Before the 2012 season, nearly every baseball analyst, including yours truly, picked the Detroit Tigers to absolutely dominate what looked to be a weak division. Well half of that prediction has come true thus far, because the AL Central has indeed been the weakest division in baseball. In fact its been so bad its time to dust off the old nickname, the Comedy Central. Currently the slumping White Sox hold a slim half game lead over the win-a-game-lose-a-game Indians, and a 2.5 game lead over the struggling Tigers. If baseball abolished divisions and moved all teams into one league, no AL Central team would rank among the top 5 in the American League. So does anyone really want to win this thing? Let’s take a look to see which team has the best chance, starting with those White Sox.
I want to take a look at some of the most intriguing rookies that have made their debuts during the 2012 season. This is the first Rookie Report, because now that we are in mid-May, many rookies are beginning to establish themselves in their club’s lineup and many new players are just being called up to the majors. Players are ranked in order based on who have been the most impressive to date.
No rookie has made more of an impact than Yu this season. Darvish has immediately stepped into the role of staff ace for the Rangers, pitching 52 innings, compiling a tidy 6-1 record, while striking out 58 with a 2.60 ERA. He has been utterly dominant, baffling AL hitters with a wide variety of breaking pitches complimenting an excellent 95 mph fastball. If Yu has one issue, it is his propensity for walking batters. The rookie ace has walked 26 batters, 3rd most in the American League, which could be a problem later in the season. The strikeouts help to balance out the walks, and prove Yu’s ability to be a bona fide ace of a playoff team. His teammates also rave about his commitment to the team, and the game, which was shown last weekend, when he went out and returned to the game after a long rain delay, getting the win against the Angels. Right now he is a mortal lock for AL Rookie of the Year, which is somewhat unfair because he is an accomplished professional ballplayer already, and a top-5 contender for the Cy Young award. Darvish has been worth every penny the Rangers spent so far.
2. Lance Lynn
Lynn, much like Darvish in the American League, is the early frontrunner in the Rookie of the Year race because he has pitched very well and compiled a 6-1 record. His peripheral stats are also outstanding: 44.2 innings with 44 k’s, 14 walks, and a 0.89 WHIP for a 1.81 ERA. Opposing batters are only hitting a puny .171 off of Lynn, due in part to his excellent 93-95 mph fastball. He’s throwing his 4-seamer for 54% of the time, and generating a lot of swings and misses with the pitch. He also has the advantage of pitching in front of one of the most supportive offenses in the National League, with an average of 6.86 runs per game of support. It will be interesting to see if this kind of run support keeps up, and if the Cardinals don’t score a lot for Lynn, how will he pitch in a tight game? We’ve seen him pitch in high-pressure situations out of the bullpen, and he performed well, but I want to see him tested in a tight game as a starter.
3. Wei-Yin Chen
Chen has been one of the many revelations for the Baltimore Orioles in 2012. He has a shiny 4-0 record over his 44 innings pitched with 32 strikeouts and a 2.45 ERA. He’s coming off his best start of the season, a 7 inning, 2-run, 4-strikeout gem against the powerful Yankee lineup. He really displayed a lot of his strengths against the Yankees, keeping hitters off-balance by locating a variety of pitches well. He threw his fastball, slider, and change-up for strikes more than 56% of the time, pounding righties inside and lefties away. Chen will never be a dominant strikeout pitcher like Darvish or Lynn, but he has the ability to be a successful mid-rotation pitcher and an excellent find for the Orioles.
Alonso has probably been the most consistent rookie hitter in the National League during the early part of the 2012 season. He’s hitting a solid .296/.369/.416 clip for an above average 123 OPS+. The spacious confines of Petco Park have limited Alonso to only 1 homerun, but he has 12 total doubles, which is 3rd in the National League. He is also very patient at the plate walking in 10% of his at-bats, just a tick above the league average of 9%. This is an important skill for a 25-year-old slugger to grasp early in his career, because it will allow Alonso to command the strike zone better, which will lead to a higher on-base percentage and better contact at the plate. Alonso’s biggest issue right now is staying focused on defense. He leads all 1st baseman with 5 errors committed, but has shown good range outside of a few mental lapses. If he cuts down the errors Alonso has the potential to develop into a plus defender, in addition to being the middle-of-the-order bat that San Diego so desperately needs.
5. Drew Smyly
Smyly has proven to be quite the find at the bottom of the rotation in Detroit, providing the Tigers with 39 mostly quality innings so far. Though he only has 1 win to show for it, Smyly has a nice 2.31 ERA, and an excellent 1.103 WHIP. In the 39 innings he’s thrown the lefty has compiled 38 strikeouts to go against only 11 walks. His ERA is 3rd in the American League, and his WHIP 8th. If you go in terms of WAR, Smyly has put up a nice 1.6 total so far, good for 4th among all AL pitchers. The lefty quite as good as he is cracked up to be however. Smyly averages just over 5.1 innings per start and has yet to make it past the 6th inning. The Tigers are being very cautious with him, only letting him throw a maximum of 101 pitches, pulling him after an average of 92 pitches. Smyly only has 1 win because he doesn’t go very deep into games, which allows his bullpen the opportunity to snatch victory away from him. Until he starts going deeper into ballgames, the Tigers’ rookie will not be able to compete for the ROY award in what is becoming a loaded field.
6. Jesus Montero
Montero has had a bit of a rollercoaster season during his 1st year in Seattle. The Mariners have given him just under half of the Major League catching duties, more than he ever was going to see with the Yankees, and he has struggled mightily so far. Montero was never going to be a Gold Glove winner and he is in the majors on the strength of his bat, not his catching ability, but he still needs to be a passable catcher if the Mariners want to be competitive. Right now he leads the Major Leagues in passed balls with 4 and had a particularly ugly inning last night in Cleveland. Montero allowed 1 run on a passed ball and then compounded his error with more errors. On a double steal by Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana, the Mariner catcher threw the ball away into left field. When Cabrera came home to score, Chone Figgins fired the ball back in from left, but Montero could not come up with it, and the runner originally on 1st, Santana, was also able to score. Montero struggles may prove the Yankees right that he would be best served at DH, where he can focus on hitting. Major league catching is the toughest job ot master in all of sports, so we should cut Montero some slack as he learns the tools of the trade. While he strikes out a little too much, Montero does have excellent power, and is 2nd on the Mariners in homers with 5 and is slugging an excellent .675.
Trout has been on fire since his call up to the big leagues, showing a variety of All-Star level skills. He has been hitting .333/.391/.567 over the 16 games he has played, with 3 homers, 5 doubles, 8 RBI, and 3 steals. Trout has also shown solid outfield instincts and good range, due to his excellent speed. Trout has also improved his plate discipline from his call-up a year ago, drawing 7 walks already. He only had 9 in twice as many plate appearances a year ago, which means he is making excellent progress as a hitter. This kind of patient approach and the potential for him to have a 20-20 season, make Trout one of the strongest competitors for Rookie of the Year. Darvish may have too much of a head start, but some voters may not be inclined to vote for him, due to h, but he is professional experience and Trout could be the benefactor. The only reason the talented outfielder isn’t ranked higher on the list is because of his lack of playing time, due to the fact he began the year in the minors.
8. Wade Miley
Another rookie pitcher off to an excellent start this season, Miley has been one of the best in the Diamondbacks’ rotation. In 39.1 innings he’s 4-1 with 27 strikeouts, 12 walks, and a 2.52 ERA. The 25-year-old began the season in the bullpen for Arizona, pitching well enough to earn a call up to the rotation. Like the Tigers with Smyly, the Diamondbacks are being ultra-conservative with the youngster, only allowing him to top 100 pitches once this season. Until we see Miley go deeper into ballgames, it’s going to be tough to figure out just how effective he can be.
9. Kirk Nieuwenhuis
The 24-year-old outfielder has been somewhat of a surprise for the Mets this season, emerging to become a reliable everyday player. He’s batting .293/.367/.407 and has 9 extra-base hits. Nieuwenhuis doesn’t have a ton of power in his bat, but he knows how to draw a walk, and he has the ability to steal bases. His outfield defense has been great so far this season as well, and he shows good instincts to go along with plus range. Even if Nieuwenhuis’ performance stumbles over the next couple of months, if he can finish hitting around .275 with 10 homers and 15-20 steals, it would be a good year for the rookie.
10. Best of the Rest.
Randall Delgado, Atlanta Braves. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals. David Phelps, New York Yankees. Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox, Will Middlebrooks, Boston Red Sox.
Note: Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland A’s would have been on the list, but he is injured, so I decided to highlight some other players instead.
Now that April is in the books, and with All-Star voting already underway, it’s a good time to look at the American League’s best, by position, so far.
Catcher- Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles
The toughest position to choose from in either league, because of the excellent quality of play to date from Joe Mauer, who leads AL catchers in batting average and steals, AJ Pierzynski, who is hitting .309 with 4 homers, and Mike Napoli, who has crushed 7 homers already. I decided to go with Wieters, who plays behind the plate every game, unlike Mauer and Napoli, and who excels defensively, unlike Pierzynski. Wieters is hitting .279 with 6 homers and 15 RBI, helping Baltimore get off to a surprising start.
Konerko has been mashing the ball on the South Side, crushing for a .383/.444/.679 slash that puts him in the early MVP discussion. The slugging 1st baseman has also hit 5 homers, which put him over 400 for his career, and has driven in 15. He is the White Sox leader in the clubhouse, and has helped propel the team to a 2nd place start after the 1st month. This is one of the deepest positions in baseball, so we will see how long Paulie can hold on to the top spot.
2nd base- Ian Kinsler, Texas Rangers
Kinsler has been the spark at the top of the Rangers finely tuned machine of an offense, leading baseball in runs scored with 24. He’s also hitting a robust .298 while blasting 5 homers out of the leadoff spot.
Shortstop- Derek Jeter, New York Yankees
This one isn’t even close, as Jeter is the only AL shortstop hitting above .300. He is currently off to one of the best starts to a season in his career, hitting .389 with 4 homers and 13 RBI out of the leadoff spot. He has also scored 16 runs and leads all of baseball in hits. He is also driving the ball to the outfield again, something he struggled with early last season.
3rd Base- Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
Longoria injured his knee last night, attempting to steal 2nd, which has really put a damper on what was shaping up to be his finest professional season. Longoria has hit .349/.433/.561, spraying the ball to all fields and showing good power, with 4 homers to go with 19 ribbies. Hopefully he won’t have to miss more that a week or two, because he has some competition at 3rd with Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre.
UPDATE: Longoria has a partially torn hamstring and will miss anywhere from 4-8 weeks. This is a massive blow to Tampa Bay and will undoubtedly hurt their offense. The Rays have plenty of depth, but losing your best player is tough for any team to overcome and will probably cost the Rays a couple wins.
Outfield- Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers
Hamilton, along with Matt Kemp, has been playing in his own stratosphere early in 2012. He is hitting .395/.438/.744 and has compiled a major league leading 64 total bases in a scant 22 games. He also leads the American League in homeruns and RBI and may have a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown, if he can stay healthy.
Outfield- Josh Willingham, Minnesota Twins
Josh Willingham has arguably been the most valuable free agent pickup to date. He’s driving the ball to all fields, posting an outstanding .347/.447/.681 with 5 taters. He may not stay in Minnesota for long, because if the Twins don’t get their pitching sorted out, Willingham would bring back a big return from an outfield or slap hitting team around the deadline.
Outfield- Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles
Adam Jones has been the other driving force behind the Orioles offense so far, hitting .333 and driving in 12. He has shown an All-Star level mix of power and speed, slugging 6 homers and stealing 4 bases, while scoring 18 runs. Other candidates for this last spot include: Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, Nolan Reimold, and Nick Swisher, who is having a career-best start to his season.
Designated Hitter- David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox
Ortiz is having quite the season so far in Boston leading baseball in batting average, at .405 and OPS at 1.184. He has buoyed the Red Sox with his steady demeanor and production, leading the team in RBI and homers.
Right-handed pitcher- Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox
What a comeback so far for Jake Peavy, who is currently 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA for the Sox. He’s already thrown 37 innings and has struck out a robust 33 while only walking 5 so far, for an excellent 6.6 K/BB. His WHIP of .690 leads baseball, as does his ERA+, which accounts for park factors and sits at an absurd 252. He will have some regression to the mean, but this is an excellent start for the righty.
The young 22-year-old was a blip on the radar before the season started, and a month later he leads all qualifying pitchers in ERA, at 1.23. He has only pitched 22 innings so far, but has struck out 22 while only allowing 1.182 base runners to reach per 9. He isn’t afraid to throw any pitch in any count and looks to be the real deal.
Relief pitcher- Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Johnson probably won’t occupy this spot for long, but right now he has a league leading 7 saves without allowing a run in any of his 8.2 innings pitched. Fernando Rodney has also been excellent, and apart from blowing an Opening Day save, Mariano Rivera has not allowed a run.