are actually blowing the save (Jamey Wright, Juan Cruz, John Bale), but also on gross bullpen mismanagement by Royals manager Trey Hillman.  In defense of Hillman, he’s really got only three types of setup men to rely on: those who are posting out of character high home run rates, and those who are posting high home run rates that are perfectly in character, and those who walk so many batters that they can’t possibly be considered in these setup situations.

So, we’ve established that Hillman has his hands tied.  But we also know that if the problem is getting the game to Soria, the manager can choose to stretch his best reliever up to two innings to convert these close losses into wins.  It’s at least the logical conclusion for trying to convert those close games into wins.

Possible reasons that would prevent the manager from stretching his closer to a multi-inning role include the fact that it could limit options for pitching him in consecutive days, the need the establish a trust in the other members of his bullpen, and the decision to mitigate the risk of injury, choosing instead to pitch the player in a very standard role.  The motif that connects all these reasons: fear.

Fear of losing one’s job, of mortgaging the future for a win here or there, of losing the trust of the rest of the bullpen, of potentially limiting his options tomorrow.  Fear of failure, even if the right decision is made.

All those are legitimate reasons to avoid stretching your best reliever to his limits in order to convert those blown saves into saves.  But, in my opinion, they are also fears that are ignored by the best managers.  The best realize that their actions may have long term consequences, and make the decision in the best interest of the team anyway.  Trey Hillman may very well be treating 2009 as a lost season for his Royals, but if in a meaningless season, he’s too fearful of potential consequences to make the right decision, why would he be more likely to make the best decision in a situation with more scrutiny?

Instead of three potential wins, the Royals lost three games, and more embarrassingly, Soria did not pitch in any of them.  Not even in mop up.  Revisionist history might be screwing the Royals over here, and there’s nothing to suggest that if they once again fail to make the right decision, that the much-maligned bullpen won’t get it to Soria this time.  Anything can happen in baseball.

As I write this, the Royals currently lead the Rays by a score of 3-2 in the middle of the 7th inning.  It’s likely that the team, once again, will take a one-run lead into the eighth inning against the Rays for a 4th straight game.  And it’s probable that if they don’t learn from their past mistakes, they will once again lose to the Rays.  Ironically, it’s a different kind of fear that might save them: the fear of making the same mistake three days in a row.

But the damage has already been done.  The Royals play every game on the margins, and can not afford to blow as many saves as they do.  They need to treat every late inning lead like they are protecting it in the World Series, and only then will the team be properly managed.

UPDATED:  0-6.  Still no Soria.  What a crappy team.