Archive for December, 2011

Regression Candidates for 2012

With their two big splashy free-agent signings this winter, the Los Angeles Angels have become a trendy pick to win in the American League West. Certainly, adding Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to a roster that won 86 games last year seems like a formula for a playoff berth, but the Angels are one of the contending teams that need to plan on at least one key player from 2011 taking a pretty big step backward during the upcoming season.

Howie Kendrick, 2B
In Anaheim’s case, its regression candidate is second baseman Howie Kendrick. On the surface, Kendrick’s numbers from last season don’t seem out of line with his career numbers. His .285 average was below his career mark. He set his career high in home runs with 18, after hitting just 10 homers in each of the previous two seasons. That jump doesn’t appear too far out of line for a player coming into his prime.

However, Kendrick didn’t just have a career year at the plate in 2011. He also had one in the field, and that’s where the Angels can expect a pretty substantial step backward. From 2006 to 2010, Kendrick played just over 3,800 innings at second base and posted an Ultimate Zone Rating ( UZR) of plus-8.6, or an average of plus-3 runs per full season. In just over 900 innings at the position last year, Kendrick posted a UZR of plus-14.4 runs, or a total of nearly plus-20 runs over the course of an entire year — a mark that ranked him as baseball’s top defensive second baseman in 2011.

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Cubs Should Avoid Prince Fielder

Barring a blockbuster trade to be named, Prince Fielder’s destination is the next — and last — big thing this offseason.

Fielder, the outgoing Milwaukee Brewers first baseman, is one of the best pure hitters in baseball. He’s coming off a season in which he ranked third in slugging and total bases and second in on-base percentage. At 27, Fielder is also entering what should be the prime of his career. So it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll average 5-7 WAR per season in the next few years (WAR = wins above replacement).

Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs has already argued that the Texas Rangers could benefit greatly from signing Fielder, as could the San Francisco Giants, Cleveland Indians, Miami Marlins and a handful of other hopefuls. This raises a related question: Who doesn’t need Fielder?

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Have the Marlins Done Enough?

Not even the most privileged of human spawn will have as many holiday gifts to enjoy as the Miami Marlins. Indeed, besides a new ballpark, a new manager and new uniforms, the Marlins have bestowed upon themselves a new star shortstop, a new closer and a new workhorse for the rotation. So among the tattered wrapping paper is a pressing question: Does it all add up to postseason contention for the rebranded Marlins?

Last season, the Marlins limped to 72 wins, the same number of Pythagorean wins and a last-place finish in the National League East. So their baseline for 2012 would seem to be quite low. As you can see below, the Marlins were generally mediocre in all underlying phases of the game.

NL Rank
wOBA 9th
Rotation xFIP 7th
Bullpen xFIP 6th
UZR/150 8th
Run Differential 13th

Of course, there are those on-field improvements. Laying aside the fiscal wisdom of the contracts handed out, the Marlins will certainly be better because of their hot-stove adventures. But after all the hype, will they improve enough to make the playoffs? Let’s start with Jose Reyes. He will provide an offensive and defensive upgrade over what the Marlins got from the shortstop position in 2011. When healthy, Reyes puts up outstanding numbers by positional standards, flashes rare speed on the bases and plays capable defense.

On the downside, Reyes is coming off what was easily his best season on a rate basis, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to replicate those numbers. His 2011 spike was largely attributable to a batting average on balls in play of .353, compared to a .314 career mark. While it’s possible Reyes has established a new level of expected performance, it’s not likely. As well, Reyes hasn’t played in more than 133 games in a season since 2008. Reyes is a fine player and one who’ll likely live up to his new contract. However, some immediate regression is likely.

Also new to Miami will be Mark Buehrle, a pitcher who has notched 11 straight seasons of 200 innings or more. In the near term, Buehrle should benefit from moving out of the DH league and into a park that figures to be far more pitcher-friendly than was U.S. Cellular. Buehrle will almost certainly provide the Marlins with an ERA better than the league average and an innings total worthy of a frontline starter. Considering Josh Johnson’s penchant for injury and Ricky Nolasco’s penchant for inconsistency, Buehrle’s skills are much needed in South Florida.

A number of teams have handed out unwise contracts to closers this offseason, and the Marlins are among them. For a commitment of $27 million, Miami added to the fold Heath Bell, who will take over late-inning duties from Juan Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez). While Bell certainly constitutes an upgrade, it’s not the degree of upgrade that leads to much improvement in the standings (Bell bested Oviedo by just 0.3 WAR in 2011). Moreover, Bell’s drop in strikeout rate last season might suggest forthcoming decline, and no longer pitching his home games in pitcher-friendly Petco Park might also exact a price.

Elsewhere, there’s the enigmatic Hanley Ramirez. He is coming off a disappointing campaign, but he’s an excellent bounce-back candidate. Ramirez’s core hitting skills remained largely unchanged last season, although a precipitous drop in BABIP led to depressed numbers overall.

As well, Ramirez’s surgically repaired shoulder should be fully healthy, so he’s likely to improve significantly in 2012. If, as planned, he moves to third base, it will address a serious weak spot in the Miami lineup. The shift would also play to Ramirez’s defensive strengths.

All of this, of course, assumes Ramirez will accept the position switch and maintain the proper state of mind.

Above all, though, there’s this reality: In 2011, the Marlins finished 30 games out of the NL East race and 18 games out of playoff position. Assume all contingencies break Miami’s way — the Phillies come back to earth a bit; Reyes doesn’t; Ramirez rebounds; Bell thrives; Mike Stanton shows skills growth; Johnson stays healthy; Buehrle is Buehrle; the run differential better reflects the team’s performance — where does that leave it? Almost certainly not in the postseason. The division title is out of reach, and the buy-in for the NL wild card figures to be 90-plus wins. The Marlins, even with their improvements, aren’t 18 wins better. A realistic goal? A winning season, a third-place finish and a reinvigorated fan base.

Reds Gain By Standing Still

Last week’s winter meetings were filled with all sorts of moves, both big and small. There were a few teams, however, who did almost nothing, and the Cincinnati Reds were among them. That kind of inaction will usually make you the target of local talk radio hosts, but in Reds’ case, it might — just might — have put them over the top.

The Reds, of course, muscled their way to the division title in 2010 but regressed last season to 79 wins and a third-place finish. The two teams in front of the Reds in 2011, however, have been diminished by recent events. Most notably, the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals lost Albert Pujols to the Los Angeles Angels, and then outfielder/first baseman Allen Craig, a vital part of any post-Pujols scenario in St. Louis, was revealed to have undergone knee surgery last month. He’ll be lost until at least May.

The Cardinals certainly have room in the budget to add, say, someone like Carlos Beltran, but so far they look primed to fall from their 90-win level of a year ago, and that’s the case even with the return of pitcher Adam Wainwright from Tommy John surgery. And all of this is to say nothing of the loss of Tony La Russa, who might be the best manager since Joe McCarthy.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewers, who won the division title flag in 2011, will almost certainly part ways with free agent Prince Fielder, and their rumored fallback plan — a badly needed upgrade at shortstop in the form of Jose Reyes — has already inked with the Marlins. Complicating the Fielder situation is that Mat Gamel, their likely starter at first base, doesn’t figure to even sniff Fielder’s level of production.

Then there’s left fielder Ryan Braun, who could face a crippling 50-game suspension because of his alleged use of a banned substance. And even though the Brew Crew won 96 games last year, their Pythagorean record — which estimates a team’s true talent level based on run differential — was that of a 90-win team. So subtract Prince and 50 games of Braun and you are very easily looking at a .500 team. As for the rest of the division, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros are still years away, though the Chicago Cubs could really spice things up if they make a run at Fielder because of just how wide open the division has become.

But let’s get back to the Reds. Unlike the Brewers, the Reds’ Pythagorean record (83-79 last season) portends better days ahead. On offense, young core performers like Joey Votto and Jay Bruce will be another year closer to what should be their prime seasons. Zack Cozart, now that he’s healthy after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing arm, should provide a significant upgrade over the awful production the Reds received from the shortstop position last season. The Reds could also be in for an upgrade at the catcher position once Devin Mesoraco is ready to take over for Ryan Hanigan. And Yonder Alonso could add some pop to the outfield or provide some pitching depth if the Reds end up shopping him since he is blocked by Votto at first base, his natural position.

The rotation is an obvious source of concern. Last season, the Reds, despite expectations to the contrary, ranked next to last in the NL in rotation WAR. The good news is that the Reds can assault the problem with depth: Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey, and Travis Wood all return, and Aroldis Chapman might get a look as a starter, provided his shoulder holds up.

It’s obviously a bit odd to proclaim a team that was below .500 last season to be the division favorite, but considering the talent drain in the rest of the division, it’s hard to bet against the Reds. You’ve probably read a lot of stories about the “winners” and “losers” from the winter meetings. Well, Cincy might have gained the most of any club, and they did it without spending a dime.

Contenders Who Can Mostly Stand Pat

The current iterations of the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves have at least three things in common: all three crafted their own tragic endings to the 2011 season, all three figure to contend again in 2012, and all three teams don’t need to do very much in order to do so.

Sure, the Hot Stove is very much about conspicuous consumption. For teams with designs on the belt and the title, anything less than the splashiest addition might be regarded as a half-measure. For teams like the Rangers, Red Sox and Braves, this perhaps goes double: a crushing near-miss should beget major changes. Or at least that’s what many observers seem to think. As mentioned, however, there’s no need for a purge in Arlington or Boston or Atlanta, and there’s no need for pricey, top-tier signings.

First, take the back-to-back American League champion Rangers. Last season, they barged to 96 wins in the regular season, which is right in line with what could be expected based on their run differential. For 2012, they have under contract or under team control core performers like Adrian Beltre, Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Elvis Andrus, Mike Napoli, and every starting pitcher not named C.J. Wilson.

Given Mitch Moreland’s modest upside and wrist problems, there’s some talk that the Rangers may pursue Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder this winter. Yet that may be an unwise allocation of resources for Texas. A better option might be a lower-cost hedge like Carlos Pena or Casey Kotchman. That would leave room in the budget to re-sign Wilson, although the conversion of Neftali Feliz to starter means that the rotation has depth with or without their incumbent ace.

On the whole, the Rangers are in a winnable division and have a great deal of talent already locked down. Big contracts — big contracts that may later prove to be burdensome — aren’t necessary for another run.

As for the Red Sox, lost in their lacerating collapse is the fact that they won 90 despite playing 84 games against teams with .500 records or better. More than chicken thighs, beer cans and video games, injuries — an inordinate number of injuries — are mostly to blame. During the 2011 season, 15 players on Boston’s major-league roster, most of them regulars, made at least one trip to the disabled list. Such a high figure is almost bound to improve in 2012.

Otherwise, the holes are few. Re-signing David Ortiz would fill out the lineup, and that lineup figures to again be one of baseball’s best. The loss of John Lackey to Tommy John surgery (hardly a bad thing from a cold-eyed organizational perspective) means the back of the rotation could use some depth, but there’s no need for a pricey frontline addition. The Sox wisely passed on re-upping Jonathan Papelbon at the absurd going rates, and Daniel Bard is ready to take over as closer. Middle-relief help is needed, but that’s never difficult to dig up, at least for a resourceful team. The overarching point is that the Sox, as presently constructed, are prepared to make a serious run in 2012. Wholesale changes aren’t necessary in the least.

Finally, the Braves. Like the Red Sox, they endured an impossible late-season collapse, but, also like the Red Sox, they’re in good shape for the season to come. Making Derek Lowe go away was a good thing, and the rotation behind Tim Hudson (provided sub-aces Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens are able to stay healthy) looks strong. When depth is needed, Julio Teheran and Mike Minor are ready to step in, or even seize a job out of spring training. Given the workloads foisted upon Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, an addition or two to the relief corps is in order.

On offense, the Braves must hope that Jason Heyward, further removed from his shoulder injury, can rebound. They need help at short, but they won’t be in the market for a Jose Reyes or even a Jimmy Rollins. A reunion with Rafael Furcal? Or perhaps they might be willing to shop starting pitching in order to fill the shortstop hole (and perhaps snag an upgrade in left). And speaking of that upgrade in left, there’s enough out there for the Braves to cobble together a low-cost platoon.

While the offense won’t be exceptional, there’s some cause to think the Braves will improve on this front in 2012. To wit, better health for Heyward and Brian McCann, a full season of Michael Bourn, no uncharacteristic early-season slump from Dan Uggla, and skills growth from the already impressive Freddie Freeman are all reasonable expectations. Sure, the Braves have more needs than the Rangers or Red Sox, but the National League provides more margin for error these days. And there’s also the possibility of expanded playoffs in 2012.

Fans of contenders will always be frustrated by moves at the margins, but sometimes — as in the case of the 2012 Rangers, Red Sox and Braves — that’s all that’s needed to ensure another run.