As all of baseball convened in San Diego this past week, there were a lot of holes to fill. There are some teams that have been very active in free agency and trades over the past weeks and this article means to look at three teams in the American League that have enhanced their rosters over that span of time.
These teams did not make the playoffs in 2014 and they added players that may make them playoff caliber teams in 2014.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
2014 Regular Season Record (73-89)
There has been a lot of pressure on the White Sox to build a winner as the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals have made the World Series in the past three years and the Cleveland Indians made the playoffs in 2013. The White Sox made a couple big splashes this offseason to boost their profile in the AL Central.
A bit before the Winter Meetings, they inked Adam LaRoche to bolster their weak lineup and provide left-handed power to match Jose Dariel Abreu’s right-handed power in the middle of the lineup. LaRoche has averaged 27 home runs per 162 games in his career and twice in the past three years has had an OPS over .800. LaRoche may not be an All-Star caliber player, but, other than an awful 2011, LaRoche has consistently been a strong performer with an OPS+ of 114 for his career.
The White Sox have an ace in Chris Sale, with a 9.8 K/9 and a 2.76 ERA since entering the league in 2010. He had a 2.17 ERA over 26 starts last season, but the Sox needed a second top pitcher to compliment Sale in the rotation. They did just that by moving prospect Marcus Semien, along with other minor league prospects, for Jeff Samardzija. The 29 year old veteran has struck out 200 or more batters in each of the past two years and posted a sub-3.00 ERA last season. His ERA went up and strikeouts went down as he went from the Cubs in the National League to the Athletics in the American League, but did see his WHIP drop strongly to beneath 1.00 and struck out 99 while walking only 12. The White Sox now have two top-25 starters coming into the 2015 season, as Sale will be top-5 starter and Samardzija will comfortably sit in the 22-24 range.
The White Sox needed some help in the bullpen as Zach Putnam or Jake Petricka were set to be the closer for 2015, so they dipped into their pockets, signing two former All-Stars to multi-year contracts. Zach Duke signed a bit before Winter Meetings and the former All-Star starter has a 2.20 ERA in his last 88 appearances and the White Sox needed a left-handed relief option as the entire bullpen was right handed before signing Duke. The big splash for the White Sox, though, was signing former Yankee All-Star closer David Robertson. Since 2011, Robertson has a 12.3 K/9 and from 2011-2013, had no higher than a 2.67 ERA. He only has 46 saves in his MLB career, as he was the setup man for Mariano Rivera coming into 2014. But Robertson had 39 saves last year, and has seen his BB/9 go from 4.7 in 2011 to a 2.8 average from 2012-2014. Duke will provide left-handed relief help that the White Sox were devoid of and Robertson will be the All-Star caliber closer that the White Sox have been without since Bobby Jenks left.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
2014 Regular Season Record (83-79)
The Blue Jays play in the most active division and have been active in the market. They signed a Gold Glove caliber catcher, an MVP candidate at third base, and freed up space on the roster for a top prospect.
Russell Martin is a highly underrated player who is very strong in intangibles, like his blocking of pitches and elite game calling skills, and will bring his veteran experience to Toronto. Martin’s game calling abilities are well known; his catching abilities will enhance the entire Blue Jays staff, as he led a Pirates staff to back-to-back playoffs with top five ERAs in each season. Martin may never steal double-digit bases again, as he did each season from 2006 to 2009, but he had a .832 OPS last year and hit 39 home runs in his two previous seasons in the AL East, both with the Yankees. His .402 OBP of 2014 may be a bit of a misnomer of his abilities; he had a .332 OBP in the previous five seasons, but he will have much more than 45 runs as a top of the lineup hitter in a lineup with three MVP candidates behind him. Martin may be in a lineup with MVP caliber talent, but could end up being the most vital piece of a playoff run for the Blue Jays.
Josh Donaldson is the newest MVP candidate in the Blue Jays lineup, adding to the already formidable combination of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. The Blue Jays had to trade three prospects and starting third baseman Brett Lawrie to get Donaldson, but Donaldson is well worth the investment. He has been the starting third baseman for the Athletics for two years and over that time he hit 53 home runs and was a top-10 MVP finisher in both 2013 and 2014. Donaldson broke out in 2013 with a .883 OPS and 64 XBH and had a bit of a letdown in 2014; he still finished with 29 home runs and 98 RBI in 2014, even though he struck out 20 more times and saw his OPS drop to .798. There are not many power hitting third basemen in baseball and the Blue Jays are fortunate to have Donaldson, a top five 3B option.
The Blue Jays saw a couple needs in the offseason and two were filling a gap in the outfield left by free agents Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus, as well as finding a place in the rotation for top prospect Daniel Norris. By trading fifth starter J.A. Happ for Michael Saunders, and allowing Norris to slide into the rotation, both gaps were filled. Norris is the #25 ranked prospect according to MLB.com, with a 2.53 ERA last year and a 10.7 K/9 over his three minor league seasons. He may struggle a bit earlier in the season, but he could have a similar impact to 2014 rookie star Marcus Stroman with his power fastball and a strong slider/changeup combination. Norris may not have a huge impact to start the season, but could be an impact player later in the season.
Saunders was a bit undervalued in Seattle, but has a very interesting profile. He slots into the bottom of the projected Blue Jays lineup and has a little bit of a better profile than the man he is replacing, Colby Rasmus. Saunders is a very good defensive outfielder, but has had two seasons with more than 10 home runs and steals, while also posting three consecutive seasons with an OPS above league average. The only season where Saunders had 500 or more at bats, 2012, he posted 19 home runs and 21 steals; his OBP has risen from .306 in 2012 to .341 in 2014, so there is potential for Saunders to be even better with more opportunity in Toronto. Saunders was obtained for a very movable piece in Happ; if the Blue Jays are able to fill a major need in the outfield and only have to give up a fifth starter to do so, this would be a huge victory for the Blue Jays.
BOSTON RED SOX
2014 Regular Season Record (71-91)
The 2013 champion Red Sox bore no resemblance to the 2014 team that finished last in the AL East. As the Red Sox are a financial juggernaut, they were able to flex their muscles adding two former All-Stars and then traded for two All-Star pitchers in San Diego.
Pablo Sandoval has been an instrumental part of three Giants World Series and, after disappointment from Will Middlebrooks, will bring his talents to the Red Sox in 2o15. Much has been written about Sandoval’s streaky play and his free swinging ways, but Sandoval is a .294 hitter over his seven MLB seasons and averaged 44 extra base hits over the past four seasons. The switch hitting Sandoval will get a serious boost from the left side by hitting doubles off of the Green Monster; this is a needed boost as Sandoval has not had 30 or more doubles in a season since back-to-back 30 double seasons in 2009 and 2010. Only once in his career has Sandoval had more than 80 RBI and twice has he had 20 or more home runs; Sandoval’s value comes from his postseason experience and is a top 15 3B in a weak 3B crop.
Rick Porcello was a top prospect coming through the Tigers system, but really never broke through as a stable pitching option until his 15 win 2014 season where he had a 3.43 ERA. The Red Sox need a lot of pitching help, as they finished 10th in the AL in ERA, and Porcello’s ground ball tendencies may fit the Red Sox well. Xander Bogaerts will be more prepared at shortstop this season and Dustin Pedroia‘s defense up the middle will absolutely suit Porcello’s skills. Porcello is coming off of his first 200 inning season and has seen his WHIP go from 1.41 in his first four seasons to 1.25 in the last two seasons. He has seen his K:BB ratio rise over 3 as well and he is only 26 years old going into his seventh MLB season. That experience should be great for him coming into the grinder that is the AL East. Porcello has a career FIP that is 30 points less than his career ERA, showing that the talent is there for Porcello; look for him to breakthrough as an All-Star caliber pitcher this year.
Hanley Ramirez was the top hitter available and has been one of the most polarizing players over the past five seasons. Coming into 2010, he was the top fantasy baseball prospect, but saw his OPS go from .853 in 2010 to .742 combined in 2011 and 2012; he then posted a .907 OPS in 2013 and 2014, including a white hot 1.040 OPS in 88 games of 2013. Ramirez has twice before been a 50+ SB player and led the NL in BA in 2009, so the talent is there. But Ramirez has averaged only 121 games played since 2010 and has had two seasons where he played in less than 100 games.
Ramirez will also move to left field this season which should be a very interesting move for fantasy purposes; had Ramirez stayed at third, or even shortstop, he may have been a third round pick, but as an outfielder it is very questionable. There is a chance that Ramirez has less wear and tear in the outfield and becomes a top-10 hitter again, but a .282/.358/.467 slashline in the outfield is not worthy of a top-10 OF spot. A lot will be expected from Ramirez, but this may be the season that he is able to play 150 games of All-Star caliber play in the outfield, regaining his reputation as an MVP candidate.
As many should know by now, George Springer is a highly touted and talented player, a huge part of the Houston Astros’ future. He has been on the brink of 40 home runs and 40 steals in both 2012 and 2013, shown that he could maintain his offensive output through each level of the minor leagues, and plays a premium position (center field) at an above average level; if he were to fix strike out issues, Springer would be seen as a top-10 outfielder in the American League coming into 2014.
Given the rules surrounding service time in the majors and the rapidly ascending price tags for premier talent, the Astros would have been perfect content with keeping Springer in Triple-A Oklahoma City to begin the season. Springer was with the major league team for Spring Training and in 31 at-bats was not terribly successful with only a .161 BA, but with much improved strikeout to walk ratio of 11 strikeouts to 8 walks; this should have firmly signaled a demotion to Oklahoma City. The Astros, though, tried to change it up a bit and offered Springer the richest contract for a player with his experience, a 7 year/$23 million contract.
Springer’s representatives countered that the 3 years of arbitration that the Astros were buying out were worth more than the $7.6 million per year that were essentially to be bought out, rebutting that he would be worth closer to $10 million in arbitration. Springer’s declining of the Astros offer sent him back to minor league camp and he will now come to Houston sometime this summer when he is able to move his arbitration clock forward. There are a few questions that arise from this valuation of Springer and also Springer’s decision to not accept the offer.
The most rudimentary, yet essential, aspect to look at in regards to Springer is what the Astros valued George Springer as for the last 3 years of his contract. For better or worse, the contract that the Astros offered was geared towards buying his arbitration so it is not fair to value this contract at $3.3 million a year because it is a ridiculous premise that the Astros assumed he was worth that money now. In fact, arguably the best player in baseball, Mike Trout, was only valued at $1 million a year pre-arbitration and it is a difficult argument to make that Springer is worth more than 3 times of Trout.
That being as it is, this contract should fairly be valued at $7.6 million for the 28-30 year old seasons for Springer. To assess what Springer’s price tag would buy the Astros on the open market, a thorough analysis of trends of free agent outfield salaries from 2006-2013 needed to be conducted. This analysis looked at all outfielders that were signed for $6-$10 million per season. A quick analysis of the data shows that a 34 year old outfielder with a 2.5 WAR would get roughly the same amount of money on the open market as Springer would have received in the proposed extension. Furthermore, out of the 24 player sample, only Cody Ross and Coco Crisp have been better since they signed for a similar amount as what was offered to Springer and each was over the past two seasons so there is very little of an inflation factor.
There are a lot of outside factors and reasons why these players received the amount of money that they did and there is also the fact that $23 million would represent the most money given to a player with minimal experience, Evan Longoria received $17.5 million in 2008; a lot of the liability of this deal was in the hands of the Astros, as Springer is more of an unknown than a proven commodity. The Astros are at a position with their franchise where they would take this liability; Houston is one of the strongest markets in the US, there is a new ownership group in place that has shown a willingness to spend, and by 2017 the team expects to contend. To take it a step further, the team is almost willing to take nearly a $10 million financial hit, assuming that the team is not successful on the field for the 2014-2016 seasons, just to be able to save that money for 2017 and 2018.
The final point may be where Springer’s agents had flawed logic; they are looking at the best wishes of their client as well they should, but in fact this may be a good deal for Springer. The Astros have shown that they are building for the future and are not going to spend money to be decent — there are many that see the Astros as tanking but really they are looking at their present day weaknesses and making them future strengths — so the team spending $10 million on a prospect while the team is still developing should be taken as a huge victory. Springer’s agents are right in assuming that he is going to lose money in arbitration and, if he did sign that contract, he would have been a free agent at 30 years old which is outside of his athletic prime of 27 years old.
This may be outside of his athletic prime, but definitely not outside of his financial prime. Since 2000, fourteen outfielders have earned in excess of $17 million over at least five years of a contract. Assuming that Springer produced about 4.5 WAR per year from 2014-2018, a common projection for Springer, he could earn $21 million per season in the open market according to the averages set by those player’s contracts. There are tremendous issues in that valuation of Springer, namely a shift in the market and a regression in Springer’s talents, but judging by recent trends, Springer would still be very well on his way to being one of the wealthiest outfielders in baseball history.
This contract is an outlier and was a fantastic idea for the Astros in attempting to fund their future and assure that Springer was a well paid player for his production. The Astros knew that Springer would outplay that contract and may very well have had provisions in the contract for enhanced performance, but at the onset, all of the liability was on Houston. There is very little reason why Springer needed to be on the 2014 Astros and the team’s financial shrewdness and outstanding player development are main reasons why pundits predict a bright future for the team; Springer was offered this contract as a statement towards the future and it may be short-sighted for Springer to have declined this fair offer. As seen with the case of Longoria, players that outgrow their contracts are usually paid handsomely by their parent teams. By signing this deal, Springer would have opened the pipelines for better negotiations between himself and the team. Declining the deal may be good for Springer in the short term but may be a major blow for negotiating a massive extension for the future.
Who can the Angels rely on in the back of the rotation?
The strength of the 2014 Angels will be their offense, but the team does have a lot of money and development invested in their rotation and they need to get good outings out of that rotation to support the offense and win games. Jered Weaver has been injured throughout the past few years, but it usually solid when he is in the rotation and is a quality start machine. CJ Wilson may not be perceived as an elite pitcher but since moving into the rotation for the Rangers in 2010, he averages 15 wins a season with a 3.37 ERA and 210 innings pitched. Both Weaver and Wilson could be major factors in a playoff run and would be relatively comparable to the top two pitchers for most AL playoff competitors. Behind Wilson and Weaver in the rotation, though, are young unproven pitchers that really need to grow up very quickly if the team wants to make noise in 2014.
Garrett Richards already has 230 innings of big league experience coming into 2014 and the 26 year old former top 100 prospect has shown some progress in his major league tenure. He has seen his ERA, WHIP, and walk rate lower since 2011 as his strikeout rate rose. That being said, Richards did have low expectations set in 2011 and 2012 where he had a 1.57 WHIP and a 1.37 K: BB rate; Richards needs to harness his fastball and play off of his three off-speed pitches. He has a lot of good tools, with a fastball in the mid-90s and a very solid slider and curveball. His changeup is not advanced, but it is a work in progress and Richards uses it very sparingly for good reason.
Richards must also work ahead in the count more; his first pitch strike percentage was only 53.6% in 2013 and if that rises, Richards will continue to clean up his control issues. His walk percentage returned to the 7.1% that was only matched when he was in the lower levels of the minor leagues and the same goes for his 16.3% strikeout percentage. Richards might be the wildcard of the Angels rotation; he could be the third strong pitcher in the rotation and could be struggling to maintain a spot in the rotation. He needs to continue to develop his curveball and let his 94 mph fastball play off of those two solid breaking balls and, if he does, it would not be crazy to see Richards get 150-175 strikeouts in a full season.
Hector Santiago was acquired with Tyler Skaggs by the Angels in the three team trade that sent Mark Trumbo to Arizona. This was after two solid seasons with the White Sox that gave the Angels a good view into how the 26 year old could contribute. A crafty lefty with a bit of an unorthodox delivery, Santiago is a true throwback pitcher in that he will beat you with variety rather than one or two strong pitches. According to pitch data accumulated by Pitch FX, Santiago threw five pitches at least 5% of the time (four seam fastball, cutter, sinker, changeup, curveball) and also worked in a screwball and slider. Although he still threw mostly fastballs and changeups, he threw three different types of fastballs and his varying arm angles tended to confuse batters.
These different offerings do have a bit of a drawback; the fact that Santiago rarely dominates with one pitch leads to a walk rate of 11.5% for his career; he does strikeout 22.2% of batters with a 1.93 K:BB ratio for his career, but the Angels have to hope that can be a bit better as he progresses. Since the variety of offerings has led to success in the big leagues, he has a 3.41 ERA in 222 2/3 innings split between the bullpen and the rotation, Santiago needs to find a way to keep his pitches strong. When looking at the pitch trends, Santiago has varied what pitches he throws quite frequently, as there is not really a good method of predicting his trends for the future. This creates a tough situation for batters, but sometimes it could create an even tougher situation for Santiago; if his pitches are not sharp over a long stretch, he may really struggle since he never specifically works on a solitary pitch in an outing.
Tyler Skaggs may even be more volatile than Richards in regards to his position with the 2014 Angels; his spot is the least stable in the rotation and he only has 68 very shaky innings pitched in his young MLB career. That being said, Skaggs is the top prospect for the Angels and will be a big part of the future of the Angels. A former first round pick by the Angels, Skaggs was traded to Arizona for Dan Haren and then traded back to Los Angeles in the aforementioned Mark Trumbo trade. While in Arizona, Skaggs developed a reputation as an elite minor league pitcher with bad major league results; a lot of those bad results derive from the fact that Skaggs is a soft throwing pitcher that has yet to really master what will be an incredible curveball.
Between the latter part of 2010 and the end of the 2012 season, Skaggs posted a 2.85 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP and a 3.7 K: BB ratio between low-A and Triple-A. He did have a rough patch in Triple-A this year, but maintained a similar K: BB ratio from Triple-A in 2012; he allowed more hits in 2013 but also struck out more batters. Essentially, the Diamondbacks look at Skaggs as someone that could develop into Cole Hamels, just with the curveball being the dominant pitch for Skaggs. As seen with Hamels, having velocity in the high-80s or low-90s can work if you have great off-speed pitches and Skaggs needs to develop his changeup along with making his curveball take that next level to being one of the premier pitches in baseball. He has the potential to be a top of the rotation pitcher and the Angels were wise to re-acquire him from Arizona.
A team like the Angels that is trying to compete for the playoffs would be fine if one of these pitchers were trying to get their footing in the majors, but the fact that all three are trying to get acclimated to a playoff competitor may be what does the Angels in during the 2014 season. There is a lot of upside with Richards and Skaggs, though, so if they turn into the middle to top rotation pitchers that scouts see them as, the Angels may indeed be a 90 win team on the way to the playoffs.
When will the Angels try to rebuild their farm system?
A tough thing to do is to rebuild a farm system when the top prospect in baseball was once a part of that farm system. Mike Trout is arguably the best player in baseball but the Angels could have never expected him to be this good this quickly; for this reason, the rest of the Angels minor league talent looks underwhelming compared to the 22 year old superstar. There is a chance, and this is pure conjecture, that Randall Grichuk may have been a part of the trade that brought David Freese to Los Angeles so that he did not have to be known as the “other” Angels first round pick from 2009. As with anything, the Angels need to rebuild this system so that the team continues to be strong into the future.
Kaleb Cowart was the top prospect in the Angels organization after Trout graduated but a weak 2013 season in Double-A Arkansas gives people reason to worry about the future of the third baseman; in fact, the Angels were so cautious about Cowart’s future that they acquired David Freese this offseason. A tall and lanky first round pick out of high school in Georgia, Cowart had a very strong 2012 between Low-A Cedar Rapids and High-A Inland Empire, even going over 100 RBI (103) for the season. His defense was outstanding between the two leagues and his plate discipline improved with the jump to High-A. The move to Double-A was rough for Cowart; his fielding took a step back, his power disappeared, and his OPS was .580. As with any prospect, the Angels will continue to give him opportunity, but the 22 year old Cowart is not in a position considering that he has only mustered one single in seven spring training at bats. Cowart needs to show that he can hit or he will be a career minor leaguer and a first round pick bust.
CJ Cron is the opposite of Cowart; he is big and bulky and hits like he is big and bulky. The first baseman is basically a clone of Mark Trumbo; they both are 6’4, 235 pounds and hit a ton of home runs with very little plate discipline. Considering that the Angels traded Trumbo this offseason and have spent years waiting on him to develop, the Angels may not be too excited for the prospect of a Trumbo clone. The main difference between the two is that Cron is a bit better of an athlete and fielder; this may not be a factor with the team considering him as a designated hitter option, but he has worked on his fielding to become a serviceable first baseman if the team sees him as a fit at first. Cron also struggled at Double-A Arkansas this year, with his OPS dropping nearly 100 points to .743 and going from 27 home runs in Inland Empire to only 14 in Arkansas. Cron maintained his doubles power with 36 and there is every reason to believe that he becomes a 25 home run hitter in the majors. Cron is very durable and finds ways to get on base even with a low walk rate, two traits that should never be ignored in evaluating the viability of a prospect. There is a very good chance that Cron gets a spell in the majors by 2015 or, if his spring training success continues, even 2014 if he continues to develop.
Taylor Lindsay was the lone prospect of the three examined that did not seen his success considerably regress in Arkansas. In fact, Lindsay saw his walk rate rise and posted 17 home runs which is quite impressive from a 6 foot, 195 lb second baseman. A near sure thing to begin the season in Salt Lake, Lindsay is an injury or Howie Kendrick trade away from being the starting second baseman for the Angels. That being said, he is not a finished product. Many pundits like the 45 extra base hits and continued progress in his approach at the plate, but Lindsay still made a few too many errors for a second baseman, does not have great range, and is a non-factor on the bases. Those are things that must be worked on in Triple-A before he makes the leap to the majors. His offensive output from 2013 should not be seen as a fluke and Lindsay can hit enough to be a decent major leaguer. There is a lot to like from Lindsay and the Angels may even give him an opportunity to play a bit in the majors if he makes strides in Triple-A.
Los Angeles has done a very good job of developing big league talent and these three players may very soon be a part of this development. Fortunately the Angels have enough talent on the major league roster for these players to be given enough time to properly develop, but, especially in Lindsay’s case, these players could be a productive part of the Angels roster in 2014.
How will the change of scenery affect David Freese?
David Freese was a product of the St. Louis Cardinals fantastic development but a rough 2013 season made him expendable; the Angels had a very weak situation at third base and an extra outfielder, so Freese was traded to Los Angeles for Peter Bourjos. Freese is seen by some as a product of his environment in St. Louis and that his bad 2013 and move to Los Angeles will depress his talent. The Angels hope that these people are wrong and a new team is a new opportunity for Freese.
Freese was an early round pick by the Padres out of community college and Freese produced right away with the Padres’ minor league affiliates and was a major part of the 2007 offseason trade that sent Jim Edmonds to San Diego from the Cardinals. After solid seasons in 2008 and the beginning of 2009, Freese was up in St. Louis with the major league team. After he broke his ankle in both 2009 and 2010, Freese broke out with the 2011 Cardinals and was the MVP of the 2011 World Series. In 2012, Freese again was solid as he had an OPS of .839, turned had a career high in HR/FB percentage, and played a very solid defensive third base. Defense and inconsistency led to a poor 2013 for Freese, the worst of his entire professional career, and the Cardinals decided that prospect Kolten Wong at second base and Matt Carpenter at third was a better direction for the team. The Angels are relying on Freese returning to his past offensive output to strengthen their team.
Before we look forward to 2014, a deconstruction of Freese’s worst season must be done to see how he can fix the issues that arose. He did post a solid strikeout and walk percentage in 2013, in fact striking out at the lowest rate of his MLB career. His BABIP was 30 points lower than it had been in any other season, a huge indicator that 2013 may be an outlier. Although the BABIP may be attributed to luck, the 55 point drop in isolated power shows that Freese did not hit the ball with the authority of 2012. The contention that Freese was not as potent is only further supported by the fact that his line drive rate was down and his ground ball percentage was up. A lot of Freese’s other advanced statistics show that he was swinging at good pitches and actually made more contact in 2013 than 2012.
The fact that Freese had weak contact is what hurt him; this could have been because of injury and the Angels have to hope that his Isolated Power returns back to the mid-.100s rather than the low-.100s of 2013. Freese was also a strong fielder prior to 2013 and injuries may he also been the reason that he fell off a bit last year; his range was limited and was a negative factor for the Cardinals at third. A healthy Freese in a strong offensive lineup should be close to 15-20 home runs and 80-85 RBI, as well as returning to being a solid defensive player.
What do the Angels need to do for Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols to get on the right track?
Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton are both former MVPs and, in Pujols’ case, legends of the game. The 2013 season was a lost one for both players and the Angels could have never expected that these two great players would be such liabilities for the team. There are big issues for each player and their careers are really at a crossroads; both may need to change their approach at the plate to achieve their past successes.
Josh Hamilton was a safe bet for nearly 30 home runs and 100 RBI while in Texas; albeit with injury issues, Hamilton was one of the better sluggers in baseball. The issue with Hamilton was that he got hurt too much and tailed off a bit at the end of the season; there were very few issues about Hamilton’s production over a full season and coming to Los Angeles where there were established superstars in Mike Trout and Albert Pujols should have created a situation where Hamilton could be a 125 RBI producer. In 2013, Hamilton stayed healthy but was one of the biggest disappointments of the season. The former MVP only posted a .307 OBP and had 21 home runs and 79 RBI in the 151 games he played; his 151 game averages for his career are a .363 OBP with 33 home runs and 113 RBI.
There have been peaks and valleys in Hamilton’s career, but the valleys have not been this low statistically in a full season. This is a bit surprising for Hamilton because 2012 was the best year of his career and, had Oakland not caught Texas to win the division, Hamilton would have been just as good of an MVP candidate as Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout. He may have struck out at a career high percentage in 2012, but he also had the highest walk rate, isolated power, and hit a ton of fly balls (41.1%) that lead to home runs (25.6 % HR/FB). Further analysis paints an odd picture for Hamilton and might be the reason that he rebounds in 2014. Hamilton was unsuccessful on balls outside of the zone during 2012 and in 2013, Hamilton swung at less pitches outside of the zone and was more successful on those swings.
As a hitter with a swing that lends to contact on pitches outside of the zone, it would be good for Hamilton to continue to be more selective and work on regaining good contact on bad pitches. Although he was successful with poor contact rates in 2012, Hamilton needs to get back to mid-70% contact rates that he had in the 2007-2011 seasons; he was at a 70.3% in 2013, a jump from 64.7% in 2012. Hamilton should be able to regain 30 home run production by working more on the above mentioned issues and the Angels will be glad to have a strong force in the middle of their lineup.
Albert Pujols might have had the best 11 season start to a career in St. Louis; he averaged 40 home runs per season with 121 RBI and a ridiculous 1.037 OPS. The Angels jumped at Pujols when he was a free agent in the 2011 offseason and gave him $250 million to bring that kind of production to Los Angeles: this has not been the case and Pujols looked very weak in 2013. The writing has been on the wall a bit for Pujols to regress, even if it is rough to think that such a talented player would become only a role player. Pujols has seen a decrease in OPS in every season since 2008 and has not hit .300 since 2010. It is a bit unfair to criticize a .331 hitter for lowering his career average to .321 as he has gotten older, but the fact remains that Pujols will never be the player he once was.
What made Pujols so great was that he was able to combine a high lofty swing that led to home runs with fantastic plate disciple and pitch selection. Pujols’ bat has slowed down rapidly and pitchers have not only made Pujols swing more, but make sure that that these swings were on pitches outside of the strike zone that he misses; Pujols has seen his swinging strike rate double from 3.8% in 2008 to 7.6% in 2013. Pitchers still cannot beat Pujols on pitches that are in the strike zone (91.1% Z-Contact) but his overall contact rate has slipped from 90.1% in 2008 to 82.9% in 2013. Pujols is an all-time great and frequently greats are able to reinvent themselves so there is still a chance for a solid season out of Pujols. Even in a relatively weak 2012 season, Pujols had 105 RBI and 50 doubles. Pujols needs to be more patient and not chase the poor pitches like he did in 2013. If Pujols is able to raise his BABIP with better swings and pitch selection, an average in the .280-.290 range with 55 2B+HR and nearly 100 RBI is quite attainable.
There is a better chance that Hamilton regains his 2008-2012 form than that of Pujols’ prime, but his strikeout and free swinging problems will continue to linger unless he changes his approach. The bar was set so high for Pujols and he will never get back to that level, but he could still be a productive player for the Angels and an example for the younger players.
Why are the Angels going to win 85 games?
The Angels are in a spot very similar to the Rangers, hence the prediction that leads to them being equal in win total. There is a lot of offensive talent on this team but the pitching is just not strong enough to weather the storm in a loaded American League. CJ Wilson and Jered Weaver should each be solid at the top of the rotation and Tyler Skaggs will be solid someday, but unless the Angels make a move to improve on the 2014 staff, the team is not playoff bound. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton may never regain their MVP pasts, but each should rebound from the rough 2013 seasons. Mike Trout will continue his MVP pace and the team will stay in the wild card race most of the season.
5 You Know:
1. Mike Trout
2. Albert Pujols
3. Jered Weaver
4. CJ Wilson
5. Josh Hamilton
5 You Will Know:
1. CJ Cron
2. Cam Bedrosian
3. Kaleb Cowart
4. RJ Alvarez
5. Taylor Lindsay
5 You Should Remember:
1. Hunter Green
2. Ricardo Sanchez
3. Mark Sappington
4. Jose Rondon
5. Alex Yarborough
Who will fill the void left by Joe Nathan?
Joe Nathan was acquired by the Rangers after the Twins thought that his better years were behind him and for 2014, after two seasons in Texas where he was statistically near his peak, Nathan will now be the closer in Detroit. This will leave a big gap in the Rangers bullpen and the team needs to fill that void to be competitive in the improving AL West. Fortunately for the Rangers, they have two pitchers in the bullpen with experience closing and two other young pitchers that have been pretty stellar since getting called up to the Rangers.
Neftali Feliz arrived in the majors in 2009 as a late season call-up looking for some opportunity to pitch in the big league level. He worked exclusively out of the bullpen and was very good, posting a 1.74 ERA, a WHIP of .67, and striking out 11.3 per nine innings. Coming into 2010, Feliz was not originally relied upon to be the closer but over 2010 and 2011, as the closer for the back to back AL Champions, he was one of the top closers in baseball. In 2010, Feliz was the Rookie of the Year, accumulating 40 saves and displaying good control leading to almost 4 strikeouts per walk. His walk rate rose over 2011 and rose even more in his 7 starts in 2012. In mid-2012, Feliz had elbow troubles that led to Tommy John surgery and, for now at least, led to him being the closer for the Rangers for the foreseeable future. Joe Nathan may have been great for the Rangers while in Texas, but Feliz was dominant for long periods of time with the Rangers and is only 26 years old. There should not be much of a drop off between the two and the team might even be better for letting Nathan go, as it opened up financial flexibility to trade for Prince Fielder and sign Shin-Soo Choo.
For Feliz the troubles of 2011 and 2012 may have been rooted in his attempt to develop more pitches. In 2010, he was almost exclusively using his fastball and curveball; remarkably successful with both pitches, he attempted to broaden his pitching scope for a return to the rotation, adding a changeup and slider. The slider and changeup were both average pitches, nothing more than changing the eye level for batters, and actually ended up lessening the value of his strong fastball. A simple glance at pitch tendencies would show that Feliz went from throwing 83% fastballs in his dominant 2010 to only 65% fastballs in his average 2012 season before the surgery. As he transitions back to closing, he will move closer to the fastball-curveball combination of 2010 and the results should be very good again. There may be a bit of a drop off in performance between Nathan and Feliz, but not as much as is expected. Feliz is a 26 year old with a lively arm and 72 career saves; the Rangers should still be one of the better teams in finishing off games in the ninth inning.
When will Jurickson Profar break through and what will it look like?
Jurickson Profar was one of the top prospects coming up through the system and the Rangers were aggressive with him, calling him up last year without a position to play in at only 20 years old. The Rangers fixed the issue of Profar not having a position by trading away second baseman Ian Kinsler to give that job to Profar. Coming up Profar was a shortstop, but the team had already committed to the future of Elvis Andrus and Profar had displayed that there would not be much of a drop off if he moved to second base.
Evaluating young players can be very rough and very unfair; it is rare that a hitter comes up and is successful at the rate of Mike Trout. Considering the success of Trout and the fact that he was the top prospect coming into the season, people assumed that Jurickson Profar would have the same impact on the Rangers in 2013. In his minor league career, Profar has done everything that he can do; he has hit for good power for a middle infielder, stole enough of bases to be a threat but has also stole them at an 80% rate over the past two seasons, and has nearly had as many walks (180) as strikeouts (212). All of this for a player that is only 21 and has been through all of the levels of minor league baseball.
Profar has had two stints in the major leagues thus far but both have not been as successful as one would think from a top prospect; he is only hitting .231 in 341 PA with a much higher disparity between strikeouts and walks. A big issue was that he did not play every day, since Kinsler and Andrus were set in the middle infield positions and Profar was even asked to play outfield a bit. Kinsler is now in Detroit and second base is all Profar’s and he should be able to produce without playing limitations. Profar is also an elite defensive prospect and that should be able to be expanded on while moving over to second base in the majors. He should be relied upon to hit about 15 home runs per season with 20-25 steals, an average in the high-.290s, and superb fielding. Combined with Elvis Andrus, the Rangers should have the best defensive middle infield for years to come.
If you would like a sample of what people should expect from Profar, look no further than his spring training effort thus far. Spring training statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, but Profar has a .858 OPS with 10 RBIs and 6 runs scored over his 32 PA in Arizona. This should be a good launching pad for the new Rangers second baseman.
How is the change of scenery going to affect Prince Fielder?
Prince Fielder never seemed to fit in Detroit and the massive contract that he signed seemed to always weigh heavily on him. This led to Fielder having a seemingly subpar tenure with the Tigers; he was not actually that poor with the Tigers, it was just that he did not hit for the power that people expected. The aforementioned trade of Ian Kinsler brought Fielder to Texas and with that a new opportunity to show that his time in Detroit was an outlier and that he still is an elite power hitter.
For the first five full seasons of his career, Prince Fielder slashed .283/.382/.553 and 40 home runs and 111 RBI while in Milwaukee. Over the past four seasons, including two in Detroit, Fielder’s slash has rose to .288/.397 in batting average and OBP but his slugging percentage dropped to .504 and he has averaged 31 home runs and 104 RBI. Even last year, in what was widely considered a down year for Fielder, he still had a .819 OPS and 106 RBI. In moving to Texas, Fielder is moving into a ballpark that is both better for power statistics and for left handed hitters. Fielder may not be 50 home run hitters again as he was in 2007, but he may very soon make it back to 35-40 home runs.
The power statistics are what made everyone gasp at Fielder’s drop off but there were even bigger issues during the 2013 season than his sub-.500 slugging percentage. There may have been a bit of a drop off in power during the 2009-2012 seasons, but Fielder had also posted a 16% walk rate followed by two consecutive seasons where he had more walks than strikeouts. Also, in 2012, Fielder had a .300 average (.313) for the first time in his career. Fielder’s power may be impressive but, coming into 2013, there were great strides made in Fielder’s entire approach at the plate; he hit more line drives than in the past, was hitting the balls that he was swinging at outside of the zone, and was cutting down his swings and misses in total. Most of the good strides made from 2010-2012 disappeared in 2013; he saw the second fewest pitches in the strike zone (38.8 %) of any season of his career in 2013 and walked the fewest times in his career since he was a 22 year old in his first full season.
When analyzing Fielder’s 2013 season it from a percentage angle, the difference of Fielder’s strikeout and walk percentage was the second lowest (2008) of his career. Most of Fielder’s ratios were down in 2013, but a lot of that was rooted in the fact that he was not nearly as patient at plate as he had been in the past. If Fielder can get his walk rate at least back to 12-13% with a reduction in strikeouts, it should be much easier to regain his power numbers of the past. One other ratio to look at for Fielder, is that he had seen a decrease in HR/FB ratio while in Detroit and the change in dimensions in Arlington may also correct that, as Fielder is a fly ball hitter, but he does need to cut his infield fly ball rate.
What can the Rangers expect from Martin Perez?
Martin Perez was a top prospect coming up for the Rangers and since then has had a ton of different reasons for not making it up to Texas as an elite starting pitcher. Still only 22, Perez has an opportunity to fill in the void left by the injury to fellow starter Derek Holland and be a part of the team’s push back to the playoffs.
Martin Perez has been a top 100 prospect five times in his career and spent most of the 2013 season in the major leagues. The young lefty has had some success in the majors but never really put it all together during his rookie season. He walked a bit too many batters, especially considering his lack of strikeouts, and has allowed almost 10 hits per nine innings in his first 162 1/3 innings in the majors. In fact, neither his walk rate nor his hit rate have been good in the minors and his 7.6 K/9 is good but not as gaudy as those of his peers.
As for his pitches, his changeup is the calling card and, with a middle infield like the Rangers have, it would be wise if he continues to trend as a ground ball pitcher. Given his penchant for ground balls and the strength of the Rangers infield, the control is vital for Perez’s viability in the rotation. As his fastball is not particularly strong, it would be wise for Perez to employ a bit more of a cutter rather than a straight four seam fastball as he normally does. If Perez is able to work on his control and keep his ground ball rate, he has potential of being a left handed Doug Fister with a bit more strikeout potential. Fister has a much stronger curveball but Perez would be wise to follow Fister’s way to being successful without relying too much on strikeouts.
The 2014 will be huge for Perez as he has an opportunity near the top of the rotation with Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison with Derek Holland’s injury. There will be a lot learned very early in the season about Perez and his dealing with the pressure of no longer being a rookie that is not as heavily relied upon. A very good trait for Perez is that he has shown a willingness to go deep into the game, as evidenced by his seven starts of seven innings or longer and six starts of 100+ pitchers. Also, Perez threw 3% more strikes in his 20 starts of 2013 than his 6 starts of 2012. He has had a bit of a rough start to spring training, but his progress has been seen and the Rangers gave him a four year extension in November as a vote of confidence.
Why are the Rangers going to win 85 games?
In analyzing teams, the Rangers may be the most curious case along with the Yankees in that they may be a 95 win team or they could be slightly under .500. The issue with the Rangers is that they are relying on a lot of circumstantial situations to have them be very successful and there are not that many sure things. Shin Soo-Choo is a great player, but is he worth all of the money? Does Prince Fielder turn it around? What do the Rangers have in the rotation other than Yu Darvish? Do Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria shore up the back end of the bullpen? Most of these questions should edge on the side of the Rangers and the team should be fine, but it is unsettling to have a playoff team with so many huge questions on the onset of the season. This team should be a fun team to watch and they will score a lot of runs but the playoffs might not be in the cards this season.
1. Shin Soo Choo
2. Prince Fielder
3. Adrian Beltre
4. Yu Darvish
5. Matt Harrison
1. Jurickson Profar
2. Martin Perez
3. Rougned Odor
4. Michael Choice
5. Luis Sardinas
1. Jorge Alfaro
2. Nomar Mazara
3. Nick Williams
4. Joey Gallo
5. Alex Gonzalez
Who will lead the Athletics in power statistics this year?
The Oakland Athletics are a very deep and very solid team. There are few holes on the team and they get contributions from most of the hitters in the lineup. The Athletics do lack one thing that some of the other competitors for the American League crown have: one power bat that pitchers have to plan for. This may not be a bad thing, as there could be as many as three guys in the Athletics lineup that could hit over 30 home runs.
Josh Reddick was an powerful force for the Athletics in 2012 after the team acquired him for Andrew Bailey. Reddick was a solid offensive prospect for the Red Sox coming up through the system but after a breakthrough 2008 season, never hitting more than 20 home runs again and seeing his average lower as he struck out more. He had a good 2011 season with Red Sox, but the team was looking to add bullpen depth after losing Jonathan Papelbon and Reddick was seen as disposable. Given a full time role in Oakland, Reddick hit 32 home runs, stole 11 bases, and exhibited his cannon of an arm; he finished 16th in the MVP race and, even with a lack of patience and rise in home runs, the Athletics had an answer for a power boost. In 2013, Reddick was injured a bit and when he was healthy some of his positive trends from 2012 regressed. The most obvious difference was that Reddick hit 5% less fly balls in 2013 than in 2012 and also averaged 5% less home runs per fly ball. Given those ratios, it should not be too much of a surprise that his home run total dropped from 32 to 12. Reddick was a bit more selective with his swings and if he is able to get some better contact, he may be able to get back to hitting 25 or more home runs. It is very important that he does not focus on hitting home runs as that could detract from his better strike zone recognition.
Yoenis Cespedes came over from Cuba as a big time power hitter and has done a pretty job of hitting for power thus far in the majors. He was a top 10 MVP finisher in 2012, with 23 home runs on top 16 steals and a .292 average. He struck out a bit too much, but nothing that was that much of a problem for the Athletics. In 2013, Cespedes was inconsistent and his free swinging ways really hurt him. He may have him 26 home runs, but he had a sub-.300 OBP and appeared to be hacking for the fences way too much. His fly ball rate rose as he hit more home runs, but almost everything else about his game was worse in 2013 than in 2012. The 28 year old Cespedes is in a similar place as Reddick in that he needs to make strides to become a better hitter rather than mash the ball out of the park. He does have extreme power, putting it to display by winning the Home Run Derby in 2013, but his downfall may be his aggression. He has the reputation of a free swinger and that can get him into a lot of trouble with strikeouts and a loss of good contact. Cespedes may be able to hit 30-35 home runs and has the most power potential on the team, but his power may be a detriment to his whole game. The Athletics acquired Cespedes for his power and the team will still rely on that power but it would help the Athletics if he would focus more on finding ways to get on base.
Brandon Moss came out of nowhere to be a very good player for the Athletics the past two years. After bouncing around the Red Sox, Phillies, and Pirates organizations and showing that he had some good power without results at the big league level, it finally clicked at the big league level in 2012 for Oakland. Moss had a .954 OPS with 21 home runs and was versatile in that he played first base and the outfield. The ugly thing for Moss is that he does not have a ton of patience at the plate, which held him up in his pursuit of a major league job, and that was an issue in 2012 and became a big reason for a regression in 2013. He was still very solid with a .859 OPS and 30 home runs in 145 games but his average was down from .291 to .256. He did walk a bit more and strikeout less and those are positive trends that could lead to Moss becoming an All-Star. He showed that he could withstand a full MLB season for the first time and was stronger in the second half of 2013 than the first half. He is having a good spring training thus far and it would not be insane to see Moss with 35-40 home runs this year. His average might only get to the low .270s, but if he builds on the good trends of less strikeouts and more walks, he will be the best offensive player for the Athletics.
When will Addison Russell take over at shortstop?
As this prediction will show, the Athletics should be the team that wins the American League West; this is even without a hitter that could be the number 2 hitter for the Athletics right now. Addison Russell is a very solid hitting, consistent shortstop and should be the shortstop for the Athletics for the better part of the next decade. Unfortunately for him, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, and Francisco Lindor all play the same position as him, so he has been swept under the rug a bit. Soon this will not be the case and Russell will take over as the shortstop and the Athletics will be better off for it.
There is a very good chance that the 2012 draft will go down as one of the strongest drafts in recent history, as most of the top 20 picks in the draft have either aggressively moved up through their respective organizations or have had extreme success in the lower levels. In 659 at-bats since he was drafted, Russell has a .302 BA, 39 doubles, 19 triples, 24 home runs, and 37 steals. Those are extremely impressive numbers, but it is even more impressive when you consider that he was only 18 and 19 as he accumulated these numbers and that he has even had a short stint in Triple-A. He may not have the plate discipline of Francisco Lindor, but as a 19 year old in High-A, Russell still had a .369 OBP and 125 strikeouts compared to 61 walks. He was the best player in the California League for most of the season and did not look overmatched hitting against pitchers that were 2 or 3 years older than him. All of the hitting was impressive, but his fielding is what will make him a stalwart in the Athletics infield and move him up through the system quickly. His defense grades out as outstanding and when added to his solid hitting for a shortstop, Russell may be an All-Star for years to come.
If the Athletics wanted to move Russell aggressively through the system, they could. Alberto Callaspo is a serviceable player, but he is not going to add any value to an already solid Athletics team. He could play all over the diamond and Russell could easily take his spot in the starting lineup. Jed Lowrie is a super utility player at shortstop and could easily move to second base if Russell is going to move up to the majors. The Athletics are a very good team and have flexibility with both Lowrie and Callaspo so it might not be a bad idea if the Athletics move up the talented 20 year old shortstop to the majors. He needs to continue to work on his plate discipline and have his walk rate continue to trend in a positive way. He has had a decent start so far in major league camp in Spring Training, hitting .263 in his first 19 at-bats. It would be smart for the Athletics to let him develop in the minors a bit longer but a hot start should get Russell to Oakland as the starting shortstop.
How good exactly is the Athletics bullpen?
The Oakland Athletics had a very strong bullpen over the past couple years and they did something this offseason that most of the good teams do; they made it even stronger. Through the aggressive acquisitions of Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson, and Eric O’Flaherty, Oakland may be in a position to end games once they get a lead in the 6th or 7th inning. This may be a very good thing as the rotation is very young and may not been able to get as deep in games as other rotations could.
Sean Doolittle was a good prospect out of the University of Virginia, in fact was a first round pick as a first baseman in 2007, but had two major knee injuries and a wrist injury that derailed his hitting career and he turned back to pitching. In 2012, Doolittle fully converted to pitching and was absolutely stellar in the bullpen in the minors, moving from High-A to the majors with only 25 innings; albeit 25 innings where he struck out 48 batters with 7 walks and allowed only 2 runs. Since getting up to the majors in June 2012, Doolittle has a 3.09 ERA, 1.006 WHIP, and 9.3 K/9 with a 5: 1 K: BB ratio. His true ERA is even lower, at 2.37 and Doolittle has been very reliable, pitching around 70 innings each of the past two years. He has had 51 shutdowns as compared to only 15 meltdowns over the past two seasons and his fastball has been a true weapon, rated as one of the best pitches in baseball. He was a bit worse in 2013 than 2012, seeing his ERA rise while striking out fewer batters, but it was also his first full season in the majors and everything would suggest that Doolittle will continue to be a lefty force out of the Athletics bullpen.
Ryan Cook is another one of the strong young arms in the Oakland bullpen. A part of the trade that sent Trevor Cahill to Arizona and brought Jarrod Parker to Oakland, Cook has been the best pitcher out of the Athletics bullpen over the past two seasons. His ERA is sterling at 2.30 with a WHIP of 1.11 and has more than a strikeout an inning since coming over to Oakland. He walks a bit more batters than Oakland would like and was more dominant in 2012 than 2013; he threw more changeups in 2013 than 2012 in an effort to be more of a ground ball pitcher. His ground ball rate was similar in 2013 and 2012, but there were more line drives hit off of Cook in 2013, raise his GB: FB ratio. The biggest issue for Cook is that he throws a strong 95 mph fastball and that pitch was dominant in 2012 and saw a decrease in value in 2013. With such a strong fastball that is thrown 68% of the time, Cook needs to get his value back to that pitch; his slider and changeup can develop off of this pitch and make Cook even more value than he has been over the past two seasons. Cook will be relied upon in the 7th and 8th inning to get some tough outs for the Athletics and will give the Athletics a weapon out of the bullpen.
Luke Gregerson was added to the bullpen for the 2014 season and he should only strengthen a bullpen that was already strong. Over the past five seasons, Gregerson has been a strong reliever for the Padres and the Athletics looked to add some veteran leadership to the bullpen by adding the 30 year old. There is a lot of strength in the Athletics bullpen, but a lot of the pitchers are relatively unproven. Gregerson averages 73 appearances a season since 2009 and has a 1.09 WHIP and averages more than a strikeout an inning during that time period. He had a bit of a rough 2011 where he only had a 5.5 K/9 and 3.07 BB/9, but those ratios returned to their career baselines over 2012 and 2013. The biggest issue for Gregerson is that he had only 29 shutdowns and 15 meltdowns last year; those numbers were able to be contained on a Padres team that did not compete in 2013 but he is now on a competitor in Oakland. He averaged 31 shutdowns and 12 meltdowns in the seasons prior to 2013 and he should return to numbers close to that in 2014. He will a part of the new 8th/9th inning combination with the Athletics and should serve as a part of a good ending to a lot of Athletics’ games.
Jim Johnson has very big shoes to fill, as Grant Balfour was a great closer for the Athletics in the past two seasons. For a team like the Athletics who are ready to compete for a World Series title, it is important that they are able to close down the game, especially considering that the rest of the bullpen is so good. Johnson’s power sinker was devastating 2011 and 2012 as he was one of the best relievers in baseball and a part of a bullpen in 2012 that was 29-9 in one run games and had a streak of over 100 games won where they had the lead going into the 7th inning. He has saved 50 games in each of the two seasons, but in 2013 he had 12 meltdowns as compared to only 3 in 2012. He is not a strike out pitcher and that scares a lot of people. Also, his ground ball rate was down 4% in 2013 and that 4% moved to line drive rate. The eight more line drive hits between 2012 and 2013 may seem insignificant but in one inning spurts, this could be the difference that leads to the Athletics losing games. If Johnson is able to keep his sinker down and induce ground balls, the Athletics strong infield defense will allow him to have a great season as the new closer in Oakland.
The Athletics have a young rotation that will need a lot of assistance from a strong bullpen and that will probably be the case in 2014. With a strong bullpen like the Athletics have, most games that the Athletics lead in the 6th or 7th should be a win.
What will Josh Donaldson do to repeat his great 2013 season?
Josh Donaldson did not come out of nowhere entirely during the 2013 season, he was a first round pick in the 2007, but no one could have reasonably predicted that he would be as successful as he was in only his second full year in the majors. In fact, coming into the season, many assumed that it was his defense that would make him so valuable to the team and that was why he broke camp as the starting third baseman to begin with. After a 4th place finish in the MVP race, it will be important to see why Donaldson was so successful and how that success can translate to the 2014 season.
Donaldson was a first round pick by the Cubs out of Auburn in 2007 and was a part of the trade that sent Rich Harden to the Cubs in 2008. Donaldson was extremely attractive because he was a catcher that hit .346 in Low-A in 2007 with more walks than strikeouts, but was off to a slow start in Peoria in 2008, making him expendable for the Cubs. After he moved on to the California League with Stockton in the Athletics organization, he went back to having an outstanding walk to strikeout ratio and had a .381 OBP between the 2008 and 2009 seasons in High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland. Between the 2010 and 2012 seasons in the minors, Donaldson alternated between third base and catcher and his numbers in 2010 and 2011 were pedestrian in Triple-A Sacramento. A hot start in 2012 in Sacramento led to a promotion to Oakland.
Once in Oakland, Donaldson moved to third base for good and, although he was not a force offensively, was good enough to be in the running to be the starter at third in 2013. Nothing could have predicted that Donaldson would have the offensive season that he had in 2013, but his walk rate and strikeout rates were back to the solid ratios of the past and much better than the paltry numbers from 2012. In fact, most of Donaldson’s ratios returned to those that he had when he was taking his first try at A ball in 2007 or when he tore up Triple-A for 51 games in 2012. He had a .883 OPS with 24 home runs, 37 doubles, and 93 RBI. His defense continued to be elite, in fact he was the third best defensive third baseman in the American League, and he even had a higher WAR than MVP Miguel Cabrera.
For Donaldson to be as successful in 2014, he needs to continue to hit the ball hard. A ground ball hitter in 2013, Donaldson needs to make sure that those grounders find holes or his average will fall off a bit. He was a decent base runner in 2013 and had a jump in HR/FB ratio, two trends that will continue to give Donaldson value. He may not be nearly an 8 win player again in 2014, but his defense and solid walk and contact rates will keep Donaldson as a 5 win player; this is much more than the Athletics envisioned when they acquired him in 2007 and will keep him as a vital part of the Athletics’ success.
Why are the Athletics going to win 95 games?
The Oakland Athletics may be the best team in baseball. In fact, there were a couple different projection methods that were examined in these analyses and none of them had the A’s winning less than 93 games. Their bullpen is very solid, the rotation is young and deep, the lineup has great depth, and there is very good leadership with this team. Projections are great and math is not everything, though, and there are a couple things that may hurt the Athletics and could even keep them out of the playoffs. Brandon Moss has been very good in spurts over the past few years and the projections like him a lot more than his true talent, the same goes with Yoenis Cespedes. There has been enough written on Josh Donaldson and there are reasons to believe that his numbers from last year were an aberration. Moss needs to keep up with what he has done in the past, Cespedes needs to be less streaky, and Donaldson needs to show that last year was not a fluke. If those three things can happen, the A’s could quietly have the best lineup in baseball. There are many young, strong arms in the rotation and there is every reason to believe that their respective best seasons are coming soon.
1. AJ Griffin
2. Josh Donaldson
3. Jed Lowrie
4. Brandon Moss
5. Yoenis Cespedes
1. Addison Russell
2. Sonny Gray
3. Raul Alcantra
4. Michael Ynoa
5. Billy Burns
1. Billy McKinney
2. Bobby Wahl
3. Daniel Robertson
4. Renato Nunez
5. Dylan Covey
Who is Jose Dariel Abreu?
The 2013 White Sox were bereft of offense and GM Ken Williams looked this offseason to add top offensive talent without breaking the bank too much. Also, since the team is rebuilding, they wanted to add a player that was younger. Jose Dariel Abreu hit on all of those criteria and the White Sox are looking towards Abreu to have the same impact as Cuban hitting stars Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig.
The massive Abreu has been a power threat in Cuba since he broke into the Serie Nacional at 21. He has been a force since 2010; three times going over 30 home runs in a shorter Cuban season and has exhibited a very good eye. There are a lot of comparisons to Ryan Howard because of his 6’2 260 build and that comparison is a very apt one. Howard walked a good amount and hit for a lot of power, but also struck out a lot, something that Abreu will probably be a victim of as well. That is why it would be smart if the White Sox find some way to construct the lineup as to not have Abreu and Dunn directly next to each other as there would be two strikeout threats in a row.
On the other hand, like with Howard and Dunn, Abreu has elite power. The White Sox would love to see that kind of power in the lineup, as Abreu will be tasked to take the offensive load that was once given to Paul Konerko. He is very raw, but against top talent in the World Baseball Classic, Abreu was very good in 2013, with three home runs and a .360 batting average. Abreu is not your typical rookie at 27 so the White Sox should be ready to plug him in at first base and he should be very successful. A .270 average with 25 home runs is a good starting point for Abreu, with a good chance that he is closer to 30 or 35 home runs. For a team that was offensively lackluster and devoid of power last year, the White Sox would be thrilled with those numbers from the big Cuban Abreu.
When do the White Sox make a move to get some starting pitching?
The White Sox had veteran, yet shaky, starting pitching last year and that did not work out for them as well as they hoped, as they were a statistically average pitching staff. For the 2014 season, the White Sox are taking another angle and trying to go a bit younger with the pitching staff to see if there is depth in the lower parts of the organization. The White Sox already have an excellent starting pitcher in Chris Sale, but if they are going to compete in the American League, they really need to find at least one more starter that they can really trust.
There are not a lot of good pieces for the White Sox to trade and there is not much in the minor leagues for the White Sox to develop, so the White Sox may need to get creative in the way that they find more pitching. Chris Sale is a true ace and Jose Quintana has looked good in his time in the major leagues, but John Danks’ injuries and a lack of development from such pitchers as Charlie Leesman has left the White Sox with Felipe Paulino and Erik Johnson at the back of the rotation. Johnson is a building piece for the future and may be the best player to come out of the improving White Sox farm system, but Paulino is just an arm to throw out there every five days and should not be relied upon for major contributions. The White Sox should start in their minor leagues to find guys to add to the rotation and two guys that should get the first look are Eric Surkamp and Nestor Molina.
Eric Surkamp was a sixth round pick in the 2008 by the Giants out of NC State and was successful coming up through the system for the Giants, posting a 2.73 ERA in 467 1/3 innings between High-A and Triple-A. After a 2011 where Surkamp had a sub-2 ERA between High-A San Jose and Double-A Richmond, he had some elbow troubles, resulting in Tommy John surgery. Before the surgery, Surkamp posted a K/9 of 10.6 and between Triple A and the majors this year; his K/9 was 6.6. Surkamp was already not in the favor of the Giants as he struggled with the strike zone in a brief audition in 2011 and after getting injured in 2012 and not regaining his sharpness in 2013, the Giants cut him loose for the White Sox to sign.
Unfortunately for Surkamp, his first appearance with the White Sox in Spring Training was not good, as he allowed 5 hits and 3 runs in 2 innings of work. The White Sox need to send him back down to Charlotte this season and allow him to regain some of his sharpness before they give him a chance in the majors. The Giants have had a very good track record of promoting young pitchers that have shown success in the minor leagues and they may have rushed Surkamp a bit considering that success. A change of scenery and more of a focus on the process than results will be critical for Surkamp to regain the success that he had in the past.
Nestor Molina was received by the White Sox in the Sergio Santos and in his two years in the White Sox system has been a bit hit or miss. Originally a super utility player in the Twins and Blue Jays systems, Molina moved to pitcher for good in 2008 and was a good reliever in 2008, 2009, and 2010 when in 2011 he moved to being a starter. He tore up the Florida State League with Dunedin and the Eastern League with New Hampshire, accumulating a 2.21 ERA between the two leagues with a sub-1 WHIP and more than 10 K/9. When the Blue Jays looked to add a bullpen arm, the White Sox asked for the hot Molina. He was only decent in his 2012 season with the White Sox after coming in as one of the top White Sox prospects for the season and had a bit of a lost season in 2013, as lingering shoulder issues led to only 36 1/3 innings.
Looking for a better start at 25, Molina should also get a chance in the Charlotte rotation and needs to play up his decent stuff. He is not able to blow batters away and he gets by more with guile and craftiness than skill; Molina needs to play that up as he did in his developmental years. His ERA was a run worse than his FIP over the past two years in the White Sox system which shows that he needs to cut down on his balls in play. The quick analysis would say that Molina minimized his walks and struck out many more batters while in the Blue Jays organization and he needs to get back to that. He needs to get that elite control that he displayed in 2011 and that will improve his results by leaps and bounds.
There may be a chance for the White Sox to have a solid rotation with Molina and Surkamp at the back end, but each have their own issues that they need to fix in the minor leagues first.
How did the White Sox fix their minor leagues?
Amongst all of the issues with the White Sox, there is one good thing: the minor league system was pretty good last year and there are now a couple minor league prospects that may be on the way to Chicago. Coming into the 2013 season, the White Sox had one of the worst farm systems and there were very little, if any players, who would make it to the majors. The system is not going to be a top system going into 2014, but there were some good things that happened during the 2013 season that have made people more bearish on the White Sox minor league system.
In the draft the White Sox addressed a lot of their biggest issues and will be better for it in the long run. As reported earlier, the White Sox do not have a lot of upper level pitching talent, so the White Sox drafted eleven pitchers in the first 20 rounds with a good mix of high school, junior college, and college talent. With the 17th pick of the first round, the team selected shortstop Tim Anderson out of junior college to take over for Alexi Ramirez. Anderson signed right away and was aggressively placed in the South Atlantic League- this will be discussed a bit later. Second round pick Tyler Danish also made it to Kannapolis last year, a good sign for the White Sox that their top picks were able to get into full season minor league baseball in their introductory seasons.
Kannapolis had some very strong prospects last year, a true indicator that Chicago may have a brighter future. As alluded to earlier, Tim Anderson was drafted and sent to Kannapolis, where he had an OBP of nearly .350 and had 5 triples while stealing 24 bases at a 86% success rate. Anderson’s season in the South Atlantic League was great but Micah Johnson was even better. An SAL All-Star at second base, Johnson stole 61 bases in 77 games with a .422 OBP and 11 triples; he made it all the way up to Double-A Birmingham for a bit at the end of the season, maintaining his speed at every level. It is quite easy to see the White Sox imagining Anderson and Johnson in the middle of their infield and top of their lineup for the future. There were some other impressive performances by some other White Sox hitters in Low-A as well, as Jason Coats had 38 doubles and Michael Johnson had a .388 OBP. A couple pitchers were also solid for the 2013 Intimidators as they had four starting pitchers — Mike Recchia, Jake Cose, Myles Jaye, and Tony Buccifero — that had sub-2.50 ERAs in their stints in the South Atlantic league. Stew Brase was solid out of the bullpen as well with a 2.13 ERA.
Winston Salem had an interesting year for developing prospects. Four of the five pitchers that were mentioned above spent varying amounts of time in Winston Salem and they were not nearly as successful; the quartet of Recchia, Jaye, Cose, and Brase had a 4.25 ERA in 256 1/3 innings in High-A. The big pitching prospect in Winston Salem was former second round pick Chris Beck, who had a 3.11 ERA in the Carolina League before he was promoted to Birmingham for the end of the season. The ERA was solid but Beck did not have a good K: BB ratio (1.36) or a good WHIP (1.34); fortunately he was a bit better in Birmingham to finish up the season, but Beck’s low strikeout rate is a bit alarming.
There were two big hitting prospects in Winston Salem and each had odd seasons. Rangel Ravelo was a Low-A all-star in 2012 and started the season there in 2013, struggling through his first 17 games. After that, Ravelo was moved up to Winston Salem and put together a solid season with a .312 average and nearly as many walks (40) as strikeouts (46); a tall and projectable frame might make the 22 year old Ravelo the biggest player to watch in the White Sox organization.
The other big prospect in Winston Salem, in fact the biggest prospect in the system, was 2012 first round pick, outfielder Courtney Hawkins. There were good things that Hawkins did, like having 19 home runs and 10 steals while playing a good centerfield, but there were a couple of things holding the 19 year old athlete back. The two huge issues for Hawkins were the .178 batting average and 160 strikeouts in only 425 plate appearances. There is not a good history for players that have a 37.6% strikeout rate and a 6.8% walk rate — unless they are hitting 45 home runs — but Hawkins was aggressively moved to High-A as an 18 year old in 2012 and the White Sox gave him a full season there at 19 when a lot of his fellow draftees were either in Rookie ball or Low-A. Hawkins should start the season in Double-A, but because he is so young, if he struggles he will not lose any development by moving back to Winston Salem.
Birmingham was the Southern League champions in 2013 and there were a lot of very interesting prospects there. The aforementioned Micah Johnson and Chris Beck were very solid for the team and showed that they could deal with upper level talent. Beck struggled at times in Winston Salem and it was a good thing coming into 2014 that he had a good end to the season in Double-A. Johnson had such success in A-ball that it was great that he was able to get in Double-A and show that his numbers were not a fluke.
There were a couple of players that were very successful for Birmingham because they were a bit too old for the league but they could provide organizational depth. David Cales had a 1.82 ERA in 24.2 innings pitched while in Birmingham; Dan Black had a .881 OPS and 91:98 walk to strikeout ratio; Jake Petricka had a 2.06 ERA in 39.1 innings (which he bested in Charlotte with a 1.17 ERA); and Taylor Thompson was solid in the bullpen with a 2.15 ERA and a 8.2 K/9 (although he was hit very hard in Charlotte).
There were two players in Birmingham that were prospects coming in that fulfilled their expectations and another that developed into being a prospect. Chris Bassitt was a pretty good pitcher in A-ball, but while in Double-A he cut his walks by a bit, worked a bit deeper into the game, and lowered his ERA to 2.27. Erik Johnson came into the Southern League as a big time prospect but no one expected that he would have the season that he did in 2013. After ringing up a 2.23 ERA in Birmingham, Johnson turned it up in Charlotte with a 1.57 ERA. A sub 2 ERA and a sub 1 WHIP with 8.3 K/9 during the 2013 should make Johnson a part of the 2014 White Sox rotation. The Sox hope that Johnson is able to take a place next to Chris Sale at the top of the big league rotation. Marcus Semien played in three different levels in 2013 and there was a reason that he made it to the majors. Semien is a do everything type of player; he plays second, third, and short and hit .290 with more walks (84) than strikeouts (66) and 15 home runs and 20 steals. Semien should also be a part of the 2014 White Sox, using that versatility to fill in for Gordon Beckham, Alexi Ramirez, or Matt Davidson.
For everything good that happened in Birmingham, though, Trayce Thompson disappointed a bit. Thompson was supposed to be the big draw for the Barons, particularly considering that he finished 2012 in Charlotte after having a .899 OPS in Birmingham in 14 games, but he only had a .704 OPS for the season and struck out 139 times. He did have 15 home runs and 25 steals, but his stock may have cooled a bit given his relatively weak season.
Since there was not a lot of upper level talent in the Chicago system, Charlotte did not really have any big prospects other than those that were promoted from Birmingham. Carlos Sanchez is not a horrible prospect, but a .241 average in Charlotte and only 16 steals may have slowed a bit of expectations on Sanchez. He did have a solid winter ball appearance in Venezuela and hopefully he can build on that in 2014.
There is still a long way for the White Sox to go in developing a good farm system but there were some things that happened in 2013 that show that help is coming.
What will the White Sox do about their bullpen?
For the past couple seasons the White Sox have struggled and they have been changing up their bullpen frequently. (In fact, one may say that because the White Sox have been changing up their bullpen frequently, they have struggled.) Coming into 2014, there are a lot questions since the team traded away young and mostly reliable closer Addison Reed and starter Hector Santiago to the Diamondbacks for Matt Davidson and Adam Eaton. For the whole scope of the team, this was a great move as Davidson and Eaton should be solid pillars for the future, but the bullpen is now left without a closer. Through a couple of trades and veteran free agent signings, the team has put together what constitutes a makeshift group. When you look through major and minor league bullpens, the one thing that usually survives is hard throwing pitchers; the White Sox have embraced this and have bred very hard throwing pitchers. The next two “young guns” for the White Sox are Nate Jones and Daniel Webb.
Daniel Webb was picked up by the White Sox in the trade that sent Jason Frasor to Toronto in early 2012 and, after a rough 2012 with Kannapolis in the South Atlantic League, Webb quickly rose from High-A to the major leagues in 2013 with a 2.07 ERA and 10.7 K/9. Once in the majors, Webb flashed a fastball that averaged 96 mph and a slider and changeup that played very well off of his hard fastball. He has had some issues with walks thus far during his young career and those need to be fixed before he is able to sustain that success for a long time. He did a good job of not becoming too reliant on his fastball and that needs to continue as he grows. Although he is not currently listed on the White Sox depth chart, it would be a shock if Webb does not break camp with the team and should be the set man by the middle of the season. There have actually been some that say that he will take over at closer for the next player to be analyzed.
Nate Jones alternated between starting and relieving in the minor leagues before he came up to the majors in 2012 as a reliever. His rookie year was a huge success; in 71 innings, Jones had a 2.39 and featured a 98 mph fastball that was electric. This past season, Jones had a mixed bag of a season. He struck out two more batters per nine, walked one less per nine, cut his WHIP 17 points, and, even though he only allowed 2 more hits, saw his ERA jump to 4.15. The answer to why his numbers looked better but he allowed more runs is quite simple: batters had an .879 OPS with runners in scoring position against Jones. Also, there was a 1.51 difference between his FIP and his ERA in 2013; showing that Jones needs to finish off hitters when runners are in scoring position. If Jones is able to keep advancing in his control and becoming more of a strikeout pitcher there will be fewer runners in scoring position. This is easier said than done but Jones had a lot of good indicators of progress last year and he could be a breakout player for the White Sox this year.
Why are the White Sox going to win 70 games?
The White Sox are in a bad place but they are getting better. The minor league system for the White Sox was disastrous and there was not much young talent on the team. The emerging Chris Sale along with Jose Dariel Abreu and Matt Davidson do provide the White Sox young talent. The minor league system thrived last year and there are a couple players like Micah Johnson and Erik Johnson that could be nice producers for the White Sox in the future. This year may not be the team of 2014, but there are some opportunities for the future. The unfortunate thing for the White Sox is that the division is strong and will even get stronger so the White Sox need to make sure that their young players continue to develop.
1. Chris Sale
2. Jose Quintana
3. Adam Dunn
4. Alejandro De Aza
5. Alexi Ramirez
1. Erik Johnson
2. Matt Davidson
3. Jose Dariel Abreu
4. Marcus Seimen
5. Micah Johnson
1. Courtney Hawkins
2. Tim Anderson
3. Trayce Thompson
4. Chris Beck
5. Tyler Danish
Who will make a more immediate impact for the Twins: Byron Buxton or Miguel Sano?
The Twins may not have very much talent on the big league roster, but their minor league is a whole different story; that story begins with Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. Both are super talented prospects who have specific skill sets that will serve the Twins well for the future. Buxton is exactly what the Twins would look for in a leadoff hitter, whereas Sano is a middle of the order slugger. There have been few demerits on either’s performance in the minor leagues, but the Twins need some help at the big league level and a lot of their future is tied in Buxton and Sano developing into big league All-Stars.
Miguel Sano may have the best pure power in the minor leagues and is still growing into his large frame. Unfortunately for Sano, his elbow issues have not gone away and he has recently undergone Tommy John surgery, rendering the 2014 season relatively useless. Even when he does play, his power should be sapped a bit and he will not be as solid in the field; all of that being said, Sano is worth the wait. Since moving into professional baseball in 2010, the 20 year old Sano has hit home runs at a prolific pace. He has hit 83 home runs in the last three seasons in the minor leagues; that includes one season where in was in short season rookie ball and were his 18 to 20 year old seasons.
Even more than setting a prolific pace at the plate with home runs, Sano has boosted his walk rate north of 10% and grades out as an above average baserunner. Although there is an abundance of good traits that Sano displays, his poor fielding and high strikeout rate needs to be dealt with as he moves up in the system and on to Minnesota. His strikeout rate has consistently been in the 25% range, with no positive indicators as he has progressed upward through the system. His defense has gotten a bit better as the Twins have decided that his body has grown into third base — they had him between shortstop and third at the beginning of his career — and he did cut his errors nearly in half to 23 this past season.
When all is said about Sano, his power is what will make the difference. If Sano is the 40 home run, 100+ walk hitter that he appears to be, the Twins will be fine if he strikes out 150-175 times per year and will move him to designated hitter if his fielding does not progress. Given that the team does not have much of a chance for the playoffs in a very strong 2014 AL Central, it would be best if they do not rush Sano through his rehabilitation. In fact, this may be a blessing in disguise for the Twins, as Sano will have to be relegated to designated hitter most of the year and the team will be able to see how he reacts to just hitting; some players lose some of their skill at the plate if they do not play the field and the Twins cannot risk that with Sano.
Byron Buxton is the consensus number one rated prospect in minor league baseball and the numbers barely even tell the story on the potential that the young outfielder possesses. There are very few things that are wrong with the approach that Buxton takes to the game and he is truly a five tool player. Over his two stops in A-ball last year, Buxton hit .334 with 12 home runs, 18 triples, and 55 steals while playing an excellent center field. Those numbers are pretty impressive, especially considering that Buxton was only 19 last year, but he does have a couple things to fix before he is a big league star. Buxton may have stolen 55 bases last year, but he was only successful on 74% of his steal attempts. If he continues to steal 50+ bases, the Twins may be ok with a subpar success rate on the base paths but it would be wise for Buxton to create better habits rather than rely purely on his excellent speed.
The biggest issue with Buxton is that his strikeout rate is very high for a leadoff hitter. Buxton has a strikeout rate of about 19% through rookie ball and A-ball; this rate should only get worse as he faces tougher competition. There have been a lot of comparisons to Eric Davis for Buxton; the Twins would be very excited to have a 30/30 type hitter with elite defense, even if his strikeout rates are in the 20% rate. Buxton should get his average closer to .280 or .290 than the .270 that Davis accomplished during his career because his batting average on balls in play is a bit better than Davis’ was; it is to be seen as Buxton’s power develops if he is able to keep the elite BABIP he has displayed, though speedy players are able to find ways to get hits.
Buxton may be a bit better than Sano, but he is a year behind Sano in the system and really needs a full season of upper tier minor league baseball before he takes his spot on top of the Twins lineup. Either way, the Twins have two future MVP candidates in their minor league system and need to make sure that they are utilized the correct way. This is the most vital step in the Twins regaining respectability.
When will the Twins make a trade for the future?
The Twins have very little on their major league roster that is movable, but there are still a couple positions that need filling for the future and they may need to make a trade or two to fill in those gaps. There are very few attractive pieces on the 2014 Twins roster and the Twins need to realize where they are situated as a team and build for the future. They began this last year when they traded away Denard Span and Ben Revere and received Trevor May and Alex Meyer; two starting pitchers that should be strong for the Twins future and may be in the rotation by this summer. The situation is a bit bleak because two of their best hitters, Josh Willingham and Joe Mauer, have expressed that they would like to end their respective careers in Minnesota; in fact, the window for trading Willingham may have expired considering his weak 2013 season. This leaves a couple different options: trading off one of their free agent acquisitions from this past offseason (Ricky Nolasco or Phil Hughes) or trading their All-Star closer Glen Perkins. Considering that the Twins spent a lot of money on Nolasco and see some promise in Hughes pitching in a more spacious ballpark, which leaves the best offer available for Perkins.
Glen Perkins came up in the Twins organization as a starter and the Minnesota native was very ineffective so the Twins moved him to the back end of the bullpen where he has been a very solid reliever. The 31 year old Perkins saved 36 games last year with a sub-1 WHIP and an 11.1 K/9. He has transitioned into being a true two pitch reliever with a solid slider and 95 mph fastball combo that have rated as very good pitches — even with the slider falling off a bit in the past couple years. All of these things are great, but a closer that is as solid as Perkins is really just a luxury for a team that will not compete in 2014 or possibly even 2015. His salary is very attractive as he is owed only $12 million over the next 3 years and he has only gotten better as he has become more accustomed to being a reliever.
The bigger question than who the Twins should trade is what should the Twins trade for; there is a lot of depth in the minor leagues, yet there are a couple gaps. The infield should be fine with Joe Mauer soon to be joined by Sano, Eddie Rosario, and a bit later by Jorge Polanco; the rotation should be fine with a solid group of Meyer, May, Kyle Gibson, and Sean Gilmartin. The real question when looking at what the Twins have for the future is in the third outfield spot and if that will be occupied by Aaron Hicks. Hicks was a top prospect for the Twins and may still have a great future in the majors, but he has not translated any skills to the big league level, as he hit .192 in 281 at-bat last year.
He did show a decent power, speed combination with 8 home runs and 9 steals, but he was not very good in center field and, quite frankly, projects to have more speed than someone that steals only 9 bases. Buxton will take over center field when he makes it up to the majors, so Hicks will play a corner outfield position and his speed could profile very well for those positions in the future as he does have good range and a very strong arm; it would be smart for the Twins to play him on the corners more during the 2014 season. The trade of Perkins would not come until the trade deadline and the Twins would be wise to see exactly what they have in Hicks and then make a decision on their future in the outfield.
How will Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes fare in Minnesota?
The Twins had a truly woeful performance out of their starters during the 2013 and looked to remedy this issue coming into the 2014 season, spending $85 million this offseason on Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. Each of these pitchers has their flaws, but they should be good additions to the Twins rotation and are young enough to factor into the development of a winning Twins team.
Ricky Nolasco is a questionable signing in that some of the results that he has had contradict themselves and his adjustments may be questionable. The most glaring change for Nolasco is that he has changed his approach to be more of a ground ball pitcher and has used his off-speed pitches a bit more, also employing more of a split-finger fastball than a traditional changeup; these changes have come with scattered results, as Nolasco had a solid 2013 after subpar 2011 and 2012 season. In each of 2011 and 2012, Nolasco saw a 10 point jump in WHIP, nearly lost 2 strikeouts per 9, and was actually not pitching much deeper into games. He was able to maintain his stellar walk rate and allowed fewer home runs, but did lead the league in hits allowed in 2011 and allowed more than 200 in 2012 as well.
Last year, Nolasco turned it around a bit as he worked more with his slider and had some success, especially with the Dodgers as he cut his walks a bit more, struck out more batters and had a lower BABIP than the two previous years. If he is able to build on the successes of 2013 and working with more curveballs and sliders as he had in 2013, he may be a bit better than a league average pitcher. Considering that Nolasco has exhibited that he is a 200 inning type pitcher, he would be a solid addition for the Twins.
Phil Hughes has always seemed on verge of being a solid pitcher just to have bad luck do him in. In watching Hughes develop, he has seemed to over pitch for situations and, although his home run rate is not awful, it seems that every time Hughes allowed a home run it was either a home run that knocked the Yankees out of the game or ruins his confidence; there are legitimate questions about his mental makeup. Hughes allowed five home runs that had a WPA of 20% and 20 of his 24 home runs either gave the other team the lead, tied the game, or made it a one run lead for the Yankees.
As a fly ball pitcher that has had issues with home runs, it is good for Hughes that he has moved on to Minnesota; Yankee Stadium has been the stadium 5th most prone to home runs since it was opened in 2009 and Target Field has been 23rd since opening in 2010. That alone could swing Hughes’ ERA from high 4’s to the mid to low 4’s. Hughes has also decided to work more on his curveball rather than his slider, which could be a good move as Hughes tended to leave his curveball over the plate and it was hit very hard. As for his pitches, the key for Hughes is to regain the command on his fastball, as Hughes had a commanding fastball earlier in his career and has had some issues over the past two years with the pitch. The upside for Hughes is still there; he is only 27 and the change of scenery may be all that he needs to right the ship, but some of the issues highlighted above need to be addressed before Hughes becomes a reliable starter.
What is the plan for development for the top level Twins’ minor league pitchers?
As this article has drawn attention to many times, the Twins have a truly talented farm system and the future should be much brighter for the Twins. Hitters like Sano, Buxton, Eddie Rosario, and Josmil Pinto are going to be great for the Twins as they build, but the pitching needs to be there as well for the team to compete. There are a couple young minor league talents for the Twins like Jose Berrios and first round pick Kohl Stewart but they are a bit too far to really project; the Twins would hope that they are more of factors that make the Twins a playoff team rather than building blocks to getting to be a winning team. There are four pitchers in the minors that should be the building blocks for the Twins and should be very helpful as the team regains respectability. Kyle Gibson has already been in the major leagues and may break camp with the team in 2014, so this question will not look at him, but the trajectory of Alex Meyer, Trevor May, and Sean Gilmartin are things that Twins fans should monitor closely.
Alex Meyer was a 1st round pick in the 2011 draft out of the University of Kentucky and the key part of the trade that sent Denard Span to Washington. After coming to the Twins organization, Meyer was sent to Double-A New Britain and was solid there with a mid-3 ERA and struck out more than a batter an inning. He did miss two months with a shoulder injury, but came back even stronger after the injury, pitching well in New Britain and in the Arizona Fall League. As with most power pitchers, the issue for Meyer is his walks; a good sign for him is that he had his lowest walk rate in his 26 innings of Arizona Fall League and the Twins would hope that this carries over to his 2014 season. Another good sign for Meyer is that even with a high walk rate, his K: BB rate has been over 3 thus far in his career, showing that his aggressive pitching has worked out for him. He should start the year in Rochester with the Triple-A team, but, as with the other two pitchers on this list, a good start in upstate New York should lead to a promotion to the major leagues. He is the most talented pitcher on this list and the 6’9 Meyer is seen as the ace of the future for the Twins.
Continuing on the theme of power pitchers, Trevor May is also in a position to be a threat for the Twins in the future. It has been said before that May is better suited for the bullpen after two weaker seasons in Double-A and that may not be a horrible idea. During his time in the Florida State League with the Clearwater Threshers in 2011, May was dynamic with over 200 strikeouts and was truly unhittable at times. Since then, May’s stock has fallen off a bit as his control issues have had his WHIP stabilize at around 1.4 and his strikeout rate has diminished a bit too. He has a very good fastball and slider and should play those up a bit more and it might not be a bad idea for the Twins to give him one more chance at starting in Triple-A before they move him to the bullpen. As a seasoned 24 year old pitcher with two major league ready pitches, May could be a huge factor in the Twins bullpen during the 2014 season and beyond.
Sean Gilmartin was acquired by the Twins in a trade where they moved a player that they really did not need, Ryan Doumit, to get better for the future. Gilmartin is not a very flashy player, but rather is a low ceiling, high floor type of pitcher that every team needs. A first round pick out of Florida State, Gilmartin has been pushed quickly through the minors leagues and struggled a lot in Triple-A this past year; this should not be a huge issue as the Braves aggressively moved Gilmartin through the system since his pitches were more seasoned than his teammates. Possibly the Braves were a bit too aggressive with Gilmartin considering that he has walked a lot of batters in relation to a low strikeout total and has allowed more than 10 hits per 9 innings.
Since the Twins are in a position to be patient, it would not even shock me to see him start the season in New Britain, gain some momentum going into 2014, and then move up to Triple-A. He is a good pitcher and there are reasons to believe that he will turn it around. The number one reason is that his FIP was a run lower than his ERA last year; each were not very good at all, but at least that shows that there is more skill than the statistics show. He is basically a finished product, coming up through a major college program and more or less handling four pitches; he just needs to be able to put it all together with some decent results and little tinkering in his approach. He will make it up to Minnesota soon and should be a stalwart in the middle of the Twins rotation.
The Twins have to rebuild and they are doing it the right way by building from within. These three pitchers will aid the rebuilding efforts for the Twins and may make them relevant in the near future.
Why are the Twins going to win 74 games?
The Twins made some strides to be respectable this year by adding Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco, but the talent is not there yet and the team just does not have the pieces to compete. Fortunately for the Twins, the talent is coming very soon. The Twins have a top minor league system in baseball and there are a lot of nice pieces that will fill in the empty spaces for the Twins. As this article has discussed, there is top level pitching talent that is very close to Minnesota and then there are the mega prospects in Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. Prospects can always rise and fall, but the Twins have to even cautiously see Buxton and Sano as perennial All-Stars. This year should be tough for the Twins again, but the future is bright.
1. Josh Willingham
2. Joe Mauer
3. Ricky Nolasco
4. Phil Hughes
5. Kevin Correia
1. Josmil Pinto
2. Trevor May
3. Oswaldo Arcia
4. Sean Gilmartin
5. Alex Meyer
1. Miguel Sano
2. Byron Buxton
3. Eddie Rosario
4. Jose Berrios
5. Kohl Stewart
Who will anchor the back end of the rotation?
The Royals are a good team that may be on the verge of being a great team. The 86 wins by the Royals last year were very solid and a lot of that success came from solid pitching. The Royals led the American League in ERA during 2013, but even with the top ERA there were problems with the rotation. These rotation issues may be expanded on in 2014, as the Royals let Ervin Santana leave during free agency. They have signed Jason Vargas and are looking for support from their strong minor league system, both of which will keep the Royals in the playoff hunt throughout the season. James Shields, the aforementioned Vargas, and Jeremy Guthrie are solid if not stable arms at the top of the rotation, but before the Royals can be seen as a true competitor for the playoffs, they have to figure out the back end of their rotation.
Bruce Chen has been in the major leagues for 15 years and has only started 30 games twice, has had an ERA over 5 seven times in his career, and has played for 9 different teams. Yet, as the 2014 season begins, a playoff competitor is relying on him to be a vital part to their success. These statistics are completely true and Chen should not be completely trusted and the Royals need to find a good way to have him fit in the scheme of their whole pitching staff. Chen was successful last year as a swing man, as he started 15 games and pitched in 19 other ones last year out of the bullpen. In fact, when you look at the splits for Chen from the 2013 season, it is revealed that he was most effective when he pitched every 3 or 4 days, and as a starter he averaged 5.8 innings per start and 1.7 per appearance as a reliever.
This year begins with the Royals keeping Chen as their number 4 starter. Chen has an ERA of 4.53 in the seasons during his career wherein he was primarily a starter, which compares closely to his career 4.49 ERA. A very good thing for the Royals is that in the past 4 years, Chen has pretty much been a league average starter and has averaged 24 starts a season. What is very foreboding for Chen is that he had a career high fly ball rate in 2013, paired with a career low ground ball rate and home run rate. A big question for 2014 is if the fly balls turn into home runs. Chen has always been a fly ball pitcher, but there is a huge difference between allowing 11% of fly balls to be home runs and 7% of fly balls to be home runs, especially if 52% of hits are fly balls; in fact, it was the difference of 10 home runs.
If this trend can continue, he could really help the Royals; a good omen is that in 3 of Chen’s 5 seasons in Kansas City, he has had a single digit home run/fly ball ratio. It really is a mixed bag for Chen, as a below average starter became a very good swing man last year. There are a lot of good young starters in the minor league system for the Royals and it might not be a bad idea for Chen to piggy back some of those young pitchers as they gain their footing in the big leagues.
Danny Duffy is one of the good young pitchers that the Royals are waiting on to bloom. Duffy has had a very spotty and injury riddled three year career in the big leagues. After a disastrous 20 starts in 2011, Duffy has only pitched 52 innings in the majors and has had some very odd trends. His strikeout rate has gone up over the past two years, but that has been at the expense of his control, as he is walking a hitter more per nine, leading to his strikeout to walk rate being better in a season where he had a 5.64 ERA than in parts of two seasons where he had a 2.94 ERA. He has become more of a fly ball pitcher, as a pitcher trending to strikeout more batters would, but two other statistics are indicators that Duffy may have some issues. His line drive percentage was up 6% last year from 2012 and he allowed no home runs even though he allowed 26 fly balls to the outfield as compared to 1 to the infield.
Those ratios would say that hitters are making solid contact and that balls may end up going over the wall. When combined with the fact that Duffy allows 5 walks per 9 innings, there is a lot to worry about in regards to avoid big innings. What is even more of a problem is that Duffy has only pitched 100 innings twice in a season since he was drafted in 2007. For the Royals to expect 150-175 innings out of Duffy he would need to double the amount of innings he pitched last year; and this is a player with an injury history that needs to also be examined. Duffy is a good pitcher and that is why the Royals have been patient with him, but the 25 year old lefty needs to show progress this year before he is passed in the organization by pitchers like Kyle Zimmer and Yordano Ventura.
There are other ways that the Royals can try to fix the back end of their rotation, one of which that will be discussed in a bit, but the Royals will first give the chance to Chen and Duffy to hold down the back of the rotation. Both have had success in the past and should be able to help the Royals this season. There are a couple pitchers waiting in the wings it they do fail and that depth is why the Royals rotation should not fall off much from the 2013 season. In fact, considering how ineffective Wade Davis and Luis Mendoza were, the rotation may even be better in 2014.
When will Yordano Ventura make it to the major leagues to stay?
The diminutive Dominican Ventura has been in the Royals system since 2008 when he signed at 17 and he has made an impact as a high strikeout pitcher and is the Royals prospect that is the closest to the major leagues. As Ventura has progressed, many have questioned his size yet no one has questioned his talent and Ventura made three starts for the Royals at the end of the 2013 season. The important thing now is finding a role for Ventura and seeing how he can help the Royals for the future and what role is best for him.
Yordano Ventura has defied his size issues and has developed into one of the better power pitching prospects in minor league baseball. On top of that, his walk rate has only been over 10% in a six start stint in AA in 2012. There are many pitchers that are deemed power pitchers and we accept that and assume that they will strike out a bunch of hitters; Ventura’s stuff does not need assumption, he throws 98 on average with a curveball, cutter, and changeup. His cutter may need a lot of work, but Ventura is ready to be a very good major league reliever just based on his curveball and, especially, his fastball. Those are out pitches and if the Royals do have an injury in their elite bullpen, Ventura could fill in the gaps of the bullpen.
That is not the long term vision that the Royals have for the talented righty. In fact, GM Dayton Moore came out last week and said that Ventura will be available for up to 200 innings this year. The Royals have not been shy to stretch out Ventura’s arm throughout his career, as he has started about 20 games a season in the past three seasons. What is very smart for the Royals is that they have waited for Ventura to progress through each level before they moved him to the next level of the minor leagues rather than rush him. He struggled a bit in AA in 2012 and the Royals sent him back to Northwest Arkansas to begin the 2013 and succeed their before moving him to AAA Omaha. In the same way, it would make sense for the Royals to figure out which role they need most from Ventura for the 2014 season and have him work either out of the rotation or the bullpen in Omaha rather than learn the ropes of the majors.
Ventura averages about 5 innings pitched per game in the minor leagues and the Royals need to get that closer to 6 innings before he moves up to the big leagues. He also threw 16 pitches per inning in the major leagues, which is not terrible for a pitcher that strikes out as many batters as Ventura does. The best sign for Ventura, even more than the high strikeout rate, was that while in the majors he allowed a good amount of groundballs. He did allow 3 home runs in the 15.1 innings with the Royals, which is not a great omen, but there are so many other good factors that there is every reason to believe that Ventura will positively affect the 2014 Royals. The best thing for Ventura is to be in the minor leagues until early June, both helping the Royals assess what role they see Ventura fill at the big league level and so that he saves a year in arbitration.
In the end, Ventura is a high talent and the Royals will find a way to maximize his skill set. The repertoire that Ventura features would make him an instant impact arm out of the bullpen, but the Royals want to see if there is more from Ventura than just being a vital one inning arm. This will be a key plotline to watch unfold during this season and throughout Ventura’s young career.
How does Norichika Aoki impact the Royals lineup?
As an older average hitter that is above average at some skills, yet not spectacular at any skill, Aoki was vastly underappreciated in Milwaukee. Also, Khris Davis coming up from the minor leagues and showing a good amount of power and Ryan Braun coming back from a PED ban made Aoki quite expendable with the Brewers; the team was very willing to trade Aoki and the Royals were quite happy to extend an offer. Trading away the equally expendable Will Smith, the Royals landed a new leadoff hitter and a table setter for the RBI guys beneath him
The 2013 Royals were a good team that was missing an essential piece to a winning team — a leadoff hitter, and Aoki will fill that void very well. Since coming over to the United States, Aoki has shown that he will get on base 35% of the time, steal 25 bases a year, and play an excellent right field. This is vital for the Royals as right field was also a dead zone for the Royals in 2013. All of these are the positives for Aoki, but he did have some issues last year as compared to his rookie year. The 32 year old had a drop off in his power stats, as his slugging percentage dropped by 63 points. By getting 21 more hits in 2013 as compared to 2012, essentially Aoki hit singles where he was hitting doubles in 2012. This could be an issue, but the Royals just need to make sure that Aoki gets on base and is working the count at the top of the lineup.
Aoki is one of the toughest players in the majors strike out and did boost his walks during the 2013 season. The Royals are not asking for Aoki to do more than what is in his skill set and if he is able to do that, the team will be very good for it. His solid on base percentage and ability to create contact will be a huge boost to the top of the lineup. If his BABIP could creep into the .310-.315 as well, Aoki could even be a 200 hit guy for the team; the Royals knew what they got when they traded for Aoki and filled a lot of holes in what was a playoff contender. On top of the good addition of Aoki, the Royals added Omar Infante, which will also make Aoki a 110-115 run scoring threat.
Evidence through history shows that winning teams usually make at least one trade where they have good foresight to fill a huge need; the Royals did just this by adding Aoki to the team. Along with Omar Infante at the top of the lineup, Aoki will add value to the team as a tough out and create issues for defenses as a high contact hitter. The Royals lineup lacked a true leadoff hitter last year and the addition of Aoki may be the difference needed to make them a playoff team.
What can the Royals expect from Mike Moustakas?
The second pick of the 2007 draft out of high school in California, high expectations have abounded with Moustakas since he was drafted. Those expectations went even higher when, as a 21, he had 77 extra base hits between AA and AAA while cutting down his strikeouts by 23. The Royals felt that they had the third baseman of their future and Moustakas was a top 10 prospect coming into the season. In the 375 games that Moustakas has been in the big leagues, though, that promise has not been fulfilled and the Royals have exherted a lot of effort towards giving the proper opportunities to the high touted Moustakas. He is still young and for that reason the team will continue to allow him to develop, but there are a couple issues with his performance that need clearing up before he can become a star.
After his amazing 2010 season, Moustakas was called up to the big leagues and really has struggled since that point. The power that he exhibited during the 2010 season has been see in spurts during his tenure in Kansas City, most notably during the 2012 season, but there have been so many other issues with him that the Royals have consistently had to make excuses for him. In fact, his defense has really been the thing that has kept him in the good graces of the Royals brass, as he has rounded into a very good defensive third baseman. Since a poor 2011 season, Moustakas’ on base percentage has lowered each year, even with his walk rate raising.
An interesting observation is that Moustakas has seen less fastballs over the past two years and has struggled with off speed pitches. A fair guess is that in the minors Moustakas saw mostly fastballs and he maximized his opportunities against the four seam fastball. He has seen 8-10% less four seam fastballs and less sinkers as well over the past two years and has seen more sliders, curveballs, and changeups. Moustakas needs to adjust his approach at the plate to stay back on off speed pitches and possibly work to be more of a doubles hitter than a power hitter. It is a good thing for his future that his walk rate is getting better, but he will continue to struggle if he is not able to identify pitches and lower his strikeout rate.
His fly ball/home run ratio was a bit down during the 2013 season from where he was in 2012 and possibly if that gets a bit better, Moustakas may be able to inch up to 20 home runs again. The best situation for Moustakas is to not try to hit the ball out of the ballpark, continue to build up his line drive rate and become more of a 40 double player rather than a 30 home run hitter. His approach at the plate is way out of whack and, just from watching him, it appears that unless the pitcher is explicitly tipping his pitch, he is not able to identify a curveball from a slider or a changeup from a fastball. He needs to continue to work on pitch recognition and if he is able to improve on that, he will be around a .260 hitter with 20-25 home runs and 30-35 doubles at his peak.
The situation of Mike Moustakas is very similar to many prospects, a team sees that there is promise with a player and just assumes that the production shown in the minor leagues can effortlessly transfer to the major leagues. If Mike Moustakas were to look for advice on how to properly adjust to the big leagues, he need not look further than his own dugout with Alex Gordon. He needs to work on what his talent set lends him to and not try to exert extra effort into things that are outside of his skill set. It is too early in his career to make any broad assumptions on his production, but at this point Moustakas is just a work in progress.
Why are the Royals going to win 87 games?
This is a team that has been on the verge of breaking out and being a playoff team and 2014 should be the season that all of the promise for the Royals comes to life. The second half of Eric Hosmer’s 2013 showed that he could be a star for the 2014 season and the Royals lineup should be very strong throughout. The addition of Norichika Aoki has been detailed in this article and he is one of the more underrated players in baseball and should be a great addition to the team as a leadoff hitter that is a table setter for the RBI guys behind him. There is not a lot of power in the lineup, but there are a couple guys in the lineup that have 20-25 home run power, which should provide enough offense to fuel a successful season.
As for pitching, James Shields will anchor what should be a stable rotation. There is not a pitcher in the rotation that is particularly exciting other than Shields, but Bruce Chen, Jeremy Guthrie, and Jason Vargas are innings eaters that will serve their purpose through the season. The rotation may not even need to be that awesome through the season, though, because the Royals have a very deep and elite bullpen, anchored by Greg Holland. At some point this season Yordano Ventura will be on the major league roster as well and should positively affect the team either in the bullpen or the rotation. This team will be a team to watch for the 2014 season and should play into October.
5 You Know:
1. Billy Butler
2. Alex Gordon
3. James Shields
4. Eric Hosmer
5. Jeremy Guthrie
5 You Will Know:
1. Yordano Ventura
2. Kyle Zimmer
3. Jason Adam
4. Sean Manaea
5. Miguel Almonte
5 You Should Remember:
1. Bubba Starling
2. Hunter Dozier
3. Adalberto Mondesi
4. Christian Binford
5. Jorge Bonifacio
Who can the Indians most rely on for a big hit?
The Indians were a very timely team last year and all of the players bought into Terry Francona’s style and unearthed the capacity of their talent. There are a lot of very good hitters on the Indians roster from Nick Swisher to David Murphy, but there needs to be that one guy in the lineup that the team can rely on for the big hit and that will lead the team throughout the season. There are really only two candidates for that spot — Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana. Both are young and play non-premium offensive positions at a premium level. Each have had their issues, but are All-Star performers.
Carlos Santana was a part of a great deal by the Indians in 2008 when the team was out of contention and the Dodgers thought that Casey Blake would be an answer at third base. Blake may have finished his career with the Dodgers and provided a bit of power and some stability at third for a bit, but the Indians have won that trade by a large margin. In nearly 500 games since 2010, only Joe Mauer and Buster Posey have a higher OPS+ than Carlos Santana’s 130. He is also very durable; since he became the starter full-time in 2011, he averages 151 games per year, a very impressive rate for a catcher.
He does not only play catcher also, as he has played first throughout his career and took grounders at third this offseason. The versatility of Santana is a very important thing for the Indians. Yan Gomes exhibited last year that he is a solid catcher and may get even more of an opportunity to catch this year and that might even make the case for Santana to be even better offensively. When you look at Santana’s statistics, that is true; as he has moved away from catcher, his statistics have become more impressive. Last year, he was 7th in the American League in OBP at .377 and has 20+ home run power. A hitter that does hit a lot of fly balls, Santana also has a very solid 13.3% HR/FB rate. Santana has always been a player on the precipice of breaking out and as Santana moves out of the catcher’s position, this may be the season where he moves from being a very good player to a serious MVP candidate. The lineup for the Indians could be very good for the Indians this year and Santana is a main reason.
Jason Kipnis has been a solid producer for the Indians since he was called up in July 2011. It is rare for a second baseman to have a slugging percentage in the .450s but that was what Kipnis acheived last year. When combined with his above average defense and 30 steal per year speed, there is not a question that he is the best player on the Indians. But is he a difference maker at the plate? The assortment of skills is great for the Indians and he gives a lot to the team in many different ways, but is he the player that is a difference maker at the plate. As analyzed with Santana, he is a force at the plate and a potential 30 home run hitter; Kipnis brings a different skill to the team. Kipnis is a more balanced hitter that generates more line drives and is statistically more clutch than Santana. He is a bit streaky though and does not hit for power like Santana; also, Kipnis will probably never be a .300 hitter. He is patient and does not strike out much which makes him very valuable.
Currently the Indians have Kipnis as the three hitter and that is a great spot for him. If Michael Bourn and Francisco Lindor — in the future — are on base in front of him, Kipnis may have an opportunity to be a 100 RBI guy even without the prototypical power. He is the most important hitter in the Indians lineup and may potentially be better than Santana.
When will the Indians get a front line starter?
The biggest question for the Indians is if they can win in the tough American League with a bunch of pretty good starters rather than a few elite starters. The easy answer is no. To look a bit deeper than that simple answer, you have to see if the number one starter for the Indians, Justin Masterson, really is worthy of being an “ace”.
Justin Masterson was a young, sturdy swingman for the Red Sox in the 2008 season and the beginning of the 2009 season before he was a part of the package that lured Victor Martinez to Boston. Since then, Masterson has become a 200 inning a year pitcher with a heavy, ground ball inducing fastball. On a team with a couple solid and stable pitchers, Justin Masterson would be a great innings eater in the middle of the rotation. Unfortunately for the Indians, he is the staff ace. Last year’s team may have had the right idea with having a couple middle rotation type guys added with Masterson in Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez to make a pretty good rotation, but neither of those players will be with the team in 2014.
Instead, he will be joined in the rotation with Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Zach McAllister, and Carlos Carrasco. There is a ton of upside there, but none of those pitchers have exhibited over any long stretch of time that that they are viable options for a playoff team. So the fate of the Indians lays in the hands of Justin Masterson to lead the rotation. Masterson was quite good last year before he got hurt, leading the American League in shutouts and accumulating more than a strikeout an inning. He was on the way to becoming a good pitcher and might still be. The only real glaring issue there is with Masterson is that the strikeout rate of 2013 is more similar to his numbers from when he was in the bullpen than when he was a starter in the past. Especially considering that the Indians just gave him $9.7 million in arbitration, it seems that the Indians were paying for the Masterson that they saw last year.
The better Masterson and the less volitile Masterson is one that has his strikeout rate near 7, works on getting his walks down, and induces ground balls. The infield defense for the Indians is good enough to turn the ground balls that Masterson creates into outs. This is how the Indians could get the most out of Masterson as well. If he presses for strikeouts, his pitch count will go up and he will not be as effective. The Indians may not be a playoff team with a Masterson led rotation, but this is the only option that they have right now.
The Indians had brought in Trevor Bauer in a trade with the Diamondbacks and saw progress from Danny Salazar at the end of the season. Each of those pitchers needs to compliment Masterson for the Indians to have any illusions of returning to the playoffs with the roster as currently constituted. The Indians may be making some moves in the near future, look at the fourth question, but at this point the rotation falls flat a bit.
How will the Indians reorganize their bullpen?
As alluded to in the previous answer, pitching is not a strong suit for the Indians, a problem that is not isolated to the starting rotation. The Indians have had a pretty solid bullpen over the past few years. Even if Chris Perez was inconsistent, he was still a viable option at closer and did get outs when it mattered. Vinnie Pestano was so solid in the eighth inning and was able to eliminate the major situations so there was little pressure when it came to Perez. Now Perez is gone after legal troubles were heaped on top of pitching problems. The Indians reworked their bullpen and it now comes downs to three pitchers to finish up the games- Cody Allen, Vinnie Pestano, and the newly acquired closer John Axford.
Cody Allen was a 23rd round pick out of High Point in 2011 and quickly began his assent through the Indians farm system, making it to Double-A Akron by the end of 2011 and the major league by July 2012. Allen has been the typical power pitcher in the big leagues, a lot of strikeouts combined with a bad walk rate. Allen is young and has been given ample opportunity by the Indians, so he may very well lower the walk rate, but there is a very alarming statistic that should temper expectations for the young fireballer. Over his 104 appearances in the major leagues, he has 24 shutdowns and 18 meltdowns, which, according to the analysis of shutdowns and meltdowns, makes him a below average reliever. That is something that needs fixing before the Indians move Allen into a more advanced role.
Vinnie Pestano is the most reliable arm in the Indians bullpen and probably should have been the Indians closer last year considering the issues that they had with Chris Perez. Over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, Pestano was one of the most shutdown relievers in baseball, frequently coming in during the more high leverage situations for the team and making sure that the Indians went into the ninth with the lead. That was not the case in 2013, as the Indians moved away from Pestano in the more pressure packed situations. In short analysis of his 2013 season, his walk rate spiked and ground ball outs turned into line drive hits and fly balls turned into home runs; these are not good trends and if they continue, Pestano may no longer be effective.
On the other hand, looking at the fact that he had every statistic trend in a negative way and lost velocity and command, it is actually pretty good that his ERA was only at 4.04 for the season. Pestano also revealed that he was injured for most of the 2013 season; this is not an excuse for his poor performance, but might be a reason to rationalize the drop off in ability. There is a strong case to be made for his rebound for the 2014 season and proper rehab may get him on the right track.
John Axford basically came out of nowhere to be the Brewers closer by the 2010 season and in 2011 had one of the best seasons for a closer in MLB history. His walk rate may have been a bit high, but other than that, the Brewers felt like they had a truly elite closer for the future. Since that point, Axford has since been traded to the Cardinals and is now trying to latch on to the Indians as the closer. There have been issues with his location of his fastball and that has led to a spike in his home run rate and his walk rate was awful in 2012.
In trying to fix his walk rate last year, Axford overcorrected himself; his pitches became more hittable and his strikeout rate lowered from the double digit rates of the past. For the 2014 season, the Indians need to hope that Axford can balance his velocity with control and work lower in the zone to remove the risk of the home run. Moving from Miller Park to Progressive Field may help, but the Indians must make sure that the erratic closer can right the ship. At the least, he is a pitcher that the Indians did not invest a lot of money in and has experience closing, something that the Indians needed.
In the end, the Indians bullpen is not that bad, but there is a lot of risk in the bullpen. Cody Allen may develop into a bullpen ace and there is every reason to believe that he will continue progress throughout the season. He should be the closer of the future for the Indians and, honestly, should be the closer for the Indians this year. John Axford and Vinnie Pestano are different stories and need to right the ship to be effective. Each has had there own issues and the Indians might have some issues finishing out games if the two cannot fix their respective issues. A particularly bad omen for the Indians is that within their top three bullpen arms, Allen and Axford were top 20 in the league in meltdowns and Pestano had a 8:6 shutdown to meltdown rate.
What are the Indians going to do with Asdrubal Cabrera?
Asdrubal Cabrera has been with the Indians for a while and has been a lynch pin towards a lot of success, but there is a high probability that his time with the Tribe is nearing an end. Since coming up with the Indians in 2007, Cabrera has been steady but never great. He has been an All-Star twice and won a Silver Slugger, but the Indians are not in a place where they need an inconsistent shortstop that makes $10 million a year. This is the classic argument of economics versus talent. Cabrera is just an average player and there have been many teams that have made inquiries, mainly the Cardinals last year, and the Indians would be smart to move him while he still has value. Given all of this, the obvious question is why have the Indians not traded Cabrera?
The most obvious reason that the Indians have not traded Cabrera is that they have not been able to capitalize on his value at the right time. In 2011, Cabrera was a 25 home run/17 steal player and the Indians extended him through the the 2014 season at $16.5 million, essentially paying him to be a very good, yet not great player. In both 2012 and 2013, Cabrera has had very incongruent seasons so the Indians have not really been able to see if they need to get rid of Cabrera or if he will be a key part of a winning tradition in Cleveland.
In fact, the Indians have really never known what they have in Cabrera. In the first three seasons of his career, Cabrera was a well above average fielder that did a very good job of getting on base and was smart on the basepaths. After cratering in 2010, Cabrera reemerged as a power hitting shortstop whose entire approach at the plate refocused to hitting the ball out of the ballpark. This was a good thing in the 2011, but his on base percentage has diminished to the point that it might be a good thing if he changes his approach at the plate. In short, the Indians do not know what they have in Cabrera so they have had a problem moving him. Considering that he is scheduled to be a free agent, they might have their hands tied.
The reason that the Indians should be ready to move on from Cabrera is super prospect Francisco Lindor. Almost nothing else needs to be said about Lindor than that as a 19 year old in High-A and Double-A last year, he had more walks than strikeouts; he also had a better walk to strikeout rate in his 22 games of Double-A than his 83 in High-A. Lindor is every bit of a star in the making for the Indians as an elite defender at an elite defensive position that will hit around .300 and steal upwards of 30 bases.
If the Indians were in the playoff hunt and looking to make a move to become stronger, it might not be a terrible move to put Lindor at shortstop and near the top of the lineup with Michael Bourn and trade away Cabrera. He is not a bad player, but, when combined with the fact that he is going to be a free agent at the end of the year, his value may be minimal. If they are able to trade him to a team in the playoff hunt that desperately needs a shortstop and has depth in pitching, the Indians would be wise to trade Cabrera. If the Indians are hanging around in the race and Lindor looks like he needs some polishing, it would not be wise to rush him to the big leagues; it will be his job in 2015 and there is no reason to rush him.
Why are the Indians going to win 84 games?
In 2013, the Indians were a team that was very good and took advantage of certain opportunities and down years from the Yankees and Rangers, sneaking into the playoffs as one of the wild card teams. Even though they lost to the Rays in the wild card game, there were some nice pieces there. This season, though, there are too many teams that improved while the Indians regressed a bit. The bullpen is reworked and it should be fine, but it is still going to be a question mark and the rotation is a mess right now as compared to the top line teams in the American League.
This team will be tough throughout the year but I see too many similarities to the Orioles, and not in good ways. This would be more of a top 15 team rather than a top 10 team and even though good baseball will be played in Cleveland this year, a repeat appearance in the playoffs might not be in the cards. There is promise for the future in the reworked Trevor Bauer and the slick Francisco Lindor being added to the team but for now, this is the third best team in the AL Central.
Who is Nick Castellanos?
The Detroit Tigers made some serious adjustments to a team that was in the World Series in 2012 and on the verge of the World Series in 2013. Each of those will be analyzed below, but first it is important to look at what the Tigers did add this season in the way of Nick Castellanos. The first round pick for the Tigers in 2010 has progressed very rapidly through the minors and the soon to be 22 year old was already planned to be a part of the major league roster for the Tigers in 2014, but the transactions of the offseason accelerated the game plan for Castellanos with the Tigers.
The original plan for Castellanos was for him to make the team and potentially play left field, rather than third base which is his position of choice where he is a pretty good fielder; blocked by two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera at third base with Prince Fielder at first. The lack of potential for the future of Fielder sent him to Texas, Cabrera to first, and now the Tigers are ready to see if Castellanos is worth the lofty prospect rankings and the potential future at third.
So what can the Tigers get from Castellanos? First off, they get a much better defensive third baseman. Now the Tigers will not be getting the next Brooks Robinson at third, but his above average arm and range is a marked improvement over Miguel Cabrera’s balky third base defense over the past two seasons. In fact, Cabrera is a somewhat decent first baseman and that will help the Tigers as well. The real calling card for Castellanos, though, is his hitting. It would be foolish to believe that Castellanos will be as good in 2014 or even 2015 as Fielder is at the plate, but the upside is absolutely there and the Tigers are wise to look into it.
During the 2012 season, Castellanos had a fantastic statistical season at High-A Lakeland but he had a lot of hidden statistics that may have shown that it was a bit of a fluke, chiefly that a lot of his stats went down while in Double-A Erie and that his BABIP was absolutely ridiculously high (.486). Although his numbers plateaued a bit in Triple-A Toledo in 2013, when combined with his numbers in Erie in 2012, he showed that the double power that he had in Lakeland could translate to home runs, as he hit 18 last year. Also, he bettered his strikeout and walk rates from High-A while rising his isolated power. The difference between the .405 average in Florida and the .276 average in Ohio was the BABIP, which was at .307 last year.
The easiest conclusion to derive from this data is that Castellanos may be a bit dependent on BABIP to be an elite hitter, but the Tigers have to like a hitter than has been in the 35 double, 15 home run range in the minors over the past two years. As he continues to lower his strikeout rate, Castellanos should be able to be trusted in the Tigers lineup as a .280-.290 hitter that frequently challenges for the doubles crown in the AL and gives the Tigers a solid middle of the order contributor. For the 2014 season, he will be one of the key competitors for the Rookie of the Year title.
When will the Tigers realize that they made a mistake in trading Doug Fister?
The Tigers had a very solid rotation last year that could lead the team into 2014 and the future when they decided to make a the second of their major moves, trading Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals. Before we can analyze what the Tigers have lost, we must look at who they are going to fill the void left by Fister with. Drew Smyly was a starter in the major leagues and came up with the Tigers in 2012 as a starter as well and he actually did a pretty good job as a starter in the 18 starts that he had. The Tigers were a competing team, though, and the team added Anibal Sanchez to the rotation, put Smyly in the bullpen and he led the team to the World Series as a shut down lefty out of the bullpen. His versatility was huge for the team and could have continued to be a great tool for the team going into the future, but the team decided that there was more value out of Smyly than that of a late inning reliever and a swing man starter.
The Tigers found a better use for Smyly in the rotation and added a couple more prospects in trading Doug Fister to the Nationals. Fister was a price controlled innings eater with a fantastic ground ball rate that would have played up more with the much improved infield defense. He was arbitration eligible in 2015 but for a 30 year old pitcher that stood to make $7.2 million, the Tigers would have gotten a lot of production out of Fister for a very respectable price in 2014.
What the Tigers got in the trade will make the difference. The Tigers traded for flexibility and a change of pace. Steve Lombardozzi may not be a great player, but he can play all over the infield and outfield, is young, and is a cheap movable piece if need be. Every winning team has a super utility player that can fill in the gaps that occur throughout the season; Lomardozzi may not be a big contributor with his bat or glove during the 2014 season, but his ability to play almost anywhere on the diamond will allow other players to take a night off and keep them fresh. Ian Krol will now fill the role that Drew Smyly once had in the bullpen, albeit without the ability that Smyly has. Krol was solid in his first 9 appearances of his big league career with the Nationals, only allowing 3 hits and striking out 12, but once the league had seen him a bit his final appearances drove his ERA up to 3.95. He can also provide length, as he was a starter in the minors, so yet again the Tigers opted for versatility rather than filling a void.
The crown jewel of the trade was Robbie Ray, a top 10 left handed prospect in baseball. After a rough go at the Carolina League with High-A Potomac in 2012, Ray righted the ship in between Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg this past year, lowering his ERA back into the mid-3 range while boosting his strikeout rate in Potomac. There was a bit of a dip in strikeout rate and a slight uptick in ERA while in Harrisburg, but he lowered his walk rate, a good sign for a pitcher with a walk rate in the 4’s. He could join the Tigers during this season if needed, but he is a good insurance policy for the future.
This is where it gets a bit curious for the Tigers; it is a bad omen for the future of Rick Porcello in Detroit, that’s obvious, but what if this means that the Tigers do not feel good about signing Max Scherzer? The Tigers would have been in a good place in 2014 as they were constituted before the trades of Fielder and Fister, but the Tigers may be scared for the future. The trade of Fielder will be dissected below, but the trade of Fister was really just a way for the Tigers to have insurance for if they lose one of their aces. The Tigers would prefer a rotation that includes both Scherzer and Ray in the future, but the lack of high level minor league pitching talent made it necessary to get a young arm for Fister this offseason before they were left trying to pick up the pieces in the future. Yes, Scherzer is not a free agent until 2015 and the Tigers may have been able to win a World Series with Fister in tow this season, but the Tigers needed to get something for the future and Robbie Ray could be a very solid pitcher.
The important thing for the Tigers to do this season is to not get caught up in the potential success of Fister, but rather remember the larger plan. To sufficiently analyze this trade, we need to look at the future. This trade was a shrewd decision by the Tigers to create a bit more viability for the future and a rotation with Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez, Smyly, and Ray in 2016 would be outstanding. In 2014, the Tigers are relying on their other advantages (lineup, top 3 pitchers in the rotation) and hoping that the playoffs would be a certainty even without Fister. This is risky business, but if it works out, the Tigers could be very happy with this trade.
How will Brad Ausmus impact the 2014 Tigers?
Amongst all of the the changes that the Tigers made, the most interesting one may be is that they no longer have the steady hand of Jim Leyland and now have Brad Ausmus at the helm. Conventional wisdom in baseball is that former catchers may extremely good managers and throughout his career, Brad Ausmus was the type of catcher that was a game manager and was very cognitive in the way he called a game. This cognitive approach will be brought on to the Tigers and it may be considerable addition to the team.
The Tigers as a team may be moving in a different direction all together, as they had previously been a slow, clunky power hitting team. When you look down the lineup and see Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias, Austin Jackson, and Andy Dirks or Rajai Davis, you see guys that are not prototypical power hitters, but rather hitters that can affect the game on the bases and with small ball. Brad Ausmus may be able to help change the team for the better and make them more pliable in the future. Ausmus was seen as an elite catcher in intellect and in playing small and he will be able to bring that to the Tigers.
Where this is made even better is that there is the MVP of baseball in Miguel Cabrera in the middle of the lineup. Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter must buy into Ausmus’ philosophies in front of Cabrera and there may be even more opportunities for run production in the lineup. The analysis of the Tigers has looked into a lot of the trades that the Tigers have made and each of the two trades made by the team, as well as the signing of Rajai Davis, were to cater to Ausmus’ style. Defense and base running will be more important and the a utility player like Steve Lomardozzi should also open up opportunities for Ausmus to use his bench more often. This team will look a lot different during the 2014 season and if they are able to adhere to the new philosophies of Ausmus it will continue to breed success in Detroit.
What were the Tigers thinking when they traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler?
In 2012, the Tigers made a bold move, signing Prince Fielder for $200+ million with the vision of making a playoff team even better. A World Series appearance and ALCS appearance later, Fielder’s lack of production led the team to trade him to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler. It is critical to look first at what the Tigers traded. Prince Fielder is a monster of a man and his power numbers and durability were the key reasons that the Tigers were ready to ink him to the $214 million, 9 year contract that they signed him to right before Spring Training 2012. His two seasons in Detroit were insignificant if not unspectacular. Both years he played 162 games and knocked in over 100 runs, but the 50 home run seasons looked very much a thing of the past, as he hit 30 home runs in 2012 and only 25 in 2013.
In 2012, Fielder was a .300 hitter for the first time and did have more walks than strikeouts, but after a bad year at the plate, a lack of power, and continued poor defensive play, the Tigers cashed in their chips with Fielder and walked away from the table. Most of Fielder’s contract will be covered by the Rangers and the power alleys at the Ballpark in Arlington should help Fielder greatly. As for what the Tigers got in return for Fielder, Ian Kinsler, albeit a great player in his own right, might not even be the best asset received in the trade. As alluded to earlier in the Fister and Ausmus pieces, the Tigers are all about flexibility this year; this trait will also be held by the front office. Joe Nathan may have been a bit of a luxury grab for the team, even though the Tigers desperately needed a closer and their bullpen is a bit of a mess, but other than that the Tigers wanted to be able to keep the team that they have.
Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera are locked up and the Tigers wanted to be able to do the same with Max Scherzer, something that could only happen with a trade of Prince Fielder. Internally, and wisely at that, the Tigers decided that keeping Scherzer was more important than keeping Fielder so they moved Fielder. If financial flexibility were the only thing that the Tigers got in the trade, that would have been a win. The fact that they were also able to get an All-Star at a premium position is even better. Ian Kinsler may be a very streaky hitter and may not have that high of an average for a hitter at the top of the lineup, but he does bring a power-speed combination to a position that normally does not produce power. A two-time 30 home run/30 steal player, Kinsler will bring a different element to the Tigers from the top of the lineup.
The Tigers should be excited to have a versatile power hitter at the top of the lineup. Over the past five years, he has been above a league average power hitter and has had nearly as many walks as strikeouts a season. Kinsler may be a bit of a downgrade on Fielder, but when you evaluate the fact that the Tigers were able to get Fielder’s massive contract off of the books, the Tigers have to be happy with the trade.
Why are the Tigers going to win 89 games?
The lineup is not very deep other than Miguel Cabrera and the bullpen is not very deep other than Joe Nathan. It is as simple as this. If Nick Castellanos and Bruce Rondon can play big parts in their new respective roles and if the Tigers make me VERY wrong and come out ok in the Kinsler-Fielder trade, then this is a team well on its way to 95 wins. At this point in time, those are huge ifs, so much so that huge expectations for the 2014 Tigers should be tempered.
This is not reason to fear for the future of the Tigers. As this preview has gone over many times, the Tigers made some serious organizational moves this year and there will be some growing pains. This is the type of team that just needs to make it to the playoffs, where in a short series the strength of the upper third of the rotation and the antics of Miguel Cabrera can make them extremely dangerous.
This is a team that needed to prepare itself for the future rather than win 100 games in 2014 and then hope that everything would be ok. Doug Fister would have been a free agent right after Scherzer and if he continued to pitch well, he would have asked for big time money, especially if the Tigers had paid Scherzer nine figures in 2015. Prince Fielder was also an albatross of a contract and the Tigers needed to dump that to correctly function. These were the fact of business and the Tigers may have set themselves up better for the future with the trades that they made, even if it hurts the 2014 season.
1. Miguel Cabrera
2. Justin Verlander
3. Prince Fielder
4. Torii Hunter
5. Victor Martinez
1. Bruce Rondon
2. Nick Castellanos
3. Drew Smyly
4. James McCann
5. Corey Knebel
1. Jake Thompson
2. Jonathan Crawford
3. Robbie Ray
4. Devon Travis
5. Steven Moya