MLB Preview: American League

We’re a full weekend into the baseball season, and NPI still hasn’t previewed the most important league! Don’t fret, though, John S is here to break it all down for you, and to make sure you don’t get fooled by Baltimore’s 3-0 start.

AL West

1. Oakland Athletics

2. Texas Rangers

3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

4. Seattle Mariners

So you’re on the A’s bandwagon? Yeah, and I’m not even going to pretend like I got on it particularly early. I was really just looking for someone to pick over the Rangers.

Why do you feel the need to mess with Texas? Well, I was early on the Rangers bandwagon, picking them to win the West at the beginning of 2010, so it’s not like I’m anti-Texas. This year, though, the defending AL champs are both overrated and underrated. They are underrated because people have inevitably focused on the loss of Cliff Lee this off-season; but while losing Lee is obviously big, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the Rangers were in first before trading for Lee last season, and that they likely would have won the division even without his acquisition (Lee was actually pretty mediocre for Texas in the regular season).

On the other hand, the Rangers are overrated because people tend to forget just how many of their players overachieved last year. Josh Hamilton had a great year, but it’s likely that his numbers will return to Earth in 2011. Even the Rangers’ biggest acquisition, Adrian Beltre, had an absurdly good season by his own standards last year. At 31, this indicates more that he was playing for a contract (which obviously worked) than that he’s suddenly entering his prime.

Even in their rotation, Texas has a lot of question marks. Tommy Hunter, who’s already expected to miss the first six weeks of 2011, had a very lucky 2010 by most advanced metrics, and Colby Lewis had by far the best season of his career. Meanwhile, the back of the rotation—Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando—has combined for 16 total starts. Ogando, who was only added to the rotation a few days ago, was not even a starter in the minor leagues. Even C. J. Wilson, their ace, is only one year removed from being in the bullpen.

Last year I largely picked the Rangers because the rest of the division was weak, but this year they’ll have more competition, specifically from Oakland.

Well, what’s so great about Oakland? That rotation. Everyone’s been discussing all the talent on that young rotation for a few years now, and this seems like the year it all clicks. The foursome of Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, and Dallas Braden all finally have at least one full year under their belt. Cahill was a legitimate Cy Young candidate last year, and Anderson and Gonzalez are probably better all-around pitchers than he is.

What about that lineup? Of course, the issue for the A’s the last few years has been offense, and that’ll be an issue again. Nevertheless, the additions of David DeJesus, who was off to a great start before getting injured last year, and Hideki Matsui, who had a surprisingly good second half in 2010, will be more valuable than they might seem right now.

The lineup may be less than impressive, but the rotation is better than any single element of any team in this division.

How dare you insult the Mariner lineup that way! Yeah, Jack Wilson, Chone Figgins, Ryan Langerhans, and Brendan Ryan make up a real murderers’ row. I’m just hoping the Mariners’ season is so hopeless that they trade Felix Hernandez to the Yankees.

Yeah, well, good luck with that. What about the Angels? Anytime your big off-season acquisition is Vernon Wells, it doesn’t bode well for your franchise. The Angels actually have a decent staff, with Dan Haren, Jered Weaver, and Ervin Santana (although you can never trust Santana in an odd year), but the offense is atrocious. Kendrys Morales is out at least a month, Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter—the two best healthy hitters—have been on steady declines the last few seasons, and the team is starting players—Peter Bourjos, Erick Aybar, Jeff Mathis—who they don’t seem to have any offensive expectations for. It could be a while before the Angels are competitive again.

AL Central

1. Minnesota Twins

2. Chicago White Sox

3. Detroit Tigers

4. Cleveland Indians

5. Kansas City Royals

The Twins? How original… The Twins are a boringly impressive team. They are good enough to have a firm grip on their division: Their lineup is anchored by Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, two of the best hitters in the American League (people forget that Morneau was the frontrunner for AL MVP when he got hurt last July), and their rotation is solid. They’re also getting Joe Nathan, one of the best closers in baseball, back this year, so the back of their bullpen should get better, even if they lost a lot of setup guys from last year.

At the same time, the Twins still don’t seem good enough to make a deep run in the playoffs—they haven’t won a playoff game since 2004, and they don’t seem much better than they’ve been the last few seasons. The rotation is deep, but it lacks a dominant starter, which the Twins haven’t had since they traded Johan Santana. The Mauer/Morneau combination is as good as any 3-4 combination in baseball, but the lineup is not that good overall: Jason Kubel plummeted back to Earth in 2010, and this year’s team is asking a lot from guys who’ve never been starters for a full season in the majors, like Danny Valencia, Alexi Casilla, and Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Ron Gardenhire claims that the team’s focus going into this year was on speed, which usually means yous sacrifice guys who get on base a lot for players who are fast once they’re there.

So why don’t you pick someone to beat this pedestrian contender? I do like the White Sox this year: Adam Dunn was a great addition, and his power should only be amplified in one of the best home run parks in baseball. Paul Konerko is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, and the rest of the lineup is underrated. After slumping for two months, Carlos Quentin actually had a pretty good year in 2010, and Alex Rios is an above-average center fielder. Of course, the big caveat for the White Sox offensively is Ozzie Guillen’s proclivity to play guys like Juan Pierre (and bat him leadoff!) and Omar Vizquel.

But the real reason I like Chicago is the staff. John Danks and Mark Buehrle are two great lefties who are likely to improve on their 2010 numbers (Buehrle has never had an ERA over 4 in consecutive seasons, and is still only 32). Gavin Floyd is a reliable #3 starter, and even Edwin Jackson, who was pretty bad with Arizona last season, was much better with Chicago. In the bullpen, Chris Sale looks incredibly awkward and gangly, but his stuff is very impressive. If I felt confident that the White Sox could get anything close to Jake Peavy’s peak, then this staff would get them to the playoffs. As it is, though, they’ll fall short.

Are you just picking against Detroit because of your anti-drunk driving, anti-domestic abuse biases? Well, I am strongly against both of those things, but there are other reasons to bet against the Tigers. Detroit has the best lineup in the AL Central, and one of the best in the league—particularly if they move Victor Martinez from DH to catcher, which would allow them to lose Alex Avila’s paltry bat and play both Ryan Raburn and Brennan Boesch everyday. Adding Martinez to a lineup that already had Miguel Cabrera (the best overall hitter in the AL) and Magglio Ordonez gives the Tigers a middle of the order to be feared.

So what’s the problem? Pitching, obvs. Other than Justin Verlander, this rotation stinks. Phil Coke was a mediocre middle reliever, so I don’t know why anyone would want him to throw more innings. Rick Porcello took a huge step back last season, and his 2011 projections don’t look much better. That leaves Brad Penny, who hasn’t had a good season since 2007, and Max Scherzer, who was sent back to the minors last May. Scherzer actually pitched well after coming back from that stint, and he could be a decent No. 2 starter, but that would still leave a lot of holes in this rotation.

It would still give them twice as many good starters as the Yankees have, am I right? Shut up, we’re not up to them yet.

Have there ever been two 100-loss teams in the same division? Is that even feasible? Well, based on a cursory glance at Baseball Reference, it has never happened before. If it ever will, though, this seems like the year. The Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals are both atrocious: Between the two rosters they have about three decent starters and not a single decent infielder. Other than a few underrated players (Shin-Soo Choo, Billy Butler, Joakim Soria, Grady Sizemore), there’s not much to like about these two teams. There’s some good young talent in those organizations (Carlos Santana, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer), but most of it is still in the minors.

AL East

1. Boston Red Sox

2. Tampa Bay Rays

3. New York Yankees

4. Toronto Blue Jays

5. Baltimore Orioles

YOU’RE NOT PICKING BALTIMORE?! Somebody doesn’t understand the brilliance of Buck Showalter… Never has some has someone been more over-hyped for finishing 11 games over .500. You’d think Showalter was Bill fucking Belichick or something. By the way, if you’re wondering how many of Buck’s 34 wins were by one run, the answer is 12. The Orioles stink; that finish was almost a total mirage. Maybe this year they’ll improve from 96 losses to a mere 90, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Stop trying to skirt the issue. You have the Yankees in third. How does that feel? Not good… not good at all. But I have to be realistic. Losing Andy Pettitte and not replacing him with Cliff Lee was a huge blow. It’s hard to overstate how much that changes the team. People have tended to focus on the back end of the rotation, where Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, Freddy Garcia, and Bartolo Colon duked it out in spring training, but that ignores even bigger problems: A.J. Burnett is this team’s No. 2 starter.

A.J. Burnett! Of the 31 pitchers who made at least 30 starts in the AL last year, Burnett was almost certainly the worst (an argument could be made for Kyle Davies), but that doesn’t really tell the full story: Burnett’s ERA in June was 11.35. His ERA for the last two months was over 6.60 (which, I guess, was almost twice as good as he was in June, so I can’t complain). You cannot give the ball every fifth day to someone who goes weeks without making it out of the fourth inning, and he certainly can’t be your second-best starter. Not if you want to contend.

Slightly less disconcerting is Phil Hughes. Hughes got off to a great start last season, which, combined with a misleading 18-8 record, has convinced some fans that he’s anything but a mediocre pitcher. After May, his ERA was 4.88, which was .74 above the league average. Hughes is still young, and I expect him to be better, but he presents almost as many question marks as the rest of the rotation.

Basically, the Yankees rotation in 2011 boils down to “CC Sabathia, pray for Biblical amounts of rain.”

Don’t think we don’t realize that you’re attempting the reverse jinx here. I mean, with that lineup and the Yankee payroll, they should at least contend for the Wild Card… That lineup is pretty good, particularly if Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Curtis Granderson, and Derek Jeter all bounce back from subpar seasons. It’s hard to win, though, when you only have one reliable starter. It puts too much strain on your bullpen and too much pressure on your offense. And people are too quick to say that the Yankees can “go out and get someone at the deadline.” It’s true that the Yankees have money, but that’s not all you need to make a trade—you also need a willing partner. Last year the Yankees tried to get Cliff Lee at the deadline, and even offered Jesus Montero, their most prized prospect, but were turned down. There’s no guarantee that someone of that caliber will even be available again, or that the Yankees will have what his team is looking for.

I expect the hitters to outslug opponents about half the time in non-CC starts, and to win about 75% of the time CC takes the ball. Even so, that puts the team somewhere in the 85-90 wins range, which won’t be enough to take the Wild Card.

So what, you’ve got the Rays winning the Wild Card? Weren’t you paying attention this off-season? People appear too quick to write off the Rays this season because they lost Carl Crawford, Carlos Peña, Matt Garza, and pretty much all of their bullpen. And there was a hint of desperation to the signings of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, as if the Rays were trying to recapture 2004. In fact, though, Ramirez has remained productive—when he’s played—over the last two seasons, and Johnny Damon’s OBP in 2010 was virtually identically to Crawford’s. Similarly, Peña’s numbers have been in a tailspin for a few years now, and Garza wasn’t much more than an average pitcher last season.

Meanwhile, the Rays still have Evan Longoria, last year’s AL leader in WAR (though he’ll now be out for the first few weeks), and David Price, last year’s Cy Young runner-up. And, as always, the Rays have a surge of young talent in the pipeline: Jeremy Hellickson was amazing in four starts last August, and could easily top Garza’s production last season. Desmond Jennings, for whom Damon is really just a placeholder, could be up by midseason, and he’s already been compared to Crawford.

Of course, there are no guarantees with young guys, but there is a lot of upside to Tampa Bay that people are ignoring. This team doesn’t seem all that different from the team that won the AL East last year.

What about the bullpen? Well, you may have noticed that I’ve hardly discussed the bullpen of any team thus far. The reason is that my bullpen philosophy—as I’ve noted before—is that relief pitching is basically a crapshoot and that trying to predict how it will perform before the season is pointless. Last year the Padres had one of the best bullpens in baseball, yet before the season I probably could have only named Heath Bell. The history of relief pitching is littered with players who went from awesome to awful (or vice-versa) in the blink of an eye. So, yes, right now the Rays bullpen doesn’t look good, but that doesn’t really mean anything for 2011.

You gonna talk about the Red Sox now? Do I have to?

A season preview would seem a little incomplete without it. Fine. Let’s get this over with: Despite a rash of injuries not seen since the 1972 Uruguyan rugby team, Boston won 89 games. Then in the off-season the Red Sox added Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford—two of the best hitters in baseball. Gonzalez averaged 35 home runs a year playing his home games in one of the worst hitters parks in baseball, and he’s now moving to one of the best. Crawford is coming off his best season ever and he’s only 29. Oh, and this lineup also has Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and JD Drew.

Their pitching isn’t as great, but it’s still pretty good. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are two of last year’s top six Cy Young candidates. While Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsusaka all had disappointing years last year, none of them are older than 32—2010 was more likely an aberration for all of them than a sign of things to come.

Also, did I mention that, with all the disappointments of 2010, Boston still won 89 games?

Was that fun for you to write? Fuck off.

PLAYOFFS

RAYS over Twins: The Twins will rejoice at getting to play someone other than the Yankees in the Division Series, but their celebration will be short-lived. David Price shuts down the lefty-heavy lineup in Game 1 and Carl Pavano implodes in Game 2, giving the Rays a 2-0 lead heading back to Tampa Bay. In Game 3, Jeremy Hellickson wins his first postseason start, and the Twins once again get swept.

BOSTON over Oakland: After winning Game 1 behind Jon Lester, Boston drops the next two to fall behind 2-1. In Game 4, Dallas Braden takes a 4-0 lead into the seventh, at which point, Dustin Pedroia accidentally makes contact with the pitchers’ mound. Braden loses his composure and walks the next three batters before surrendering a game-tying triple to Carl Crawford. Kevin Youkilis breaks the tie in ninth with home run, and Josh Beckett, after a mediocre start in Game 2, throws a complete game shutout in Game 5.

ALCS

RAYS over Boston: The Red Sox are forced to use John Lackey in Game 1 and he can’t get out of the third, giving up two home runs Manny Ramirez (who by this point in the season has actually dropped to sixth in the Rays batting order). The Rays take Game 1 13-2, but Lester evens it the next day. Coming off his shutout in the ALDS, people expect another dominant postseaon performance from Beckett in Game 3, but he is outpitched by Jeremy “Give ‘Em Hell” Hellickson, and the Rays win 4-2. Clay Buccholz, whose ALDS start was skipped, isn’t sharp in Game 4, and the Rays win, with Manny hitting his fourth and fifth home runs of the series. Terry Francona opts to stick with Lackey in Game 5, and Lackey pitches into the ninth without surrendering a run. Unfortunately for Boston, David Price is equally effective, going 7.1 before the bullpen picks up where he left off. After a deep fly out to Longoria and a walk to Ben Zobrist, Lackey is pulled for Daniel Bard. Bard promptly hits Ramirez, leading to a tense moment where each team rises to the top of the dugout and Manny glares at Bard. No punches are thrown, but the next pitch is wild and the runners advance. After an IBB, Reid Brignac comes to the plate and bloops a hit over the pulled in infield, sending the Rays to the World Series.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. [...] a key distinction you make between the Texas bullpen and the St. Louis ‘pen. I’ve gone on record before as saying that it’s almost impossible to tell how much of team’s middle relief is luck [...]

    Reply

  2. [...] yes, of course it was fun to watch that. There was so much hype around Boston in 2011—even I bought into it to a degree—that it was nice to see the season devolve into such a [...]

    Reply

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