Friday, March 31, 2006

Steroid Investigation

There are two central facts that must be considered before discussing the MLB investigation into steroids.
1) Bud Selig is engaged in damage control. If Bud Selig were a character in a play, and you wanted to know his motivation, it would be: damage control. This is not to say that Selig is an evil man who cares nothing for the game of baseball but his own reputation; the real world isn't that easy. I'm saying that Selig's prime motivation is not the best interests of the game; it's in preventing the steroids scandal from becoming any worse than it already is and covering the asses of everyone not already implicated. There are other secondary concerns, but I think that this is by far the overarching motivation. Selig reminds me of Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler; he's not the devil and he's probably not a criminal, no. But if you think his job is simply to speak the truth, you're naive. If that was his motivation, the owners wouldn't have hired him.
2) Baseball was embarrassed into performing this investigation. Selig can't admit publicly, of course, that baseball is doing this investigation because of the book Game of Shadows that provides extensive documentary evidence of steroid use. But that is why baseball is doing this investigation, and don't fool yourself that it's for any other reason. If Selig were truly interested in investigating steroid use in baseball, as Buster Olney points out, he would have done so years ago. Maybe he would have started when Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco made allegations that many baseball insiders considered to be generally true; maybe he would have started when he got the list of positive steroid tests conducted by baseball itself (enough to warrant a more stringent policy as negotiated in the CBA). Or maybe he would have done it after ESPN: The Magazine's report came out this winter. But he did not. He waited until he could wait no longer. If the book (and other books forthcoming) had not come along, neither would this investigation.

That being said, the story (if you hadn't heard) is that the MLB is launching an investigation into steroid use in the major leagues, to be headed by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. On one hand, Mitchell has a reputation as man of integrity. On the other hand, he's a current Director of the Boston Red Sox, a member of the board of Disney (former owners of the Angels and current owners of ESPN), and was considered a candidate for the Commissioner's job now held by Bud Selig. I guess Selig never watched Law & Order; he doesn't know the importance of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. If Selig wanted to buy some integrity for baseball, he shouldn't have compromised that integrity in advance by naming someone inside baseball to head the committee. This honestly surprised me; the position of "head of investigating committee" is pretty broad; surely Selig, anticipating the backlash against Mitchell, would have chosen someone outside of baseball to head the committee. There are plenty of other options. To be fair, Mitchell does have a good reputation and has stated that he will be impartial; that he won't let his ties to the Red Sox inhibit his investigation. But this is hard to believe; have you every heard anyone say, "Yes, I will be very partial. And thanks for asking."
The committee will investigate use of steroids by those with ties to BALCO and others (Selig stressed this) going back to the onset of steroid testing in 2002. However (Selig stressed again), if Mitchell feels there is pertinent evidence of use in years prior to 2002, he will have the power to expand the investigation. Gone unstated is whether owners, executives, personal trainers, etc., will also be investigated; their duplicity (and possible criminal conspiracy) are quite pertinent to determining responsibility. Will they be held responsible?
I don't think there's any reason to believe that they will. No one who claims to be investigating themselves actually is, simply because no one will come out and say, "My investigation reveals that I and my colleagues were seriously at fault, damaging perhaps forever the game of baseball. I performed citizen's arrest upon myself and currently have George Steinbrenner in a pair of handcuffs." Selig won't give anything but the most cursory examination of baseball executives, only so much as bad publicity forces him into, simply because it wouldn't be in the "best interests of baseball," read "the best interests of baseball owners."
As Olney points out in the article above, there's very little Selig can do that hasn't already been done by the San Francisco Chronicle writers who penned Game of Shadows. Can they really just go and recreate their investigation without coming off as laughable johnny-come-latelys? Will anyone take seriously an investigative probe that's less revealing than their morning newspaper?
What will most likely happen is that the committee will throw out a few sacrificial lambs, hoping that they will be enough to quiet the scandal. The parallels to Watergate become striking here: first they just stick to Hunt and Liddy. Then, when that gets laughed off, they throw out Mitchell and Magruder. Then comes Dean, then Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and then it starts getting really scary. Selig's hoping that tossing Mitchell and Magruder to the press will be enough to end this scandal. Because that, my friends is Selig's top priority: end this damned thing before it ruins more than just Opening Day and costs the sport any more in the public eye.

On another page entirely is Barry Bonds. Bonds is actually going to be playing games this year, and I honestly don't think I'll be able to watch his first at-bat away from San Francisco. Because he is going to catch hell from the fans, and if I said I felt sorry for him, I'd be lying. It will make a mockery of the game.
Speaking of making a mockery of the game, Bonds is 7 HR away from passing Babe Ruth on the all-time HR list. If you think people hated Roger Maris for breaking Ruth's single-season record, you ain't seen nothin' yet. This won't just be the casual fans, but the baseball purists. It's a defining moment in the game's history, one which the MLB intends to celebrate, according to published reports. On one hand, the MLB has to celebrate it, because anything else would be an admission of Bonds' guilt. On the other hand, it will make a mockery of baseball and baseball history, especially if it happens away from San Francisco. In 1973, Braves' ownership tried to keep Hank Aaron out the lineup in away games to ensure he broke the record at home. I wouldn't be surprised if Selig did the same thing for entirely different reasons.
But while Bonds is the figurehead, he isn't the average steroid user, someone who is getting unfair treatment, I think. Maybe not unfair, so much as unrealistic and sanctimonious. It's not a surprise how many people are willing to do whatever it takes to win, it's surprising how many are not. It's the same thing we do with drug addicts, other criminals, and poor people: we disdain them in order to make ourselves feel better, utterly denying any kinship with them or admitting the possibility that we're much more like them than we want to think.
What the steroid scandal really reveals is the underside of humanity in a world obsessed with winning: some people fight dirty. We shouldn't blame Selig & Co. for being blissfully ignorant about the steroids scandal without blaming ourselves as well. We demand more entertainment from our athletes and then blame them when they go that extra mile to deliver. I hate to sound hopelessly cynical, but if you're surprised by this side of humanity, then you're rather naive. Shame on any commentator who self-righteously condemns all steroid users outright; there but for the grace of God go each and every one of us.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Baseball Prospectus 2006

I recently picked up a copy of Baseball Prospectus 2006, the yearly annual of analysis/predictions put out by the staff of Baseball Prospectus, the premier baseball online "think tank." The book is fascinating and overwhelming at the same time; it's such a great amount of information and wisdom that it takes a while to digest. I'm only about halfway through it right now, but couldn't resist stopping to discuss it.
  • Having just made my own preseason predictions, it's a nice feeling to get reassurance from the book. While I'm not always right (an understatement I'll get back to in a minute), many of my ideas -- sprung not from the mainstream (un)consciousness but from my own head -- have some merit. While my predictions on individual players are hit and miss, my analysis on a team level seems to be pretty accurate. I haven't come across a general team prediction in the book that I strongly disagree with -- it's usually just a matter of degree. So it's a mini ego boost.
  • Now that I've said that, let me just say how very humbling it is to be confronted with such superior information and analysis. BP has access to a lot of inf0 and stats that I don't, it's true, but I keep coming across mistakes and inaccuracies in my thinking that are just the result of p0or logic or laziness. I'm not going to be making the staff of BP anytime soon -- shocking, I know -- but hopefully I can just soak up as much of this as possible and do better next time.
  • The book does a brilliant job of combining statistical analysis with traditional scouting. As much as BP has assumed the mantle of the stathead/Moneyball movement, the writers shy away from the extremes of iconoclasm and scout-hating that typifies many neo-sabermetricians (myself included). This is not to say that they're just willing to accept someone's word for it. They hold everything up to the reasoning power of evidence, it's just that not all of that evidence is numbers; much of it is the anecdotal information provided by scouting. Put the two together and you have a sense of realism that is superior to any other examination of the game that I know of.
  • The key difference that I come across in this book is that so much of it is concerned with predicting the future, especially the future of players currently in the minor leagues. Much of my own stats work has been with analyzing the past and the present -- not with predicting the future. It's much easier to say who is good or who used to be good than it is to say who will be good. It takes another set of skills and standards entirely to project the career of a young baseball player. I was only moderately aware of these standards in the broadest sense, so hopefully this book will help me improve in this regard.

But the most impressive part of the book is the PECOTA forecasting system. Simply put, the statheads at BP have developed a system of predicting a player's future performance. This system takes into account everything: playing circumstances, age, injury history, usage patterns, etc. What it then does it to find similarities among players of the past. By looking at every player in the history of the game, patterns emerge. So while we don't know what Joe Smith will hit in his age 30 season, we can find the 100 most similar players to Joe and find out what they hit at age 30. This is essentially what PECOTA does; digging through the thousands of player seasons in history to find similar players and determine trends.
For example,
I've always known that, generally speaking, a player peaks at age 27, with his top performance coming from 25-29. Players tend to improve pretty quickly before 25, then decline slowly after they turn 30. After 35, the decline accelerates, and past age 40, they drop like flies.
This is generally true; but generally true is pretty useless when looking at an individual. If %57 of players (I made up the number) peak at age 27, it also means that %43 do not. So which is Joe Smith?
PECOTA narrows down the "type" of player to find a more exact match and determine a more specific career path. If Joe is a catcher, he's going to see his decline come much earlier. If he has "old player skills," i.e. just walks and homers, he's likely to decline soon. If he has more "young player skills," i.e. just batting average and speed, he can be counted upon for more. If he's playing a skill position, such as catcher or shortstop, he will likely have to be shifted elsewhere as he gets older, if he's a good enough hitter to justify keeping himself in the lineup. PECOTA takes all of this into account.
The BP writers also list 4 different factors: Breakout, Improve, Collapse, and Attrition with a percentage next to each. So a player's line might read like this:
Moises Alou: Breakout (11%), Improve (32%), Collapse (34%), Attrition (19%).
Breakout represents the likelihood a player's performance will increase 20% above his weighted performance over the past 3 seasons. So there's an 11% chance (pretty low) that Alou, at age 39, will be 20% better than he was over the past 3 years.
Improve represents the likelihood that a player's performance will improve at all over his weighted performance over the past 3 seasons. Alou scores 32%, not awful, but it means he's more likely to get worse than get better, which makes perfect sense.
Collapse represents the likelihood that a player's performance will decrease by at least 25% over his weighted performance over the past 3 seasons. Alou has a 34% chance of collapse, which isn't scary high, but dangerously high; again, not unusual for a 39-year-old.
Attrition is a different sort of measure entirely. It represents the likelihood that a player's plate appearances (or innings pitched) will decrease by at least %50 relative to his weighted performance over the past 3 seasons. This could be due to injuries, age, or several other factors. It's a pretty darn important thing to know if one of your stars is suddenly going to be limited to 80 games. Most young position players, if they don't have a history of injury, will score about 1-2% attrition. Alou scores 19. It's not as high as a has-been marginal guy like Marquis Grissom (%49), but still uncomfortable.
With this in mind, the 2006 guide lists PECOTA predictions for every player in 2006 -- adjusted for the home ballpark they will presumably play in -- as well as refined measures of quality that are park-adjusted. Here are some random examples of the BP guide's PECOTA predictions for 2006:

Andruw Jones: 276/353/525, 35 HR, 2 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average)
BP predicts that while Andruw isn't going to hit 50 HR again, he will keep up a strong level of production. But he is also no longer an elite center fielder -- 2 years ago, Jones produced an ungodly 19 FRAA in center.
Derrek Lee: 298/383/570, 38 HR
BP thinks that 2005 was a career year for Lee, but also thinks that he has ascended to another level as a hitter. I was hesitant to say so -- PECOTA thinks Lee will hit far above his career numbers next year -- because Lee was 29 last year, an odd (but not impossible) time to ascend to superstardom. BP also lists a player's 3 most comparable players -- the 3 players from history most similar to this player at the player's age. So while it's great to be a 19-year-old Dwight Gooden, not so much if you're 30. But Lee's 3 most comparable players are Dave Winfield, Cliff Floyd, and Eric Karros. All good players, with Winfield especially a star long after he turned 30.
A.J. Burnett: 3.76 ERA, 201.1 IP, 72 BB : 170 K
Although BP also thinks that Burnett's contract was profligate, they're much more generous in their predictions for next year -- thinking him less likely to get injured than I do.
Alex Rodriguez: 298/391/576, 43 HR, 0 FRAA
A-Rod will still be a superstar, but will trend slight downward -- prefectly natural for an MVP to regress a bit. A-Rod's defense at third isn't quite as good as its reputation, but who really gives a damn when he hits like that?
A-Rod's 3 most comparable players? Eddie Mathews, Dave Winfield, and Frank Robinson. Not only are they 3 Hall-of-Famers, but 3 guys who kept producing long after they turned 30. This is good news for someone with A-Rod's skill set, but not exactly a surprise.

Perhaps the best part of it is that the staff writes with a straightforward, unpretentious style. They're married to the facts and the results, not to their own egos. They're not above mixing in some humor as well, as sampled here:

  • And I thought I was hard on the Reds: "The Cincinnati player development system is worthy of the term 'farm' only in the sense that the Stalinist collectives of the 1930s Ukraine were a 'farm system.'"
  • Talking about Reds slugger (and strikeout king) Adam Dunn: "The Brobdingnagian slugger can't carry the team to a pennant if every angry peasant in the Ohio Valley is poking him in the ankles with their pitchforks because they think he strikes out too much."
  • A lesson in park factors in the minor leagues: "The right field wall in Asheville is closer to the plate than this book is to you right now."
  • On a Florida prospect: "Johnson is so tall that the Marlins have replaced the button on his cap with a winking red beacon lest low-flying aircraft run into him."
  • This isn't funny, but it's the honest truth: "Few teams in history have been as consistently bad, with as few extenuating circumstances, as the 21st-century Royals."
  • On the Royals' overestimation of SS Angel Berroa's skills: "The Royals consider Berroa to be the anchor of their defense, which is true on a purely literal level."
  • On the platoon split of left-handed pitcher Mike Myers: "Mike Myers is limited to being a one-out guy; bring a righty pinch-hitter into the game and he kneels before Zod."
  • On slow-footed Jason Giambi: "Giambi runs as if knee-deep in lobster bisque and at top speed can stretch a double into a close out at first base."
  • On the idea that the Yankees need a "traditional leadoff man" i.e. pure base-stealer, instead of Derek Jeter at the top of the order: "It's rank stupidity . . . The suggestion seems to be that the Yankees would be better with a leadoff man who stole more bases but scored fewer runs. Only in professional sports journalism, where many of the writers makes Judith Miller look like a paragon of evenhanded, informed reporting, could that make sense."

I've focused on the funny, off-the-wall insights, but once I finish the book, I'll take a look at the many interesting ideas and spot-on analyses the BP staff express about different teams in the book.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

AL West Preview

Oakland Athletics
The A's have improved a notch since last year, and should benefit by having some more of their principles healthy. Their rookies are a year older, and the team as a whole looks to be the most balanced and promising bunch in the league.
Starting Pitching
The A's have a dominant starting rotation. Barry Zito is the most famous, but might end up being the fourth-best pitcher in the rotation. Zito is durable and gets his strikeouts; his 171 Ks last year reversed a trend of diminishing strikeouts since his Cy Young season in 2002. But he also set a new career high with 89 walks and allowed 26 HR in a park that's not homer-friendly. Zito is a fine pitcher, there's no question; but his 2002 season is what people remember, and that's looking more and more like a career year.
Rich Harden, if healthy, could turn out to be the Oakland ace. Harden had a good year in 2004, then emerged last year to post an amazing 2.53 ERA with a 43:121 BB:K ratio, although injuries limited him to just 128 IP. Health is an issue, but this 24-year-old has all the promise in the world.
Another pitcher who had a breakthrough 2005 was Danny Haren. The A's got Haren as part of the trade for Mark Mulder, and Haren alone has made the trade a steal already. While Mulder struggled, Haren posted an impressive 3.73 ERA in 217 innings of work, striking out 163. Haren is just 25, another young pitcher in the rotation with nowhere to go but up.
Joe Blanton is less predictable. Blanton had a fine rookie year in 2005, posting a 3.53 ERA in 201.1 IP. But Blanton's low strikeout rate (just 116 against 67 walks) is troubling; it could mean that his rookie year was more lucky than good. Blanton has a promising minor league track record, but it may be too much to expect him to reproduce his 2005 numbers.
The A's made the questionable decision to sign free agent Esteban Loaiza to a 3-year, $21 million deal. It's questionable, because few teams -- especially those already strong on pitching -- would spend that much on their #5 starter, and Loaiza is a 34-year-old who will be, at best, average.
The A's return AL Rookie of the Year Huston Street, who should keep developing into one of baseball's best closers. There is good support behind him in Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero. All in all, a fine pitching staff.
The A's will likely start Dan Johnson at 1B. Johnson is coming off a solid rookie year in 2005 (275/355/451), and while he doesn't hit that well for the position, it will be an improvement over Scott Hatteberg. Eric Chavez has a difficult time putting together that monster year that everyone thinks he's capable of, but this Gold Glove-winner just needs to hit like he already has (275/350/496 career) to anchor this lineup.
Middle Infield
Mark Ellis has always been a solid defender, but burst out with a big career year in 2005 (316/384/477). While Ellis did hit well in the minors, he's never looked this good in the majors, so the A's should prepare for a regression.
Shortstop Bobby Crosby is an above-average defensive shortstop, but most of his reputation is based on his scrappiness. That may be true, but to be a real asset to the team, Crosby needs to improve upon his hitter-iness (249/326/431 career).
The A's will bring back Jay Payton in left (bad hitter, good defender) and Mark Kotsay in center (great defender, decent hitter). But the real boost will be the addition of Milton Bradley in right field. Bradley is a fine hitter (269/350/426 career), a fine defender (a good center fielder moving to right), and is still young, turning 29 in April.
Jason Kendall isn't a great defender, but the A's took on his contract because he's a disciplined hitter who takes pitches and gets on base. Imagine their surprise when Kendall hit just 271/345/321 in 601 ABs last year -- this after hitting 319/399/390 with Pittsburgh in 2004. Kendall is 31 (he turns 32 in June), so it's likely that his best days are behind him. But he should still have some good hitting left in the tank, so last season was probably mostly a slump.
Nick Swisher will likely start out the season as DH. Swisher is a promising hitting prospect, but will have to improve on his rookie year in 2005 (236/322/446). Behind him is Frank Thomas. Thomas isn't very healthy and is getting pretty old, but when he is in the lineup, he can still hit very well. The A's have a good glove to back up the middle infield (Marco Scutaro) a solid and versatile pinch hitter in Antonio Perez (taken from L.A. in the Bradley deal) and a decent fourth outfielder in Bobby Kielty.
The A's haven't looked as glamorous lately, missing the playoffs these past two years despite energizing late-season runs and good overall win-loss records. But this could be the year they return to the postseason. The A's have a great pitching staff, a solid lineup with good depth, and plenty of hope and guile to win the AL West.
Projected Finish: 1st place

Los Angeles Angels
The Angels spent most of their time this off-season fighting off a lawsuit brought by the city of Anaheim. They lost 2/5 of their starting rotation and a pretty good starting catcher and did little to recoup those losses. They do have a good many top-shelf prospects approaching the majors, but even they may not be able to close the gap with Oakland.
Starting Rotation
Defending AL Cy Young Bartolo Colon returns. That makes him sound a lot better than he is, but Colon is still quite capable of being one of the league's 6 or 7 best pitchers (3.48 ERA, 43:157 BB:K ratio in 222.2 IP last year). John Lackey will take over as #2 starter. Lackey had a career year in 2005, striking out 199 hitter in 209 IP while posting a 3.44 ERA. His high strikeout total is way out of line with his career numbers, but he should still be a quality contributor.
After Colon and Lackey, though, it gets dicey, and here's where the Angels will miss Jarrod Washburn and Paul Byrd. Washburn wasn't very durable, but he was an above-average contributor for several years in Anaheim, and he'll be replaced by Jeff Weaver. Weaver is much more durable than Washburn, but isn't nearly as good:
Washburn 2005: 131 ERA+, 177.1 IP, 51:94 BB:K ratio, 19 HR allowed
Weaver 2005: 96 ERA+, 224 IP, 43:157 BB:K ratio, 35 HR allowed
Weaver does allow more homers, but his added durability and better strikeout ratio makes him much closer to Washburn than the ERA would suggest. Weaver is a little younger, but his career has been heading south for several years now. Weaver won't replace Washburn, but he will come close. The scary thing is that Weaver was a last-minute free agent signing, managing to extract a fair sum from the Angels, who needed somebody else in their starting rotation. Dicey though their rotation is with Weaver, it was a really scary prospect without him.
The Angels will be replacing Paul Byrd with a healthy Kelvim Escobar. Escobar is very difficult to predict, but should be a solid presence. Escobar fared well in an injury-shortened 2005, and his last two seasons in the rotation, 2003 in Toronto and 2004 with the Angels, were quite good. If Escobar's healthy, he should post a good ERA and rack up some strikeouts -- an adequate replacement for Byrd.
The 5th starter will be young Ervin Santana. Santana showed promise in the minor leagues, but was never over a lot of innings. Santana showed good promise in Class A and AA in 2003, striking out 153 batters in 154.1 IP. Santana pitched just 48 IP at AA in 2004 (striking out 48). He was then sent through AA (39 IP, 32 K) AAA (19.1 IP, 17 K) and the majors last year (133.2 IP, 99 K). Santana does have a good minor league track record, but it comes with several caveats. And his poor performance at the major league level in 2005 (4.65 ERA in a pitcher's park and with a good defense) suggests that he's not a superstar-in-waiting, despite what some have said.
The Angel bullpen has traditionally been their strongest point, and there's nothing to suggest that 2006 will be much different. Francisco Rodriguez doesn't quite live up to the hype, but is still a fine closer. Scot Shields returns as a great and versatile backup, and the Angels even added lefty J.C. Romero in a trade with Minnesota. There's good depth behind them as well, suggesting another good year for the Angel 'pen.
The Angels suffered in 2005 from poor production at the infield corners by a veteran on one hand (Darin Erstad) and an unproductive rookie (Dallas MacPherson). The Angels shook up the lineup in the offseason by moving Erstad back to center field (wisely) and installing young Casey Kotchman at first. Kotchman hasn't yet made an impact in the majors, but the 23-year-old showed promise in 126 ABs last year (278/352/484).
MacPherson is gone, replaced by shifting super-utility man Chone Figgins to third. Figgins is invaluably verstaile, and a good defender in general. He hits well for a lead-off sparkplug (292/349/400 career) and steals bases as well (62/79 last year). If Figgins gets shifted elsewhere or someone struggles, look for Edgardo Alfonzo, a good player in the midst of a career crisis, to step in.
Middle Infield
Adam Kennedy returns at second base. Kennedy is one of many Angels who will have to fight off competition from rookies. The Angels have top-notch middle-infield prospects Howie Kendrick and Brandon Wood ready, and the unspectacular Kennedy will have a lot to worry about, considering their minor league track record.
Shortstop belongs to Orlando Cabrera. Cabrera's defense isn't nearly as good as his reputation, but it's good. He's not a bad hitter, but he sure looked bad last year (257/309/365). This 31-year-old would be in the same danger as Kennedy, except that the Angels are on the hook for a silly long-term they signed him to last year, and so won't be able to trade him at anything but a big loss. So Cabrera's contract, if nothing else, will justify his everyday job.
The Angels made a stupid mistake last year in signing the elderly Steve Finley (222/271/374 for them) to an expensive free agent deal. But they made up for it this year by dealing Finley's silly contract to the Giants (who like to give old people money) in exchange for Edgardo Alfonzo's less-silly-but-still-questionable contract. This meant that they could shift Darin Erstad back to center field, where his defense is more valuable and his offensive shortcomings (273/325/371 in '05) less of an issue than they were at first base.
Left Fielder Garret Anderson is a prematurely old 33-year-old. Not just in terms of health, but in terms of diminishing production, bottoming out with a dismal 283/308/435 line in 2005. It's possibly that 2005 was just a slump, but Anderson's physical condition is such that it's hard to anticipate a great rebound in quality.
Luckily for the Angels, they have an offensive juggernaut in right fielder Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero's defense is overrated, but anyone who hits 317/394/565, as Guerrero did last year, is worth it.
The Angels will really miss the departed Bengie Molina. Re-signing Molina may not have made sense in the long run, as they have a good catching prospect in Jeff Mathis. But Mathis won't be able to replace Molina's production for a while now. It's also difficult since Molina ended up signing a cheap, 1-year deal with Toronto anyhow, making one wonder (as Bengie apparently did) why the Angels didn't do a better job pursuing him.
The presence of so many prospects gives the Angels a good deal of flexibility from the bench. Underrated Juan Rivera could start out the season at DH, although he could end up seeing some time in the outfield. This should get more competitive as the rookies start pushing the veterans out of the starting lineup.
The Arte Moreno-Bill Stoneman duo had done a commendable job of cementing a very strong Angel organization over the past couple years, but their odd inactivity in the 2005-6 offseason could hurt the team in the short run. They do have a lot of young talent and no need to sign cumbersome long-term contracts, but the Angels are perfectly capable of signing short-term solutions in order to keep up with Oakland. As it is, it will be an uphill battle for the team going into 2006, with a lot of pressure on the young talent to produce.
Projected Finish: 2nd place

Texas Rangers
The Rangers had a lot of money to spend upgrading their pitching staff, but they spent it all on one pitcher -- Kevin Millwood. The problem is that Millwood can only pitch 200 innnigs or so, meaning it will be the same bunch of yahoos taking up the slack. Other than that, there's not a lot of difference from the 2005 group that went 79-83.
Starting Pitching
The Rangers overpaid Millwood by a tremendous amount. Millwood did have an excellent year in 2005, but his track record is such that he cannot be relied upon as a staff ace; he is an above-average pitcher who isn't going to set the world on fire. This isn't as big as the Chan Ho Park blunder, but it will seem like it three or four years from now when Millwood's production goes down the tubes.
After Millwood, it's really slim pickens. The Rangers made a pretty poor trade in exchanging promising young pitcher Chris Young for less-promising Padre pitcher Adam Eaton. Not only is Young a better bet for the future, but Eaton is one year away from free agency, compared to two for Young. The Rangers did get some other players in the deal, but it was a pretty bad move overall, weakening an already-thin starting staff.
The Rangers traded for Phillies starter Vicente Padilla. Padilla is pretty good when healthy; he just hasn't been healthy since 2003. It's not a bad deal and would be a great deal if Padilla is healthy, but that's a lot of risk to place in your #3 pitcher.
Young starter Kameron Loe had a good rookie year in 2005, posting a 3.42 ERA. But he also had a 31:45 BB:K ratio in 92 innings, so he may not be the wunderkind the Rangers hope for.
The bullpen is better, but not dramatically so. Closer Francisco Cordero had an off-year in 2005, but it was likely just a slump for a guy who was among baseball's best the two previous seasons. After Cordero is Akinori Otsuka, who isn't nearly a sure thing after a sub-par 2005, and a bunch of warm bodies.
1B Mark Teixeira isn't quite as good as his ballpark makes him look (301/379/575 in '05), but he's still pretty darn good. 3B Hank Blalock had a down year last year, but this 26-year-old should return to the solid form he displayed in 2003 and 2004.
Middle Infield
Michael Young is a durable player and a team leader, which is why he is so very overrated. It looks like he'll return as the shortstop, even though this natural second baseman is very poor there. He does hit very well (331/385/513), but consider the ballpark. The Rangers may miss Alfonso Soriano's home runs, but they will not miss the continuing deterioration of his other offensive skills, nor his wretched defense at second base. Instead they will start promising young Ian Kinsler at second base, not a bad idea since they won't really be contenders anyhow.
The Rangers made a strong improvement to a weak infield in obtaining Brad Wilkerson. The Wilkerson-for-Soriano trade was an absolute steal for the Rangers, especially since Wilkerson makes less than half as much money and won't be a free agent for another two years (Soriano hits the market after this season). Wilkerson isn't a great defender, but is capable of playing center, although he will likely start in one of the corners. He's also a solid hitter (256/365/452 career in NL pitcher's parks) who will be a big upgrade to a generally poor outfield.
Left Fielder Kevin Mench is the only other reliably guy out there, but even his offensive numbers (272/334/484 career) show only a decent hitter given a big power boost by his ballpark. Center will likely be manned by Laynce Nix, although the Rangers say that every year until he inevitably gets hurt.
Catcher Rod Barajas isn't really great at anything, but he's solid all-around. He'll be backed up by young Gerald Laird.
David Dellucci enjoyed a big career year in 2005 (251/367/513), and although he's a good hitter (career 259/345/438), the Rangers should expect a sizable regression. Verstaile Gary Matthews, Jr. returns to the outfield, but the Rangers' options off the bench are pretty limited at this point.
After a solid improvement that showed a team on the rise, the Rangers took a sizable step back in 2005, leveling off at 79-83. This is the reflection of a solid young infield surrounded by a fair outfield and a still-awful pitching staff. Manager Buck Showalter shoulders some of the blame, but upper management should once again be scolded for failing to produce even a hint of an effective pitching staff. Texas is a tough place to pitch, but isn't as bad as its reputation. They say that they can't get pitchers to come to Texas, but that excuse only works for the first 10 years or so. Get a clue, guys.
Projected Finish: 3rd place

Seattle Mariners
The Mariners are starting to realize that it takes more than 2 or 3 free agents to turn around a 90-loss franchise. The team fared better, "improving" to 69-93, and they should be a bit better than that this year. But this is still a team filled with holes, especially in the rotation and no way to fix them apart from throwing money at people.
Starting Rotation
Jamie Moyer keeps doing all he can to make the Seattle rotation look good, but he's running out of steam. The 43-year-old rebounded somewhat to throw 200 more-or-less average innings last year, but he can't go on like this forever. The Mariners may have overpaid to get Jarrod Washburn, but he gives them a solid #2 and more respectability.
The real story here, though, is soon-to-be-20-year-old Felix Hernandez. Hernandez is the best young pitcher since Dwight Gooden. His minor league reputation bore fruit in the majors when he posted a 2.67 ERA in 84.1 IP, striking out 77 against just 23 BB and 5 HR allowed. The only issue here is keeping him healthy, an issue the Mariners are taking very seriously, and rightfully so.
After these three, it's old faces Joel Pineiro and Gil Meche, with no indication they'll be anything more than durably poor.
Eddie Guardado is still a potent closer, but he's 35 and doesn't have an obvious successor. Rafael Soriano and J.J. Putz have shown good promise, but have yet to sustain that for long enough to make them safe options at the end of a ballgame. There's very little depth to the Seattle bullpen.
Richie Sexson isn't a miracle worker, but he is a darn good hitter. He hit 263/369/541 last year and is, other then Ichiro, the only truly solid offensive presence in the lineup.
Third baseman Adrian Beltre's 2004 was a one-year wonder; just accept it.
Middle Infield
It will be young Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt, who will give the Mariners strong defense and two big holes in the lineup.
Ichiro is a good hitter, of course (332/377/442 career), but is like most modern slap hitters (i.e. Pete Rose) tremendously overrated for his offensive contribution. During the WBC, commentator Joe Morgan continually talked about the wonders of the Japanese hitting style, which tends to sacrifice big power for contact. Morgan acts as if that's always a good thing, despite the fact that if he were a hitting coach teaching that style, Morgan would have ruined the careers of most major power hitters. But that's just my opinion, and I could be wrong...
It doesn't look like center fielder Jeremy Reed will turn into much of a hitter (254/322/352 in '05), but he's a fine defensive center fielder. The M's re-signed Raul Ibanez (280/355/436 last year) to play left field, a good move for a team that really needs offense.
The M's decided on a creative solution to their catching problem, signing Japanese import Kenji Johjima. Johjima projects to be a good -- but not great -- hitter, with most concerns centering around his handling of a pitching staff that speaks a different language. I think this is an overrated issue -- how long does it take to learn the English words for "fastball," "curveball," "high," "low," and "inside?" It's not like Johjima is going to have to discuss dialectical materialism with his pitchers, or name all 50 states. He should be fine.
The M's signed Carl Everett as their DH, ignoring the fact that while he can still hit for power Everett's other hitting skills have degenerated significantly (he hit 251/311/435 last year). And since he's moving from the AL's friendliest HR park to its least-friendly HR park, this could be a problem. The M's also signed Matt Lawton, which could end up being a really good move, although Lawton played very poorly last year after his steroids suspension.
As I said before, Seattle management has taken a very poor track toward solving their problems. Because they have a large payroll, they feel compelled to sign big free agents, ignoring whether or not it would actually serve the long-term interests of the team to do so. They don't have a lot coming out of the farm system, rapidly turning the team into a defense-only group with a below-average pitching staff supporting it. Jobs will be lost if things don't turn around soon.
Projected Finish: 4th place

Saturday, March 18, 2006

AL Central Preview

Chicago White Sox
Not content to stand pat, the White Sox defied conventional wisdom by energetically rebuilding the defending World Champions. It's a smart strategy, and it should pay off in a strong contender for 2006.
Starting Pitching
It may be too much to ask for the Sox to reproduce last year's brilliance, but even if they don't, they've still got one of the best starting rotations in baseball. The two most reliable starters are Mark Buehrle, a hoss who should be nicknamed "Ol' Reliable," and the underappreciated Freddy Garcia. It's tough to say whether Jon Garland can reproduce his near-Cy Young 2005 season (3.50 ERA in a tough ballpark), especially considering his low strikeout rate (only 115 K in 221 IP). But Garland's only 26 and has a history of being durably average (career ERA+ of 105, or 5% above league average). Last year probably wasn't a breakout season, but he should still be a strong contributor and innings-eater.
Even less predictable was Jose Contreras. Contreras has always had the "stuff" to succeed at the big-league level, but that didn't stop him from horribly struggling with the Yankees. But Contreras broke through in 2005, posting a 3.61 ERA with 154 K in 204.2 IP. It's hard to say which Contreras will show up in 2006, but the evidence seems to point to a regenerated Jose Contreras in Chicago.
The Sox weren't content to have 4 good starting pitchers, so they traded the old and unreliable Orlando Hernandez as part of a package to get Javier Vazquez from Arizona. Vazquez is expensive, and he's also coming off two fairly disappointing seasons after a hot young career in Montreal. But Vazquez's peripherals suggest that he wasn't as bad as his 2005 stats seem. His 4.42 ERA is unsightly, but it's not too bad for hitter-friendly Arizona. He struck out 192 and walked just 46 in 215.2 IP, which is great news. The problem would be his 35 HR allowed. That's not going to improve any at U.S. Cellular Field, another hitter's park. But Vazquez is essentially a good pitcher and, as the 5th starter, the Sox don't have as much invested in his success or failure (except for a paycheck a little over $1o mil).
The Sox had quite a strong bullpen in 2005, and early indicators are good for 2006. New closer Bobby Jenks looked dominant down the stretch and in the postseason. And even if Jenks isn't brilliant, the Sox have good depth behind him.
The Sox signed Paul Konerko to a 5-year, $60 million contract. This is, as I've said before, a big overpayment, because Konerko isn't really as good as his ballpark suggests. But all told, GM Kenny Williams didn't have a lot of options; Konerko has been their best hitter for years, and they desperately need his offense. 3B will be manned by Joe Crede. Crede isn't much of a hitter in the pure sense (255/303/439 career), although he does have decent power (21 HR in '04, 22 HR in '05) and he's also a good defender.
Middle Infield
Tadahito Iguchi had a solid if unspectacular rookie campaign. He hit a respectable 278/342/438, although there are some questions about his defense. SS Juan Uribe is a lot like Crede; not much of a hitter (career .262 average, .305 OBP), but he does have good power (23 HR in '04, 16 in '05) and very good defense. The Uribe/Crede combo is indicative of the Sox lineup; good on power and defense, but otherwise mediocre on hitting.
Scott Podsednik returns to left. Podsednik is horribly overrated; he steals a lot of bases (although not with a great success rate), gets on base (but not that well; career .345 OBP), and plays good defense. He has zero power, which makes him a questionable choice for left field. Podsednik isn't a bad player; but scrappy leadoff hitters like him are notoriously overrated.
Jermaine Dye brings a solid (and cheap) presence to right field, coming off a 2005 where he hit 274/333/512. The Sox traded away resident CF Aaron Rowand as part of the deal to get Jim Thome. Rowand's career year in 2004 have gotten people to overrate his offense, but he was a solid hitter and good defender. The Sox will likely use prospect Brian Anderson to replace him.
It's hard to make an argument about the importance of team chemistry with A.J. Pierzynski around. Pierzynski was run out of San Francisco on a rail for the way he treated the team's pitching staff; then in 2005 he got a World Series ring while handling a pitching staff. It says a lot about our perception of "chemistry," and -- I think -- also about the relative importance of a catcher to the performance of a pitching staff. But none the less, A.J.'s a good hitter for a catcher (287/330/434 career) and the Sox just gave him a contract extension.
Trade acquisition Jim Thome will take over at DH. Thome is coming off an injury-plagued 2005, and at age 35 is not a good bet to be the elite hitter he once was. But health permitting, he can still mash, and is a great addition to a lineup that could use a good dose of offense and OBP (Thome's a career 281/408/562 hitter).
Another keen move made by Williams was trading middle reliver Damaso Marte for super-utility man Rob Mackowiak. Mackowiak gives the team defense flexibility and a good bat off the bench.
Ozzie Guillen is unorthodox, but he handled a World Champion last year and is back for more. The real credit, though, goes to GM Kenny Williams, for refusing to sit back with his World Series ring and be complacent. Williams risked disrupting "chemistry" to improve the team and, as a result, the Sox are favorites to repeat in the AL Central.
Projected Finish: 1st place

Cleveland Indians
The Indians came oh-so-close to overtaking the White Sox last year and had to settle for 93 wins and 2nd place. Their offense is still young and improving, but it's doubtful that the pitching staff will be as good as the group that led the league in ERA last year. And with the White Sox only getting better, the Indians again look like a close second in the division.
Starting Pitching
The Indians let Kevin Millwood go as a free agent. Millwood was invaluable to the team last year, leading the league in ERA and giving the Indians a true ace. But not only was he far too expensive to re-sign, but there's almost no chance he'll be that good again this year.
In Millwood's place, the Tribe will go with a rotation lacking in a true ace, but with very good depth. C.C. Sabathia has shown signs of dominance in the past, but lacks the durability and consistency to rank among the best. Cliff Lee got a lot of praise for his 2005 performance, but it was mainly due to his lucking into an 18-5 record. Lee is a durable guy who gets some strikeouts (143 in 202 IP last year), but his volatility keeps him from being an ace. Young Jake Westbrook looked like an ace in 2004 (3.38 ERA), but his low strikeout rate reared its head in 2005 (4.49 ERA), exposing him as the league-average pitcher he is.
The Indians went to the free agent market to supplement these 3. They probably overspent to get Paul Byrd ($7 million/year), especially considering the soft-tosser is now 35. But Byrd is coming off two good years with the Braves and the Angels, and he's also only signed for 2 years, so he should shore up the staff. The Tribe also signed Jason Johnson to a cheap 1-year deal, very reasonable for a pretty average innings-eater.
The Tribe lost a good deal of its strong 2005 'pen, but is returning familiar faces such as Rafael Betancourt and Scott Sauerbeck. 37-year-old Bob Wickman comes back (again) as the closer. But Wickman's high number of saves in 2005 (45) masked an aging, inconsistent pitcher who allowed 9 HR without exactly dominating hitters (21:41 BB:K ratio in 62 IP).
The Tribe is plagued by a weakness at the infield corners, the only real weakness in the offense. There's good news at third base: Aaron Boone shouldn't be nearly as bad as he was last year (a dreadful 243/299/378), and even if he is, the Tribe has uber-prospect Andy Marte waiting in the minors. First base is another story. I looks like the Tribe will once again be settling for Ben Broussard, a very underwhelming hitter for a first baseman (258/327/459). While they could use an upgrade at first, they're at least getting good offense elsewhere.
Middle Infield
The Indians are set with a very strong middle infield. Jhonny Peralta had a breakout year in 2005, hitting 292/366/520 with strong defense. Peralta is a budding superstar, and the Indians recognize it, having recently signed him to a new contract covering his arbitration years. 2B Ronnie Belliard isn't really great at anything, but he's pretty good at almost everything, making him one of the best cheap second basemen in the league.
The trade of Coco Crisp to Boston means that the outfield will be a notch worse than it was in 2005. Young Grady Sizemore returns in center with his good production (289/348/484), but there could be some weakness in the corners. The Tribe traded for Phillies CF Jason Michaels to replace Crisp. Michaels turns 30 in May and could be a bit overrated, but his major league hitting stats beg to differ (291/380/442 in 808 career ABs). Casey Blake isn't a very strong right fielder, but he's decent enough.
The Indians are blessed with a young stud of a catcher in Victor Martinez. Martinez's first season as a full-time starter was a rousing success (305/378/475).
DH Travis Hafner might be the best young hitter in the league, and is emerging as one of the best hitters in the league, period. Despite missing some time due to injury, Hafner still hit a monstrous 305/408/595 last year. He's just 28, so the Indians should have a couple more years like that left to see.
The Indians have several options off the bench. They have the versatile Ramon Vazquez and former prospect Brandon Phillips manning the infield, with promising Jason Dubois as a fourth outfielder. They also signed 1B Eduardo Perez, a formidable pinch hitter.
The Indians continue to make all the right moves. They've got a very promising young lineup and although they could use some pitching help, they've still got a strong farm system. So while they may have taken a slight step back from 2005, it's still far too early to count this exciting young team out.
Projected Finish: 2nd place

Minnesota Twins
The Twins were a pitching-and-defense team in 2005, which baseball analysts love. But what the Twins proved was that even pitching-and-defense teams have to have somebody hitting in order to be a contender. They've made some good adjustments for 2006 and should once again be strong contenders, but they may still be the third-best team in a strong division.
Starting Pitching
Johan Santana is the best pitcher in baseball. He won the Cy Young Award in 2004 and deserved to win it last year. And he's just 26. Wow.
After Santana, the Twins have good depth. Brad Radke is a reliable and underrated guy; he's durable and he gets outs. After a career year in '04, Radke regressed a little last year; his great 23:117 BB:K ratio was balanced by 33 HR and a good if not brilliant 4.o4 ERA. The #3 man, Carlos Silva, set a record last year with the fewest walks per 9 innings (just 9 BB in 188.1 IP). He's also an extremely efficient pitcher in terms of conserving pitches. He may not be quite as good as he was last year (3.44 ERA), but he should be solid presence who won't waste any pitches.
The back end of the rotation isn't quite as glamorous, but still good. Kyle Lohse isn't much more than average, but he's a durable guy who's decent when he can keep his walks down. The #5 spot will likely go to Francisco Liriano, one of the game's top pitching prospects. The Twins got Liriano in a trade with the Giants. This trade simply proves why the Twins are contenders on a shoestring budget and also why Brian Sabean isn't quite a genius:
San Francisco gets:
  • A.J. Pierzynski, who hits 272/319/410 in one season in San Francisco. Rumors of bad clubhouse chemistry and difficulties dealing with the pitchers lead to Pierzynski's outright release by the Giants in December 2004, a little more than a year after the trade.

Minnesota gets:

  • Joe Nathan, formerly a top setup man with the Giants. Since the trade, Nathan has become one of the AL's top closers, saving 44 games with a 1.62 ERA (2004) and 43 games with a 2.70 ERA (2005).
  • Francisco Liriano, mentioned above as one of the game's top pitching prospects.
  • and Boof Bonser, a promising minor league pitcher yet to reach the majors.

This may not exactly be on point, but it's one reason why that the Giants are struggling on one hand, and on the other hand the Twins have potentially one of the best starting rotations in baseball.
The great Minnesota bullpen isn't quite what it once was, but it's still fearsome. Closer Nathan is, as mentioned above, one of the game's best closers, and right up there with Mariano Rivera among the AL elite. The setup staff is relatively disappointing. Juan Rincon has shown good promise in the past. But then he failed a steroids test during the 2005 season, putting his future performance into doubt. Jesse Crain isn't quite the bullpen ace the Twins were expecting, suffering a tough rookie year in 2005 (29:25 BB:K ratio despite a 2.71 ERA), but still has time to bounce back. RHP Matt Guerrier and LHP Dennys Reyes could serve as the long-relief/mop-up men, a role both have performed in the past with some success. The Twins also have some young candidates for the bullpen, apart from Liriano.
Justin Morneau had a dreadful 2005 (239/304/437 with 22 HR). But it's likely just a slump for a guy who should be a prolific power hitter, which the Twins need now more than ever (the best they've got elsewhere are moderate-power threats such as Torii Hunter. The Twins signed 3B Tony Batista out of the Japanese leagues for reasons that defy logic. The 32-year-old isn't bad on defense and isn't very expensive, but the issue is with his fairly useless power-only offense (251/298/458 career) and the fact that he'll likely suck up a lot of at-bats as the starting third baseman. Kudos to the Twins for the creative solution to a problem; but there were much better options even within their own system.
Middle Infield
After a year where their middle infielders struggled to hit their body weight, the Twins made at least one big improvement; the trade for Marlins 2B Luis Castillo. Castillo just turned 30, but he's still a fine hitter , posting a 301/391/374 line last year in a tough NL pitcher's park. The move to the homer-happy MetroDome in the AL should pump up the numbers. Castillo is not only a great leadoff man, but is also a fine defender and a good base-stealer. This alone will boost the Twins' lineup.
A solution to the shortstop problem, however, did not come to pass. The Twins gave most of the time at SS last year to Juan Castro, who hit an abysmal 257/279/386 despite fine defense. The Twins have other options with homegrown talents like Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto, but they may just to have to give up on the idea of getting much offense from their SS, much as they did last year.
The formerly stacked Minnesota outfield is looking less so in recent years. The anchor is still CF Torii Hunter, a fine defender and pretty good hitter (career 267/321/458), although his offense isn't sufficient to make him the man to carry the team. After an absurd run at the 2003 MVP, LF Shannon Stewart had a poor season in 2005 (274/323/388), although he was troubled by nagging injuries. The 32-year-old isn't getting any younger, but he should bounce back in 2006 to numbers closer to his career stats (300/364/441). RF will either go to Lew Ford or Michael Cuddyer, both products of the farm system. Cuddyer is a more versatile all-around threat, but Ford is the better hitter (285/363/424 career, although that represents just 1164 ABs). It may not be the super-outfield of its reputation, but it's a solid, all-around bunch that should produce.
For some reason, we heard very little about catcher Joe Mauer last year. Mauer hit a fine 294/372/411 and provided great defense behind the plate. This youngster, who turns 23 in April, is already on his way to becoming the best catcher in baseball. Backup catcher Mike Redmond is an underrated guy, and not a bad hitter.
The Twins' first choice at DH is Rondell White. White can still hit, posting a great 313/348/489 line last season with Detroit. But injuries have constantly plagued his career, making him a good bet for something like 120 games. It's possible that moving from left field to DH will keep him in the lineup more often. But even if it doesn't, the Twins have solid hitters like Cuddyer to spot him some time. Outfield prospect Jason Kubel (knee) won't likely be ready for spring training, but should earn his spot in the starting lineup soon with his fine hitting, although it must be said that the Twins are never in a hurry to get their prospects to the majors.
While they're not stats-friendly like the Oakland A's, the Twins, like the A's, are a great model for how to run a baseball team on a low budget. Their owner, Carl Pohlad, may be the cheapest man in the majors, but GM Terry Ryan does an amazing job drafting and developing players, and continues to resist going after high-priced free agents. The result is a low-cost team that sees a fair amount of turnover, but Ryan not only gets the most out of his trades, but is usually able to replace departing players from within the system. Many small-market teams could learn a lot from the Twins.
Projected Finish: 3rd place

Detroit Tigers
The Tigers did very little this off-season, apart from satisfying their odd fetish for signing old pitchers to big contracts (Kenny Rogers, Todd Jones). The good news is that the Tigers have some young players ready to contribute at the big-league level. The bad news is that these players will have a hell of a time getting the team to .500, let alone at a level to contend with Chicago, Cleveland, and Minnesota.
Starting Pitching
The Tigers rotation is mostly an example of stable mediocrity, although there are some positive signs. Ace Jeremy Bonderman still hasn't ascended to the elite level (4.57 ERA), although he continues to show some promising peripherals (57:145 BB:K ratio in 189 IP). He's also just 23 years old, so there's time for him to keep developing (it's not like the Tigers are in any rush to the playoffs).
After Bonderman are the guys who throw lots of innings but not much else. Kenny Rogers was great for Texas last year (3.46 ERA), but his mere 87 K in 195.1 IP, not to mention his 41 years of age, make him a risky guy to throw a lot of money at; he's unlikely to be as good as he was last year. Mark Maroth is an innings-eater, averaging over 200 innings in his 3 major league season, but they're not really high-quality innings (career 4.82 ERA, ERA+ of 90, meaning 10% below league average). He's also a low-strikeout pitcher, making him an unlikely choice for a breakout year. Nate Robertson is a similar story; his quality has been middling-to-good, wth his strikeout rate about average or just below. He was one of the Tigers' best pitchers last year, but he's no sure thing for 2006.
After Bonderman, the only real promising pitcher is young Justin Verlander, a pitcher with a good future. It's possible that Verlander will win a spot in the rotation in spring training. And after Verlander are some more prospects who could add to the Detroit rotation.
The Tigers made the bone-headed decision to sign Todd Jones as their closer. I mentioned earlier in the blog that the team that signed Jones would be making a mistake; Jones' brilliant 2005 was so far off his career totals that there's basically no chance the soon-to-be-38 year-old will be that good; he may even be bad. It's surprising, because the Tigers made the exact same mistake last year in signing aging, injury-prone Troy Percival to a 2-year deal. Troy suffered in 2005 before going down with injuries and will likely retire before this year starts. But at least Percival was a proven commodity; Jones is a guy who lucked into a career year last season and convinced the dodos of Detroit to give him a lot of money for it.
The Tigers would save trouble to just hand the ball to closer-in-training Fernando Rodney, who filled in very nicely for Percival last year. Behind Rodney is a strong bullpen; Jamie Walker is death to lefties, Roman Colon is a strong arm obtained from Atlanta, and Matt Mantei could be a valuable guy out there with his 10-year ML experience.
While Carlos Pena could still be a valuable bat, the Tigers are turning to promising young Chris Shelton to play first base. The prospect made a splash in 2005, hitting 299/360/510 in a half-season's work last year, basically assuring himself the job this year. Third base will be manned by Brandon Inge. Inge showed good promise in 2005, hitting a respectable 261/330/419 with strong defense at the hot corner. It will be up to him to prove that his performance was more than a fluke.
Middle Infield
Carlos Guillen's health permitting, the Tigers could have the best middle infield in the league. Guillen isn't much on defense, but the 3o-year-old has emerged as one of the league's best-hitting shortstops over the past three seasons. However, he's been continually plagued by injuries (averaging about 112 games/year in Detroit). Second baseman Placido Polanco didn't stay a well-kept secret for long. With the Phillies deciding to trade him rather than squeeze him in the lineup, the strong leadoff man put together a fine second half in Detroit, earning himself a nice contract extension. Polanco's seasonal totals were a 331/383/447 hitting line with good defense. Don't be surprised if Polanco is the league's best 2B in 2006.
The strength of the infield if counteracted by a relatively weak outfield. Craig Monroe is decent in left (277/322/446 last year), but the Tigers could use a lot more than that. RF Magglio Ordonez is a reliable offensive threat, but the Tigers' still aren't such if they can count on 150 games from him. CF Curtis Granderson is a quandary; he's shown good power, good patience, and speed in the minors, but putting it all together at the major league level is another question.
The Tigers will return C Ivan Rodriguez. The Tigers are now seeing the effects of giving catchers long-term contracts; in just the second year of his deal, Pudge's production dropped to 276/290/444, including a mysterious sudden drop in plate discipline; after averaging about 35 BB per season during his career, Pudge drew only 11 in 504 ABs in 2005. It's most likely that his hitting will bounce back somewhat from such an off year, but it's also possible that a 34-year-old catcher just doesn't age well.
Dmitri Young will be the team's DH, although he hasn't quite lived up to the role in recent years. Dmitri's offense has fallen in recent years, especially in batting average. Whereas he hit at least .300 in 4 seasons in Cincinnati, Young has averaged about .280 in Detroit. His 2005 line (271/325/471) wasn't too bad, but the Tigers need more from their DH, still just 32 years old.
The aforementioned Pena is looking to make a comeback to the everyday lineup after losing his spot last year. The acquisition of Polanco moves Omar Infante into a utility infield role, for which he is best suited. Outfielder Nook Logan seems like a player with good tools but no real way to utilize them.
Upper management is being aggressive in signing free agents; they're just signing all of the wrong ones. A more intelligent and restrained attitude to the free agent market could help a team that has a pretty good core of young talent. Manager Jim Leyland may be able to help, but this is still simply the 4th-best team in a 5-team division.
Projected Finish:

Kansas City Royals
The Royals are now officially the most hopeless franchise in baseball. The Devil Rays, Rockies, and Marlins at least have some prospects to make the future bright. The Pirates don't have much future, but they still manage to win a respectable 70 games or so most years. No, it's just the Royals now at the bottom of the heap, continually digging themselves further into a hole that only an act of God could remove them from.
Starting Pitching
The Royals' hopes for their starters took a big hit when young ace Zach Greinke left spring training camp for undisclosed "personal reasons." The facts were shrouded in mystery, and the Royals could only speak with ambivalence, unable to predict when Greinke would return. This odd personal crisis aside, practicality would force us to admit that the team just lost not only its best starter; but it's best pitching prospect. Greinke's return is paramount to the team's attempt to regain respectability.
After Runelvys Hernandez, a top prospect who's running out of chances to start prospecting in the majors, the Royals signed useless stop-gaps. The Royals spent free-agent money on Scott Elarton and Joe Mays (and traded for Mark Redman), knowing that they couldn't possibly help the team by more than a few games, and it's worthless distinction between 60 and 65 wins. They'll take their money and leave a year later, leaving the team little better than it was to begin with. The Royals are in a state of just maintaining their awfulness, the worst state of a major league franchise.
The arrival of promising relievers Andy Sisco and Ambiorix Burgos was good news for the team last year. It's even better, since word from camp is that capable closer Mike MacDougald may be out for a month with injuries. Jeremy Affeldt is another prospect with little time left to turn that potential into reality; he could move to the starting rotation or be traded. Denny Bautista and Mike Wood have some promise, but will admittedly have little impact on the team's overall performance.
The Royals spent more useless money by signing Doug Mientkiewicz to play first. Since 1B is an offense-first position whose defense is of relatively little importance, good-glove/no-hit Mientkiewicz isn't such a great choice. A much better choice would be Matt Stairs, who is the opposite (good-hit/no-glove). The Royals signed Stairs to an extension after his non-awfulness during 2005, then proceeded to sign so many free agents that Stairs was left on the bench. Great long-term planning, guys.
3B Mark Teahen had a rough first year in the majors (246/309/376), but this 24-year-old should soon show the strong hitting stroke he displayed in the minors.
Middle Infield
Hoo, boy. Shortstop Angel Berroa is a poor hitter and poor defender, which makes him a poor choice to sign to a long-term contract extension. But the Royals were blinded by his rookie year, a performance which looks more and more like luck.
The Royals signed another place-filler at 2B in Mark Grudzielanek. Grudzielanek isn't great, but he'll solidify the position. But he's another case of over-spending; the difference between 65 and 70 wins is negligible when you could be investing money in your long-term future.
The good news is that Brown isn't a bad hitter (286/349/455 in '05) and should have gotten more of a shot at the majors before now. But the bad news is that he's a 31-year-old journeyman who is a bad left fielder -- I'm talking Manny Ramirez bad.
CF David DeJesus is probably the greatest long-term hope for the Royals, now that Greinke's taken off. With an excellent minor-league track record, the 26-year old DeJesus has done a fine job in his limited time in KC (290/361/427 over 3 years).
The Royals went yet again to the unnecessary free agent pool. They signed Reggie Sanders, the good-hitting but aging (38) former Cardinal. Sanders should do well for the team in the short term, but he and his money will be long gone by the time the games matter in Kansas City.
The other part of the KC youth movement is catcher John Buck, obtained in the Carlos Beltran trade. Buck showed solid hitting skills in the minors, but these have yet to materialize at the major league level (239/284/402 in 639 ABs). Buck turns 26 in July and is not strong enough defensively to justify his spot in the lineup if he keeps hitting like that.
Mike Sweeney and his contract sit at DH, meaning the Royals have to do something else with the two or three other DHs they have on their roster. The days of Sweeney the great hitter are likely over, but he's still a good hitter when healthy (300/347/517 in '05). The Royals are just hoping that will be more often, with Sweeney averaging just about 115 games over the past 4 seasons.
The bench is about what you'd expect from the Royals.
Incompetent, at worst. Ill-informed, misguided, and hopeless optimistic at best. The Royals seem more interested in spending their money on C-level stars to maintain a 70-75 win level of mediocrity than sacrificing the short term to actually develop a winner. GM Allard Baird deserves the responsibility, and he should end up taking it full-force sometime soon. Manager Buddy Bell is just another warm body sent down to occupy the bench.
Projected Finish: 5th place

Friday, March 17, 2006

WBC Update

  • The World Baseball Classic is catching on in the U.S. I don't have any solid figures on TV ratings, attendance, or suchlike, but early returns are positive for the WBC. What happens, it seems, is that the energy and enthusiasm from the Caribbean fans rubbed off. It's been a modest victory, but a victory nonetheless in a country otherwise preoccupied with NCAA Basketball.
  • Team USA was eliminated from the WBC yesterday with a 2-1 loss to Mexico. This should hurt the event among USA fans, but it's quite a boon internationally. It's an upset by an underdog, which is always a good story that excites people. The semi-finals take place tomorrow, with the Dominican Republic .vs. Cuba in the afternoon and Korea .vs. Japan in the evening.
  • Team USA is taking a lot of criticism, and rightfully so, for their choice of players and strategies. I'm still wondering what Buck Martinez is doing managing the team, with at least 15 more qualified out-of-work managers out there. And the selection of U.S. players (not counting those that dropped out or refused to play) was quite poor. While teams such as the Dominican had a Murderer's Row out there every day, it looked like the U.S. was playing its "B" team. Several fans have asked what in the world Matt Holliday and Al Leiter were doing on a team that's supposed to be the country's best. Or what Ken Griffey, Jr. is doing as the starting center fielder. The answer seems to be that the U.S. had a much bigger interest in naming superstars to the team and spreading the talent among big league teams (you don't want 6 Yankees out there) than the other countries. Griffey was named the starting center fielder, because he's the most famous U.S. center fielder there is. Johnny Damon would be a better choice, especially on defense, but never mind. I'm guessing that the poor performance of the U.S. team will change this. The U.S. nearly got eliminated in each round of the WBC, narrowly avoiding it until losing to Mexico yesterday. There's really no reason that a team with Miguel Ojeda in the starting lineup should beat the U.S., but there you go. The U.S. got embarassed by Korea, and would have lost to Japan were it not for a controversial call in the 9th inning. This is not to knock these other teams, but to simply say that the American team should have made a much better showing. In 2009, though, when the Classic returns, I think that more American players will want to participate, based on the early positive reaction to the WBC.
  • Boy, those Caribbean fans love their baseball.
  • On another unrelated note, Bud Selig will announce soon whether or not he intends to investigate Barry Bonds. The question seems to be whether MLB will investigate, or whether an outside investigator will be brought in. There is a precedent for such an action, with the Pete Rose investigation under Commissioner Bart Giamatti. Unlike Rose, however, Bonds is just the tip of the iceberg. If Selig really wants to be the crusading commissioner, he's going to have to instruct the investigators not to confine their case to Barry Bonds alone.
  • What can actually be done to Bonds is problematic. Formal punishment for steroids didn't begin until 2002, so what Bonds did in 1998 is of less interest. Other than that, it's not clear that Bonds broke any other baseball rules. So whether or not Selig can actually suspend Bonds based on the investigation is questionable. Although this would likely change if Bonds is indicted for perjury or tax evasion. You also have to take the Player's Association into account. Any suspension or punishment will be appealed, possibly with success. Selig could end up suspending Bonds anyway, just to make a statement, even if he knows it wouldn't stand. But faced with overwhelming evidence, Selig is going to have to take a very tough stance on Bonds if he ever wants to be taken seriously again. Selig knows as well as anyone that steroids will likely be the cornerstone of his legacy, and his decisions now will strongly affect how he is viewed by history. Any softness on Bonds will be construed as either incompetence, or worse, an effort to cover up the MLB's culpability in the steroids scandal.
  • Either way, there's a lot to talk about in the baseball world these days. Opening Day is Sunday, April 2, and the games will matter no matter what happens to Barry or team USA.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

AL East Preview

New York Yankees
The Yankees are coming into the season with many of the same problems that plagued them last year. The AL East will be a close race, but it looks like the Yankees are the early favorites.
Starting Pitching
If the Yankees can get good starting pitching, they can run away in the East. If not, it'll be as close as it was last year. Randy Johnson is finally showing his age (42 this year), meaning that he's no longer an elite starter, and may not even be above-average for much longer. Mike Mussina is younger (37), but even more questionable in terms of health (4.41 ERA in 179.2 IP last season). The Yankees lucked into some great production last year from Shawn Chacon, Chein-Ming Wang, and Aaron Small. But the only one who can be reliably counted upon for good work this year is Wang, and perhaps Chacon. Picking up the slack is whatever is left of Carl Pavano (still not sure when he'll be ready), and Jaret Wright, who got a sweetheart (AKA stupid) deal from the Yankees last off-season, and now they're stuck paying him.
Mariano Rivera is as solid as ever, but the Yanks might miss Tom Gordon, who was baseball's best setup man over the last few years. In his place is Kyle Farnsworth, who had a great 2005, but isn't nearly as consistent. The Yanks have Octavio Dotel, a player with high upside who has struggled the past couple of years. After that it's a bit bare, with lefty specialist Mike Myers and Torre's Favorite Son (though why, we don't know) Tanyon Sturtze.
Jason Giambi returns at first base, which doesn't bode well for the defense, but Giambi came back as an elite hitter in 2005 (271/440/535). Reigning MVP Alex Rodriguez is still one of the best players in baseball, but no one wants to like him, and this fact colors almost all of the press he gets (especially in NYC).
Middle Infield
You've got good offense here, from Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano, but defense be damned. Jeter actually does appear to be getting better at shortstop (meaning he's not quite as awful), whereas the Yanks hope that Cano will get better offensively (297/320/458) as well. It should be noted here that the Yankees had one of the worst defenses in all of baseball last year, and this cost them a lot. Other than the acquisition of Johnny Damon, the Yanks haven't gotten much better this year, and in fact, everybody's going to be one year older.
The Yanks have a very strong outfield offense, with Matsui (305/367/496) and Sheffield (291/379/512) manning the corners. Johnny Damon is an upgrade in center, but is vastly overrated. Everyone's expecting Damon to save the Yankees. And, like Beltran last season with the Mets, Damon will get blamed for everyone's artificially high expectations. Damon still runs well and is a far sight better than Bernie Williams defensively, but his 2005 hitting line of (316/366/439) won't translate quite as well to Yankee Stadium. It will still be good, obviously, but not savior good. And at age 32, he's only going to get worse from here.
Jorge Posada, formerly one of the more underrated backstops in the game, has finally started showing his age. Posada turns 35 this season, meaning his 2005 hitting line of 262/352/430 is only going to trend downward. It's still great for a catcher, but Posada is no longer as strong defensively as he once was.
The Yanks have tentatively slotted Bernie Williams as their DH, although his 2005 hitting line of 249/321/367 makes that a questionable decision. At least Ruben Sierra is gone, he who was given 170 ABs as the DH last year despite hitting 265/271/429.
The Yankees tend to show odd tastes in selecting bench players, and this year is no different. The Yankees still seem to see something in Bubba Crosby, although God only knows what (221/253/301 lifetime). Miguel Cairo is a capable utility infielder, although Kelly Stinnett is an odd choice for backup catcher for a team with this much money. The Yanks do have Andy Phillips, a fine-hitting minor league first baseman, to spot Giambi at first and share time at DH.
Despite inner-office rumblings over the past few years, George Steinbrenner has recommitted to GM Brian Cashman and manager Joe Torre. Cashman's new deal comes with the tacit agreement that he will no longer be undermined by the team's Tampa office. This is certainly good news for Cashman, who may have the toughest job in baseball.
The second-toughest goes to Joe Torre. Despite coming under criticism for his bizarre strategic decisions in recent years, Torre does seem able to hold together a difficult Yankee clubhouse while withstanding the heat from Steinbrenner.
Projected Finish: 1st place

Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox could conceivably win anywhere between 75-95 games. Peter Gammons is correct when he states that the Red Sox have so many unknown variables that, at this point, it's anyone's best guess where they'll finish.
Starting Pitching
Well, they've got a lot of starting pitchers (7 or so) but nobody knows who, if anyone, will be any damn good. Curt Schilling is coming off an injury-plagued 2005, and this 39-year-old's days as an elite starter, and maybe even an above-average starter, may be over. Or not.
Josh Beckett is the safest bet of the bunch. Many people are still blinded by Beckett's Postseason Halo, since he was the 2003 World Series MVP against the Yankees. But it hasn't made him an elite pitcher yet (he turns 26 in May), and it's looking less and less likely that he'll be anything but the quality -- if injury-prone -- guy that he is.
Matt Clement seemed like a safe bet when the Sox signed him as a free agent last year. But after getting off to a good start, Clement struggled in the second half, finishing with a 4.57 ERA in just 191 innings. This could be an off year, or just the realization that he's 31 years old. Tim Wakefield was, believe it or not, probably the Sox's best pitcher last season, eating up 225.1 IP with a decent 4.15 ERA and 151 K (despite a league-leading 35 HR allowed). But Wakefield is as unpredictable as his knuckleball, so there are no guarantees there. David Wells will likely be the fifth starter, but it's unclear how much this soon-to-be 42-year-old has left, or even if he gives a damn anymore (he asked for a trade away from Boston in the fall, then reversed himself when it became clear that it wasn't happening).
Backing up this uncertain bunch is Bronson Arroyo, reliably decent, and young phenom Jon Papelbon. The Sox are very wary of rushing this future star into the rotation, but I doubt the Fenway Faithful will have any patience if the starting rotation plummets in May.
Can Keith Foulke still be a major league closer? Nobody knows until he gets out there, which is a troubling prospect. The Sox re-signed Mike Timlin, who filled in brilliantly at closer for them last year, but 2005 was a monster career year for the 40-year-old, so it's unlikely he has any more miracles left.
Arroyo and Papelbon are here, at least to start. The Sox signed Julian Tavarez and Rudy Seanez, both of whom were strong middle relievers in 2005. They got Guillermo Mota as a throw-in in the Beckett deal, but it's doubtful that Mota can recapture his Los Angeles glory. Jon Lester is the Boston closer of the future, but he's probably going to need more time before being thrust into that spotlight.
The Sox are going to cross their fingers at the infield corners. Third base will go to Mike Lowell, acquired (along with his salary) from Florida in the Beckett deal. Lowell had an awful 2005 (236/298/360), but it was most likely just a slump. If this 32-year-old can just reproduce his career averages (272/339/461 in an NL pitcher's park) and provide solid defense, the Sox will get a good return on their money.
The acquisition of Lowell pushes Moneyball hero Kevin Youkilis over to first base. Youkilis is a good hitter for a third baseman (265/376/411 career), but first base is another story. The Sox signed glove man J.T. Snow to share some time with him.
Middle Infield
The Sox stole 2B Mark Loretta from the Padres in the pre-season. Loretta is getting older and can probably never recapture his 2003-2004 glory, but he'll still be one of the league's best 2B at around $4 million. Shortstop Alex Cora is as temporary as they come, but the Sox will just plug him into the 9 hole and deal with his all-field-no-hit status until they can upgrade.
The Sox will be hurt by the loss of Johnny Damon, but not as much as people think. As I examined in this previous entry, new CF Coco Crisp isn't much worse than Damon at all. He's also younger and infinitely cheaper. So while this will hurt the Sox in the short run, it will be the best for the team overall.
Manny Ramirez is in left field, ho hum. More off-field dramatics, crybaby antics, and -- oh, yeah -- MVP-esque hitting (292/388/594 in '05).
Right field will be played by Trot Nixon and sponsored by the American Red Cross. Seriously, though, Nixon is brittle for 31 (32 in April), and the Sox will need a backup outfielder who can hit, since Nixon has barely averaged 100 games played over the last 3 seasons. But when he's healthy, he can still hit with the best of them (275/357/446 in '05).
Jason Varitek is still damn good (281/366/489 in '05), but keep your eye on the clock (he turns 34 in April). It's unclear who will serve as backup catcher for the Sox. 2005 backup Doug Mirabelli was traded, and free agent replacement John Flaherty recently retired. So who knows?
It may surprise you to hear that David Ortiz is not the second coming of the Christ. And, clutch hitting aside (as it should be), Ortiz may not even be the best DH in the AL:
David Ortiz 2004: 301/380/603
Travis Hafner 2004: 311/410/583
David Ortiz 2005 (age 29): 300/397/604
Travis Hafner 2005 (age 27): 305/408/595
Ortiz is more durable and plays more games than Hafner, but he also plays in a much friendlier hitter's ballpark.
That aside, I think I can safely say that being the second-best DH in the AL is still pretty damned good.
The Sox have Tony Graffanino to serve as utility infielder, but word is they're trying to trade him. Infielder Dustin Pedroia could find some time in the infield; he's a rising prospect in the Sox system. Fourth outfield duties are unclear at this point; rookies Adam Stern and David Murphy could be early candidates. Not a lot too get too excited about here.
The off-season circus is over, and Theo Epstein is back. It may not pay immediate dividends, as I've said, but the Sox appear poised to build another winner. Manager Terry Francona rates highly among most observers and recently signed a contract extension.
Projected Finish: 2nd place

Toronto Blue Jays
I'm not prepared to jump on the Toronto bandwagon just yet. While it's possible they'll be able to contend with Boston and New York, it's no sure thing. Their pitching has improved since last year, and their hitting might have taken a step forward, but I don't think it's nearly enough to vault this team much higher than 90 wins, if that.
Starting Pitching
Ace Roy Halladay was on his way to another stellar season in 2005 (2.41 ERA, 108 K in 141.2 IP), when a broken leg ended his year prematurely. If he's healthy, he's one of the best pitchers in baseball, bar none.
The Blue Jays ended up spending a lot of money on A.J. Burnett, and I'm simply not sure that he's anything but above-average. Burnett has a career ERA of 3.73 (110 ERA+), which is good. But he's only thrown more than 120 innings three times in his career, and he's 29 years old. At his best, Burnett could be one of the 10-12 best pitchers in the league, but Burnett has almost never been at his best for very long, and he's not going to get any better at his age. The Jays will probably get quality work from him, but nowhere near enough to justify his giant contract.
Halladay is the only really good pitcher the Blue Jays have, but they've got several pretty good ones. Gustavo Chacin had a fine rookie year in 2005 (3.72 ERA) although his fairly low strikeout rate (121 in 203 IP) is troubling. Josh Towers may not be that promising, but he's solid and is coming off a fine 2005 (3.71 ERA with only 29 BB in 208.2 IP), but he also has a low strikeout rate. Ted Lilly is usually a reliable arm, but had a dreadful 2005 (5.56 ERA). But he should bounce back above mediocrity. Other than Halladay, the Jays won't overwhelm anybody, but I think they'll be surprisingly competent with good depth.
The Jays went the Full Monty on closer B.J. Ryan. This will likely be good news for the next couple years, as Ryan just mowed down hitters last year, but don't coming crying to me, J.P., when you're paying a boatload to a 34-year-old closer.
As with the rotation, the Jays have good depth in the bullpen. There are a lot of unknowns, such as Justin Speier and Jason Frasor, but they're a capable bunch who've toiled in obscurity for the past few years.
The Blue Jays' offensive changes in the off-season saw hitters really coming and going, with the 1B-3B-DH slots serving as a revolving door. Troy Glaus takes over as third baseman. Glaus had a fine 2005 with Arizona, but he's got a killer contract, and his old injuries may yet flare up. Lyle Overbay is an underrated and cheap first baseman (285/373/450 career), but the Jays only have him for this year, unless they can sign an extension. In short, the Jays have improved at the infield corners, but it's not yet clear if it was worth the cost in money and players traded away.
Middle Infield
Toronto pitchers will miss 2B Orlando Hudson (lost in the Glaus deal), perhaps the game's best defensive second baseman. Young Aaron Hill will get the full-time job, but there are no guarantees about when (or if) he'll start producing. Russ Adams, another prospect, mans shortstop. He'll hopefully improve on a dismal 2005 that saw him hit 256/323/383 with awful defense. This could be a big weakness for Toronto.
Everyone seems to think that Alexis Rios will still be a superstar someday. This is where statistical analysis has trumped traditional scouting. Scouting looks at "tools" without bothering to connect it to actual performance. I can't talk about Rios' tools, but I can say that he's a 25-year-old who's only really had one good season of professional baseball (2003 at AA). If he hasn't been able to replicate that one season yet, at age 25, that bus has left the depot.
Vernon Wells is multi-talented, but is not quite the superstar many people envision (being multi-talented is, in the eyes of most commentators, better than having one talent that's just really good). This is mainly because he's merely an adequate hitter; a 285/330/481 career mark in one of the AL's better hitter's parks. But with the defense, he's not such a bad guy to have around.
Left field will likely go to either Frank Catalanotto or Reed Johnson. Both are capable (Catalanotto especially), but this leaves the outfield, which should be a prime source of offense, as especially bare. The Jays are likely going to above-average production from just one outfield position, CF (Wells), and even that's not very above-average. Combine that with a weakness in the middle infield, and it's difficult for me to see where this "contending" team is supposed to be getting its offense from.
The Jays had a reliable (if so-so defensively) catcher in Gregg Zaun, but decided to upgrade with the signing of free agent Bengie Molina. Molina is a fine defender and a good hitter as well. But, again, it's not clear if the upgrade was worth the cost.
Shea Hillenbrand will serve as DH. Hillenbrand isn't bad at all, but I think the Jays are counting a little too much on this career 288/327/448 hitter.
The Jays will have one half of the Catalanotto/Johnson pairing on the bench at all times. They'll also have Eric Hinske, a former Rookie of the Year who just hasn't been nearly as good since. Backup catching duties will go to prospect Guillermo Quiroz.
GM J.P. Ricciardi raised expectations (and payroll) in Toronto by leaps and bounds; the team did not undergo any comparable improvement. While Ricciardi has made the Jays better, he has vastly overpaid and created the expectation of postseason baseball. He's the one who will likely be held responsible if the Jays fail to contend with the Yankees and Red Sox.
Projected Finish: 3rd place

Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles spent most of the off-season accomplishing nothing; never a good move for a team coming off a 74-88 season with little help in the farm system. They did manage to nab the game's premier pitching coach, but it will likely be Home Sweet Fourth Place for Baltimore next season.
Starting Pitching
The O's will benefit from having Leo Mazzone on their pitching coach; but it's too much to expect even Mazzone to have a huge, immediate impact. There's not a whole lot to work with on the Baltimore staff. The best-case scenario would have Mazzone lowering the ERA by a half-run. But considering the O's posted a 4.56 ERA last season (9th in the AL), and allowed 580 walks (only Tampa Bay allowed more), it'll take more than Leo to create a contender.
Erik Bedard looked like the real thing last year before getting injured. He came back, posting a 5.01 ERA in his post-DL starts, making his presumed stardom questionable. The same could be said for Daniel Cabrera, who possesses great "stuff," but has yet to translate that into performance. He could use some help from Mazzone.
The O's did take advantage of the Mets in acquiring solid right-hander Kris Benson. Benson makes a bit of money, but he's reliably above-average, if not by much. But all the Orioles really gave up was iffy reliever Jorge Julio, so no harm no foul. Rodrigo Lopez is an innings-eater, but the O's hope it will be better-quality innings than last year (4.90 ERA, 118 K in 209.1 IP). There's not much after that, with Bruce Chen unlikely to reproduce a career year in 2005 (3.83 ERA).
The loss of B.J. Ryan hurts, obviously, but the O's might have a replacement in young Chris Ray. Ray is viewed as their closer of the future, although he has yet to be tested in the majors. So the future may not be 2006. After him, it's the dregs.
The Orioles acquired 1B Kevin Millar mainly as a clubhouse presence, but that and $5 will get you some Starbucks. If Millar doesn't produce above his 2005 levels (272/355/399 in Fenway), he won't be much help. Melvin Mora mans third, reliable on offense if forgettable on defense.
Middle Infield
Miguel Tejada is still one of the game's best players. This 26-year-old should shrug off a slightly down 2005 (304/349/515) and return to form. 2B Brian Roberts had an uber-career year in 2005 (314/387/515), but the Orioles hope it's just the sign of things to come for this 28-year-old. Expect something closer to his career rates (278/344/402), but still with good defense and speed.
The Orioles still suffer from an offensively barren outfield, a problem which isn't too hard to rectify in today's game. It's understandable that the O's can't get good pitching very easily, but good outfield help is available for the right price, which the O's do have the money to pay. So there's no excuse for a starting outfield of Jeff Conine, Jay Gibbons, and either Luis Matos or Corey Patterson.
The O's signed free agent catcher Ramon Hernandez, but may not be getting quite what they hoped. Hernandez still hits well for a catcher (262/325/418 in pitcher's parks), but his once-vaunted defense didn't look quite so valuable out in San Diego. It's also an odd move, since the O's already had a catcher (albeit a 35-year-old catcher) in Javy Lopez. This signing will shift Javy to 1B-DH, where his offense will be less valuable.
Other than the aforementioned Lopez, the O's don't have much on the bench at all. It's a pretty offensively dry team, a reversal of previous years, which will be especially troubling if Mazzone can't get the pitching staff turned around.
Jim Beattie took the rap as co-GM, being replaced with Jim Duquette, who will share duties with Mike Flanagan. But it's very difficult to tell how much any GM could accomplish under the ever-watchful eye of Peter Angelos. The Orioles have been one of the worse teams, over the past 10 years, in terms of signing high-cost/low-yield free agents. The days of Ripken are long over, and fans may be wondering if they can fire the owner. You'd get no argument from Bud Selig.
Projected Finish: 4th place

Tampa Bay Devil Rays
There is hope! New ownership and new management have sent the historically incompetent Vince Naimoli and Chuck LaMar packing. It's true, though, that the new executives may not be much better than their predecessors, but they surely to goodness can't be much worse. And with a passel of young talent on its way to the majors, there may just be a glimmer of hope after all.
Starting Pitching
Here's where the hope founders, as the Tampa Bay pitching is bloody awful. The 2005 squad finished 13th in the AL (of 14) with a 5.39 ERA, dead last in HR allowed (194) and dead last as well in walks allowed (AL-high 615, against just 949 Ks). Most of the top prospects in the organization are position players; the best pitching help is still in the low minors.
The good news is that the D-Rays do appear to have one good pitcher. 22-year-old Scott Kazmir was taken from the Mets for a song and showed great promise in his first full season. Despite allowing an AL-high 100 walks, Kazmir notched 174 K in 186 IP, allowing just 12 homers. It's good news for a franchise that has never had a very good pitcher, especially since the youngster is only going to get better.
Sorry, that's all the good news you get. The rotation will be filled out by marginal major-leaguers such as Mark Hendrickson and Seth McClung. Ex-Dodger prospect Edwin Jackson will likely get a shot, although he doesn't look nearly as promising as he did 2 years ago.
The D-Rays traded soon-to-be free agent Danys Baez and will likely hand the closer's job to Chad Orvella. The 25-year-old righty had a fine rookie year in 2005, and it's not like there's anyone better. The bullpen is a bit more reliable than the rotation, but that's not saying much.
The corner tandem of Travis Lee and Sean Burroughs may not hit their weight, but they're pretty good glove men. These two are stopgaps until someone better comes along; although Burroughs will be given a shot to recapture his status as a former top prospect.
Middle Infield
Better news here, as the D-Rays have talented and underappreciated Julio Lugo at shorstop. Lugo isn't going to rate up there with Tejada, Jeter, or Jhonny Peralta of Cleveland. But he's nearly as good as all three and only made $3.25 million last year (Jeter got $19.6 mil). That's $3.25 mil for good hitting (295/362/403), good fielding (5 FRAA), and 39/50 in steals. Why in the world did the Braves choose Edgar Renteria over this uber-bargain?
Second baseman Jorge Cantu . . . well, the good news is that he's got a ton of power. Cantu hit 28 HR and 40 doubles for a .497 slugging percentage, 3rd among AL 2B. But not only was his defense awful, he drew only 19 BB against 83 K for an unacceptable .311 OBP. It's possible that he can become a bit more disciplined, but he still just doesn't look like a second baseman. Is there anybody else on this team who can play the infield?
The Rays have an embarassment of riches in the outfield. LF Carl Crawford is another multi-talented player who gets far too much credit based simply on that fact. Crawford hits well (301/331/469), but not so well for a left fielder. He steals bases, too, but he's not worth the reams of great press he gets.
Speaking of overrated, there's center fielder Rocco Baldelli, who has already received a contract extension. Baldelli is a good center fielder, but he doesn't hit that well (285/326/425, which is right in line with what he hit in the minors). He's not a bad guy to have around, but the D-Rays are going to end up trading away better players just to make room for this guy, and I just don't think he's quite that special. Although it must be noted that, at age 24, he has a lot of developing yet to do.
The first guy to get traded away for Baldelli will likely be minor leaguer Joey Gathright. Gathright has gotten a lot of attention from other clubs, so the D-Rays will be trading somebody around here soon, most likely him. As a hitter, Gathright most resembles Luis Castillo, although to a lesser degree. He hits for a high average, steals bases, and draws a few walks, which makes him seem a lot more valuable than he probably is. He's a few months younger than Baldelli, for what that's worth. But I think teams have slightly overrated Gathright's hitting, which will only mean good things when the Rays trade him away.
Right field will go to Jonny Gomes, who made quite an impression with his rookie debut in 2005. Gomes doesn't get nearly as much hype as his colleagues, but he's quite a nice hitter. He's not worth much defensively and hits for a low average, but has a ton of power and draws his share of walks. He's just 25, so he should help round out a nice young outfield.
Honorable mention goes to super-prospect B.J. Upton. Upton is just 21 and is already hitting like a major leaguer at AAA (303/392/490 in '05). The problem is that Upton is a shortstop -- a really bad one. Most teams would shift him to center field, but God knows the Rays have enough center fielders as it is. The Rays have committed themselves to the idea that Upton is a shortstop, even hiring Ozzie Smith to work with him.
While it's a nice effort, it's probably for naught. While Ozzie could certainly make B.J. more passable, he's not going to turn water into wine. The best thing would be to shift B.J. somewhere else defensively (he's a far sight better than that stiff Baldelli) and get his bat in the lineup for the 6 years they control him. Upton has gotten some bad press as an attitude problem, and while that may be true, it might just be the fact that he's stuck in the minors playing for the worst franchise in baseball at a position he sucks at. I'd complain, too.
Yet another super-prospect outfielder is Delmon Young. Young played quite well at A and AA ball, but struggled at AAA last season. This isn't really bad news, seeing as how he's just 20 years old. Young won't be ready for another year or so, but he's another good player slowly inching his way into the outfield.
Toby Hall is what the Rays already have, so he's what they'll settle for. Catchers are far too expensive.
Aubrey Huff will be the team's DH. Huff used to be the franchise's best young hitter, but his stock has taken a dive recently, thanks mainly to his poor defense and his truly rough 2005 (261/321/428). But for 3 straight years, from 2002-2004, Huff hit roughly 300/360/500, and since he's still just 29, I'd like to be the team to trade for him while his stock is low and see him (likely) hit closer to his career numbers. Many teams have enquired, but the Rays' asking price has been too high. I'm not sure why, since they won't control him for much longer.
The bench is about what you'd expect from the defending AL East Last-Placers.
Really, they can't be any worse than the Naimoli/LaMar chamber of horrors. New ownership made all the right moves upon purchasing the team, distancing themselves from the former owners and lowering the average ticket price, along with throwing open the garages and becoming the only MLB team to offer free parking. But talk is cheap, and the proof will be in two or three years when we see what these executives (and new manager Joe Maddon) do with all these good young players they've been handed.
Projected Finish: 5th place