After spending the better part of the past decade lost in the baseball wilderness, the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians have finally found a way out. The two ball clubs sit 2nd and 3rd respectively in the AL Central and they’ve both been playing well of late, posting identical 7-3 records in their past 10 games.
Kansas City has been getting it done on the mound thanks in large part to a rebuilt starting staff that currently ranks 5th in baseball in ERA. New additions like Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, and James Shields have quickly made Royals fans forget the days when Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar were the best the franchise had to offer. A 17-11 start has only furthered the thought that the Royals might end their playoff drought, closing the door on a nightmare that began all the way back in 1986.
Cleveland is also enjoying a baseball renaissance of sorts, but they are getting the job done in a whole different way. The Indians have used their bats to rebound from last year’s 94-loss disaster, leading the American League with 40 homers already. Their own offseason acquisitions, which included the likes of Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds, are hitting balls out of the park at such great frequency that fans in the outfield must be alert at all times. New manager Terry Francona has Cleveland playing loose, winning 7 of their last 8.
The final WBC exhibitions took place today and with half of the tournament’s 16 teams set to deliver the first pitch on Tuesday now is the time to break down the pools one by one, starting with Pool A. Japan and Cuba are the heavy favorites to advance out of this group as China and Brazil are expected to offer little resistance. But as we saw in 2009, when the heavily favored Dominican Republic was eliminated by the Netherlands, anything can happen. Let’s take a look at each of the four ball clubs, who begin play Saturday.
Over the past season we witnessed a franchise tear down a 15 year streak of incompetence using nothing more than some internal improvement from home-grown players, a brilliant bullpen, and a patchwork starting rotation. The team I’m talking about of course, is none other than the Baltimore Orioles, a franchise who defied expectations and Pythagorean theories en route to 93 wins before bowing out in the ALDS to the New York Yankees.
The Royals have once again been reduced to playing out the string in 2012 after finishing the month of July with a 42-60 (.412 win %) record, while playing some of their worst baseball during the dog days of summer. Their record in the month of July was an atrocious 7-19 (.269) and at the Trade Deadline, the franchise once again became sellers rather than buyers. Over the past 2-3 weeks however, things have started to turn around again in Kansas City, with the Royals going 12-6, and in their most recent series, a 3 game set at Kauffman against the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox, the boys in blue were able to pick up the sweep. In the final game of the set, Jeremy Guthrie, yes the same one who had an ERA over 7.00 with the Rockies this season, twirled a gem for 7 innings and was backed up by Salvador Perez, who had 3 RBI to push Kansas City to a 5-2 win. There have been some encouraging signs in the Royals recent level of play that suggest better, more competitive times are just around the bend, and maybe with a few sly off-season moves, Kansas City could field a .500 team or better in 2013.
- Rangers on a Roll. The Texas Rangers are absolutely on fire right now, beginning the season with the best mark in baseball at 13-3. They lead all of baseball in both runs scored and runs allowed, making the Rangers a truly great team in the early going. Its been bombs away so far for Josh Hamilton, who after yesterday’s 3-3 game with a homer, is now hitting a massive .418/.438/.776 slash with 7 dingers and 17 RBI. Michael Young has been hitting behind Hamilton for most of the season, and he’s punishing opposing pitchers as well, to the tune of a .403/.431/.532 line. In addition to the fantastic offense the pitching staff has been sublime, with every starter posting an ERA under 4.00 so far. As a whole, the Rangers’ staff has the best ERA in the AL, the lowest walk rate, the fewest homers allowed, and ranks 5th in k’s. Colby Lewis has been downright phenomenal in his 4 starts, posting a 2.03 ERA with 24 strikeouts to only 1 walk. The worst starter on the staff so far has been Japanese import Yu Darvish, who has had some control issues, walking 6.6 per 9, but even he has a shiny 2-0 record and a 3.57 ERA. Texas has already won 2 straight American League pennants and this may be their best team yet. They begin a 3-game series with the Yankees in Arlington this evening and it will be another good test against one of the American League’s elite.
- Beast Mode. Matt Kemp said he was going to let Beast Mode out of the cage more often this season, and he wasn’t lying. He has hit a bananas .450/.500/.967 in his first 16 games with 9 homers and 22 RBIs. Every single one of those numbers is the best in baseball, and Kemp is the biggest reason why the Dodgers are off to an excellent 12-4 start, which is tied for the best record in the National League. Kemp said before the season that he thought he could be the 1st ever 50-50 player, and while he has only swiped 1 base, the power numbers are off the charts. His isolated power, which measures a batter’s ability to hit for extra-bases is an unheard of .517!! Kemp’s was .262 a year ago, a number that led the entire National League. Kemp will obviously cool down at some point in the season, but he is off to a historically good start.
- The red-hot Atlanta Braves offense. The Braves are leading the NL in scoring so far on the young season, showing an excellent blend of team power and speed. They have 18 home runs and 14 steals already, and are getting production throughout the lineup. The star of the offense has been Jason Heyward, who is back to hitting a .900+ OPS, and showing good instincts on the base paths, with 5 steals without being caught. The Juan Francisco-Chipper Jones platoon at 3rd base is working wonders, combining for 3 homers, 12 RBI, and 16 hits while keeping the future Hall-of-Famer fresh for the stretch run. Michael Bourne has been the catalyst at the top of the lineup batting .338 and stealing 7 bases with 5 extra-base hits. The only issue for the lineup so far has been a propensity to strikeout, as Atlanta ranks 10th in the National League in the category. The Braves big question this season was whether or not they would hit enough to support a deep pitching staff, and the early returns have been excellent. The boys from Atlanta will be in competition all season long with this kind of offensive production.
- The stumbling, bumbling Royals. The Royals are currently riding a 10-game losing streak, and they possess the 3rd worst run differential in baseball. The Royals’ offense, which was 10th best in baseball last year, has declined to 25th in baseball so far. No Royal currently has more than 9 RBI total, and they rank 2nd to last in the American League in strikeouts. Eric Hosmer has had a rough beginning to his season, hitting a measly .183/.269/.367 in 15 games after showing some promise a season ago. Another hitter struggling early is Alex Gordon, who is also hitting under the Mendoza line and has struck out 19 times already. Gordon had a breakthrough year in 2011, hitting for a 139 OPS+ while winning a Gold Glove, so it’s too early to give up on him, but the Royals will continue to lose until his play improves. The pitching staff hasn’t been much better outside of Bruce Chen, who continues to show that last season’s improvement was no fluke. Chen has thrown 18 innings, posting a 2.00 ERA while only allowing 15 total base runners, and he has a 0-1 record to show for it. Danny Duffy has also been solid, showcasing a blazing fastball to rack up an elite 10.4 K’s/9. The rest of the rotation has been abysmal, with no player posting an ERA under 5.50. The bullpen has also been sporadic, finding ways to lose games that the Royals have the lead in, contributing to the 10 game slide. Kansas City needs to turn things around quickly if they want a shot at finishing higher than 4th place.
- Pittsburgh’s offense. Pittsburgh is currently hitting .202/.249/.281 as a team, while scoring only 30 runs in 15 games! The complete absence of production in any form around Andrew McCutchen is almost unbelievable. McCutchen has hit an excellent .351/.403/.404, stolen 4 bases and scored 9 of Pittsburgh’s 30 runs. Four of Pittsburgh’s regulars currently have batting averages under the Mendoza line, with Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas being particularly awful, hitting .089 and .091 respectively. The Pirates rank dead last in baseball in every offensive category outside of triples, homers, and stolen bases. Pittsburgh is hitting for a collective 52 OPS+ with 2 players doing the impossible and ranking negatively on the scale. The worst team OPS+ in the last 45 years was the Mariners historically putrid offense in 2010, which hit 27 points higher than the Pirates are currently hitting. Luckily for Pittsburgh the rotation ranks 2nd in baseball in runs allowed, so the Pirates have been able to post a 6-9 record. The pitching won’t be able to keep this up forever and if the offense doesn’t improve soon, the Pirates will start losing every night on the way to another 100-loss season.
- Pitchers on the DL. Cliff Lee threw 10 innings on Wednesday against the Giants, and now he finds himself on the disabled list for the next 15 days, due to an abdominal strain. “We’re being very cautious with this,” general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. `’There’s no reason for him to kind of completely blow it out because it’s an injury that if he hurts himself and really pulls it, we could lose him for a long time. We’ll shut him down, get him right and hopefully he’ll miss only a couple of starts and go from there.” The Yankees also had to shut newly acquired Michael Pineda down after only 15 pitches in his 1st rehab start. There is no timetable for his return and the Yankees, historically cautious with their pitchers, will probably give him a couple months to recover. Diamondbacks #2 pitcher Daniel Hudson will also hit the DL, a precaution due to shoulder soreness. Blue Jays closer Sergio Santos is also hitting the DL, becoming the 6th closer on the early season to have to miss time. He is complaining of shoulder tightness, which is never a good sign for a pitcher.
The 2012 American League Central should be a one-horse race, won by the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers enter 2012 as the heaviest division favorite in all of baseball. The middle of the division should be better than in 2011, with every team having a chance to improve upon last year’s record as well. Let’s take a look beginning with the defending Central champion Tigers.
The 2012 Tigers will be the owners of one of the most star-studded rosters in all of baseball. With Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and the newly-acquired Prince Fielder, the Motor City has no shortage of MVP candidates. Detroit has all of the pieces needed to make a World Series run and should be considered one of the favorites. Their offense is elite, finishing 4th in baseball in runs scored a year ago, and should have even more firepower in 2012. They have plenty of pitching, with both starters and relievers to spare. Defense is the only major liability however, because Detroit will be below average at 3rd, short, and 1st.
The offense will have plenty of power, provided by middle-of-the-order combo Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. Each player has power, a good batting eye, and hits for a solid average. Fielder has bombed 30+ homers each of the last 5 seasons, and has posted an elite OPS+ as well. With a career .929 OPS he is a great on-base/power combination from the left side of the plate. Miguel Cabrera has been a model of consistency as well, hitting at least .300 in every season but one since 2005. The past two years Cabrera has turned into a monster, leading the American League in OBP. Planting these two sluggers will allow Detroit to challenge Boston and New York for the title of league’s best offense.
The rest of the lineup provides plenty of power as well. Delmon Young, Alex Avila, and Brennan Boesch are all power threats who could hit 20+ dingers. Avila had a career year in 2011, winning the Silver Slugger award while hitting .295/.389/.506. He provided excellent pop, going for 56 extra-base hits. His catching skills were on par as well, throwing out 32% of all base stealers.
If Detroit has any vulnerability it will be defense, where they dot the field with subpar defenders at five positions. Cabrera and Fielder in particular will be a troublesome duo, who could be particularly easy to bunt on. Both of the sluggers rated as bottom-5 1st basemen a year ago, and Cabrera will find 3rd base even less forgiving. The Tigers would be well served to use Brandon Inge’s above average glove and arm at 3rd despite his mediocre bat, if only to save some runs. Cabrera could easily be moved to DH, which could add a few wins in the standings.
Detroit had a surprisingly mediocre pitching staff in 2011, ranking 18th in baseball despite the heroics of Justin Verlander. His Cy Young/MVP double has been well documented for good reason. Verlander was just plain filthy in 2011, leading the league in wins, ERA, ERA+, innings pitched, strikeouts, and WHIP. These numbers will be tough to duplicate, but the dominant righty can be penciled in for 20 wins easily.
The 2012 Tigers will get the added benefit of a full season of Doug Fister as well. Fister destroyed hitters after he was traded to Detroit, posting a 1.79 ERA in 70 innings, while walking less than a batter per 9 and striking out over 7. While last year’s walk rate is unsustainable he should still post a solid ERA between 3 and 4. The rest of the rotation will be manned by high strikeout pitcher Max Scherzer and the very average Rick Porcello.
The bullpen has plenty of solid arms as well, led by 49/49 man Jose Valverde. Joaquin Benoit is an above average setup man and Al Albuquerque, despite his poor performance down the stretch, still posted a 1.87 ERA in 43 big league innings.
This team is spending big bucks, especially in the notoriously penny-pinching AL Central. Detroit should win the division and have its sights set on bigger goals after losing to Texas in the ALCS.
The Indians have been hyped plenty this preseason by the likes of Jonah Keri as a potential sleeper in the American League. That may be a slight over-evaluation of the team’s talent level however, because the Tribe only ranked 16th in offense and 24th in pitching a year ago. This team outplayed their pythagorean, or expected record, by 5 wins a year ago, and may not do the same again.
The roster does have a few bright spots however, in the forms of Asdrubal Cabrera and Ubaldo Jimenez. Cabrera had his coming out party in 2011, hitting .273/.332/.460 with 25 hrs while playing excellent defense. He is a bit strikeout prone but provides more pop than any shortstop this side of Tulowitzski. His middle infield partner will be youngster Jason Kipnis, who showed considerable promise hitting for an .841 OPS in 150 at-bats.
Each other lineup spot is manned by a player who can provide some offensive value, led by left-fielder Shin-Soo Choo. Choo struggled in 2011 after hitting at least .300 in each of the previous 3 seasons. He also is an above average fielder, possessing good instincts, quick reactions of the bat, and a very strong arm, worthy of the position. Travis Hafner is also back to reprise his free-swingning power act.
The rotation has to improve in 2012 if the Indians want to emerge as contenders, because no teams ranking as low as 24th make the playoffs. Hope is provided in 2011 trade deadline acquisition Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez relies on an arsenal of power pitches including a fastball that mysteriously lost velocity last season. It was the leagues fastest average pitching in 2010, but was down a couple miles an hour last year, which could be cause for concern. When Jimenez is on he is one of the true 10-12 aces in baseball as evidenced by his fantastic 2010, when he posted an elite 161 ERA+.
Justin Masterson, the potential #2 starter, has the ability and could be in for a strong season. He upped his K rate while also dropping his walk rate, leading to a mid-3.00 ERA. Derek Lowe, the sinkerballer, has been brought in from Atlanta to provide a steady mid-rotation presence. Josh Tomlin and Kevin Slowey are a pair of pitchers who’s ceilings are league average at best. They will probably start in the rotation to begin the season.
The bullpen will be a grab-bag and the expected closer is the mediocre Chris Perez. He has a poor 5.9 K’s/9 and walks nearly 4 batters per 9 innings as well. The rest of the ‘pen has its strengths and weaknesses, an if managed properly, it can be an asset.
This team has the potential to surprise for the 2nd year in a row, or they could bust and win 70-75 games. If Ubaldo and Masterson pitch up to their potential, Cleveland will have a 1-2 punch to compete in the American League.
Chicago White Sox
2012 will be a chance for a fresh start for the boys on the South Side of Chicago. A very green Robin Ventura will be replacing the temperamental Ozzie Guillen as manager. Departing with Guillen to South Florida is rotation mainstay and fan favorite Mark Buehrle. the 2012 Sox will be relying on plenty of players to bounce back from disappointing or injury-plagued seasons as well. The offense was a meager 19th in baseball and the starting pitching was only slightly better, ranking 17th.
The offense’s biggest problem in 2011 was an inability to get on base and a complete lack of baserunning prowess. Only Paul Konerko got on base at a rate above average and the lineup was riddled with black holes in 2011. Adam Dunn was probably the worst player ever to get 496 at-bats in baseball history a year ago. He hit .159/.292/.277 and failed to crack 35 homers for the 1st time since 2004, hitting a measly 11. If Dunn can’t get straightened out this season he could find himself released with $44 million remaining on his contract.
Alex Rios and Gordon Beckham all had down years for the White Sox as well. Rios was the worst of the 2, hitting for a 65 OPS+, ranking just above Adam Dunn as the worst hitter in baseball. Rios is on the wrong side of 30 now, and has seen his power and speed numbers decline steadily. This is not a good sign for the White Sox. Beckham is now going into his 4th major league season and has regressed each year since his first. He now has nearly 1500 career at-bats with a .249/.318/.386 slash, poor speed, and a big of a strikeout problem. If he doesn’t improve the White Sox would be wise to try someone else.
Even roster mainstays Paul Konerko and AJ Pierzynski will probably see some decline in their production this season. Both players are on the wrong side of 35, although each defied age a season ago to put up solid numbers. Konerko in particular had an impressive 2011, hitting .300/.388/.517 with 31 homers.
The pitching rotation offers a little more hope for improvement for Chicago. The Sox just named John Danks the Opening Day starter, but Danks was only mediocre a year ago seeing his hits per 9 inn. jump to nearly 10. He’s a good candidate to improve however, seeing as he cut his walks and raised his strikeouts, which is always a good indicator of improvement. He is also 26 and entering his prime so look for a borderline All-Star season from Danks.
Jake Peavy will also be tempting to resurrect his career after a truly gruesome arm injury in 2009. He has pitched just over 200 innings in the past 2 seasons, with middling results. His fastball is missing velocity, his curveball bite, and it has led to a career low K’s/9 rate. A healthy, strong Jake Peavy is a Cy Young candidate, but one wonders if injury has robbed Peavy and the White Sox of a truly great career. As recently as 2 weeks ago Peavy discussed the possibility of a future as a closer. This may give credence to the idea that is arm may not be able to handle 200 innings in a season, and bullpen duty may not be far away.
The rest of the rotation is composed of Gavin Floyd, Chris Sale, and Phil Humber. Sale was a strikeout machine as a reliever in 2011 and is now being moved to the rotation. The bullpen looks somewhat shallow, and with closer Matt Thorton it will probably rank in the middle of the league.
This White Sox team seems destined to struggle, with an unproven manager, an aging roster, and very little pitching depth. Expect the loses to pile up in 2012.
Kansas City Royals
The Kansas City Royals enter 2012 with higher expectations than at any point in the past 5 years. The offense was the 10th best in baseball last year and should be dynamic again this season. If the abysmal pitching staff can make a sizable improvement on last year’s 26th ranking, this team could be a dark horse for the 2nd Wild Card. For a more in depth look at the Royals’ offense click here.
The offense is led by young standout Eric Hosmer. The 22 year-old, former 1st round pick, showed major promise with his bat in 2011, posting similar numbers to other slugging lefties like Joey Votto and Adrian Gonzalez. If Hosmer avoids the dreaded sophomore slump, he could easily hit around .300 with 25+ homeruns. Combined with a productive Alex Gordon, who hit .303/.376/.502 with 45 doubles in 2011, and Billy Butler, Kansas City has the makings of a frightening lineup.
The Royals also have the makings of a solid defense, having above average glovesman across the outfield and at shortstop. This team will probably have one of the 10 best defenses in baseball. The corner outfielders, Jeff Francouer and Alex Gordon, led baseball in outfield assists a year ago and could do it again in 2012. This will be an interesting trend to keep an eye on, because many runner may not attempt to take the extra base as often.
If Kansas City really wants to morph into a contender, it will take a massive improvement out of the rotation. Jonathan Sanchez was acquired for Melky Cabrera in the offseason, but he probably won’t be the answer the Royals are looking for. In the poor-hitting NL West, Sanchez routinely sported excellent K rates but struggled mightily with his command, posing 5.9 walks per 9. Faced with better AL offenses, Sanchez may struggle to post an ERA under 4.50. So if he isn’t the answer, than who is?
Aaron Crow, a former 2009 1st round pick out of the University of Missouri, could be. Crow was an All-Star in 2011 out of the bullpen, posting a 2.76 ERA with 65 strikeouts in 62 innings. The Royals will be looking to get about 150 innings out of Crow, and if he can post a sub-4.00 ERA, he will be the de facto ace. His fastball averages 90-93, with the ability to hit the upper 90s and he has a slider and curveball as well. Crow was a fastball-slider pitcher out of the ‘pen and will have to mix it up more as a starter.
The rest of the rotation will be Opening Day starter Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, and Danny Duffy. Duffy is a hard-throwing lefty, hitting the upper 90s on the radar with his fastball, but his secondary pitches, particularly his curve, need work. He posted a 5.64 ERA, so he’s raw, but he has a lot of potential.
The Royals are probably a year or two away, but 2012 could be a big step forward for the franchise, while providing more seasoning for the youngsters.
No team had a more disappointing 2011 season than the Twins did. They were abysmal at all aspects of baseball, finishing 25th in runs scored (2nd to last in the AL, where runs are more prevalent) and 29th in runs allowed. They were on par with Houston and Baltimore in the race for the worst team in the league. There is some cause for optimism in the Twin Cities however, and it comes in the forms of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
The Twins offense is difficult to predict going into the 2012 season, because of the injury histories of their two biggest contributors. If the M&M Boys are healthy Minnesota score 700-750 runs and be a contender. If both players struggle with injury again, Minnesota will have a bottom-5 offense and will struggle to top 70 wins. Mauer is one of the true threats in baseball to bat .400. He is the only catcher in history to win the American League batting title, and he’s done it twice! I hope he can keep his legs healthy this season, because he is one of the 5 most entertaining at-bats in baseball, provided he’s healthy.
The rest of the lineup includes 38 year-old Jamey Carroll, who was imported from the Dodgers to play shortstop. In Carroll’s long career as a utility player, he has played only 200 games at short, and this is where he rates lowest defensively. He is an adequate 3rd baseman and a good 2nd baseman, so the Twins should look to play him at either of those positions instead. Provided health is good, the Twins have plus defenders at 1st, center, and catcher, where Mauer is one of the best in baseball. Denard Span, the centerfielder, has oodles of range to track down any flies in Minnesota’s spacious 3 year-old confines.
The Twins pitching staff has plenty of feast-or-famine players who could have All-Star campaigns just as easily as 5.00 ERA seasons. Carl Pavano is a league average pitcher (98 ERA+ over his career), and will probably finish with an ERA north of 4.00. Scott BAker and Nick Blackburn are soft tossers, who get by with guile, keeping hitters off balance. Each will probably give up more than the league average in hits.
The potential standout on the pitching staff is Francisco Liriano, who’s performance tends to differ based on his control. He has one of the hardest-bitting sliders in baseball, so much so that Liriano struggles to keep it in the strike zone. In his best seasons his walk rate has fallen under 3, and when he struggles he tends to finish with a rate above 5, like he did in 2011. He strikes out plenty of hitters and he has no-hit potential, so keep an eye on his walks. If they are down he will be an ace, if not he will struggle and be run out of games early, due to a high pitch count.
Ron Gardenhire, AL manager of the year in 2010, finds himself on the hot seat entering 2012. If the Twins struggle out of the gate, he could find himself looking for a job. This team has the talent to finish around .500, although it doesn’t have the depth to do much more than that.
Kansas City Royals
Chicago White Sox
AL Central MVP: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
AL Central Cy Young: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
There is a massive gap between the talent of the Detroit Tigers and the talent of the rest of the division. I don’t believe much of the hype surrounding the Indians, and if Ubaldo Jimenez struggles, that team will be sunk. I think the Twins will bounce back nicely this season, seeing strong seasons from both Mauer and Morneau. If those 2 are productive 2nd place isn’t out of the question. Kansas City continues its steady improvement to 3rd and will truly look to compete in 2013 and beyond. The White Sox will be a tough team to watch this year, with little depth, and lots of high strikeout players.