Archive for January, 2012

Filling Holes On The Cheap

While the offseason nears its end, there are still several contending clubs that have some glaring holes on their rosters.

Whether it comes through promoting a player from the minors or picking out of the bargain bin of what remains in free agency, these five clubs each will need to be creative to get production from a roster spot that could prove problematic in their chase for a playoff spot in 2012.

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The Myth of the Steady Rise

Having lost 95 or more games in three of the last four seasons, the Seattle Mariners have moved into full-scale rebuilding mode. Their big offensive upgrade of the winter was 22-year-old Jesus Montero, and the team is currently penciling in players with less than a full year of experience at second base (Dustin Ackley), third base (Kyle Seager) and left field (Mike Carp), plus wherever Montero ends up playing. General manager Jack Zduriencik is preaching patience, letting the fans know that they should expect to take some lumps this year, but that the fruit of going young will pay off with a steady rise up the standings as the kids mature.

Zduriencik can point to the Texas Rangers, who slowly stockpiled talent for years and saw their win total rise every season from 2007 through 2011. However, a more thorough look at recent history suggests that teams don’t usually follow this model of taking a slow, methodical rise from good to bad.

That isn’t to say that teams that lose with a bunch of young players don’t improve as those guys develop, or that the strategy currently being employed in Seattle won’t work in the long term. However, the evidence does show that improvement often comes from a big unexpected leap forward, as opposed to a steady rise.

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Fielder’s Effect on AL Central Race

When this week began, the American League Central was an eminently winnable sort of division. Sure, the Detroit Tigers won 95 games last year, but their Pythagorean record was a more modest 89-73, and in 2012 they’ll be without one of their best hitters in Victor Martinez. That meant an opportunity for an up-and-coming squad like the Cleveland Indians or Kansas City Royals.

But then the Tigers, despite solemn promises that they wouldn’t spend the money, lavished upon Prince Fielder a nine-year, $214 million pact. And now you can write in Detroit’s name at the top of the standings. Use ink if you like.

Sure, the idea of having Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and Delmon Young wield leather at the same time for the same team is enough to haunt one’s dreams, but the powerhouse offense plus a strong rotation fronted by AL MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander is more than enough to overcome those pratfalls in the field. The Tigers, barring a series of minor miracles, will win the division. And that changes things for everyone else in the AL Central.

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Rays Still Among MLB’s Best

The Los Angeles Angels have had the splashiest offseason of any team. The Texas Rangers return an impressive core and may yet add the likes of Yu Darvish and perhaps even Prince Fielder. The New York Yankees, in the span of an hour or two this past Friday, upgraded their rotation by a notable margin. The Philadelphia Phillies return the most vital parts of last year’s 102-win outfit. The Boston Red Sox, despite the upheavals of 2011, have a tremendous amount of talent on the roster. Still and yet, the best team in baseball headed into the 2012 season might just be the Tampa Bay Rays.

That they’re in this discussion is not especially noteworthy. After all, the Rays, despite a basement-level payroll, have made a history of defying expectations: they’ve made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, and in 2008 they notched a pennant. They achieved all this even though, over that same span, they traded away or lost to the market core performers such as Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir, Jason Bartlett, Rafael Soriano and Johnny Damon, among many others. Yet the Rays, despite roster turnover, financial constraints and a home in baseball’s toughest division, keep on winning. In 2011, the Rays won 91 games, earned the same number of Pythagorean wins and of course seized the AL wild card in white-knuckled fashion. So why might the Rays be even better in 2012?

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Dodgers Next Owner Will Need Patience

With prospective owners lining up around the block to bid for the Los Angeles Dodgers, we thought it’d be helpful to shine a light on just what kind of team they’d be buying. While the franchise’s history and large fan base offer value on their own, the team will be more profitable if the new owners can turn them into winners in a hurry. So, how far away are the Dodgers from being contenders?

Let’s start with the good news. The team has two franchise building blocks in Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, young stars who are already performing at an elite level. There aren’t many teams in baseball that have two young players of this quality, and they are certainly capable of forming the foundation of a championship team.

The bad news is that those two performed about as well as anyone can realistically be asked to in 2011 and the team still won just 82 games, finishing in third place in the NL West. If the team is going to contend, it will have to get better performances from the supporting cast because they can’t realistically expect to get much more from Kershaw and Kemp than they got a year ago.

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Brewers Future Without Prince Fielder

The Milwaukee Brewers find themselves in odd straits. On one hand, they’re coming off a season in which they barged to 96 wins and a division title. Their chief rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, lost their franchise player. On the other hand, however, the Brewers are poised to lose Prince Fielder to free agency, and reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun may be facing a 50-game suspension.

So what to make of this diminished team in this diminished division?

In 2011, the Brewers notched an offensive WAR of 32.9 and a pitching WAR of 18.1. Add that to the replacement-level estimate of 43 WAR, and you get 93 wins for the Brewers last season, which, of course, is close to their actual total. Still, their starting baseline is a bit lower than their 96-66 record would suggest.

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