Kansas City: Let me preface this by stating a few of my baseball loves.
I love Royals Stadium (original and remodeled). I love Ned Yost. I love George Brett. I love go-for-it risky trades. I love the Kansas City faithful who have suffered in the way Cubs fans have suffered or Red Sox fans had suffered – only without turning into professional victims about it.
Having said all that, they’re all going to get screwed in a new way this year, and good people are going to get fired. Because what Royals fans (and many of those handicapping the 2013 season) see as a renaissance forged by deft winter trading and a spectacular spring training, is in fact the disastrous sacrifice of very limited resources for a bunch of lousy pitchers.
The Royals will have to pay Wade Davis, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, and James Shields a total of roughly $40,000,000 this year (and Guthrie’s salary goes up from $5 to $11 million next year). To get them they gave away some irrelevant parts like Jonathan Sanchez and Brandon Sisk and Patrick Leonard, and, oh by the way, they also gave away the store in Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and Mike Montgomery (actually the last two are just icing at this point. If you traded Myers for Davis, Guthrie, Santana, and Shields in your fantasy league, they’d kick you out of your fantasy league).
I hear the cries of heresy even through the computer. Since arriving in the majors on Memorial Day, 2006, Shields basically hasn’t missed a start. He’s Big Game James and Complete Game James and if there’s a dependable pitcher in the American League, it’s him. And I look at him and see a guy who had five complete games in five years and then out of nowhere threw eleven of them in 2011 and then fell back to three last year and caused the phrase “arm fatigue warning” to start blinking on and off like a neon sign.
Shields has appeared in 218 major league games and started 217 of them. In the starts he’s averaged just slightly more than six-and-two-thirds inning. And he hasn’t had one serious injury even as he begins his eighth major league season at the age of 32. He is, in brief, four-months-on-the-DL waiting to happen.
Let’s say I’m completely wrong about Shields. How about the other 3/5ths of the rotation? Davis, Guthrie, and Santana have a combined lifetime record of 179 wins…and 179 losses. And it’s only that good because Santana is 96-80 lifetime. And even Santana has only had one winning season since 2008. Guthrie last had one in 2007.
There are some extraordinary parts in the Royals’ lineup: Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, a bullpen full of power arms, and a probably resurgent Eric Hosmer. And it won’t matter a lick, because the Royals wrote the right checks and made the right trades – to and for the wrong pitchers. The disaster that will ensue will leave the executives, and maybe my friend Ned, out of work.
All the mediocre pitchers, of course, will still be there.
Chicago: In the last 56 years, the White Sox have finished in second place 17 times. That’s been easier to do since the advent of divisional play in 1969, but it’s still a neat trick and it seems to represent the franchise. Second in Chicago’s hearts, second in Chicago’s history, second in the standings.
You look at this team and almost everybody in the line-up also looks like the second best in the division. Paul Konerko? Terrific – but no Prince Fielder. Chris Sale? Probably the runner-up to Verlander. Alexei Ramirez? Tremendous, but behind Asdrubal Cabrera in the divisional depth chart. You get the point.
All of which makes last year’s collapse all the more shocking: not that the Sox fell from first place, but that they maintained it so long. Was that the work of rookie manager Robin Ventura? Was it Don Cooper and Bobby Thigpen juggling a very young bullpen?
Is there a chance it happens again? Chicago’s only significant changes are Jeff Keppinger at third instead of a mixture of disappointing prospects, and Tyler Flowers replacing the departed A.J. Pierzynski. The latter is, literally, the decision to go with the (what else?) second choice.
Here’s hoping the White Sox at least retain Phantom Ball…
Cleveland: All the White Sox did not do, the Indians did. They got themselves the best available manager (“Boy did I need that year off,” Terry Francona told me – and everybody else he saw this spring), a very good first baseman who can become a very good rightfielder if things go wrong (Nick Swisher), a really good centerfielder (Michael Bourn), and an interesting haul for trading away their previous best outfielder Shin-Soo Choo (Trevor Bauer and Drew Stubbs).
The Bourn move alone worries me. As noted here previously he batted .238 after the 1st of July last year. On the other hand, his stolen bases and On Base Percentage stayed relatively constant in both halves (or at least the OBP variability was relatively constant). Bourn can hit .238 all season as long as the OBP stays around .350 and he pilfers bags. Cleveland has a potentially punishing line-up to bring him, and others, home.
The most intriguing of the others is Lonnie Chisenhall. Say that name out loud and you might think he’s been an Indians’ prospect since Jim Thome was a rookie. In point of fact he was their first round draft choice in 2008 and has only 109 big league games under his belt. The season begins with him in a nominal platoon and batting deep in Francona’s order, but this is a protection against his primary enemy, self-induced pressure. Chisenhall absolutely stung the ball all spring and his emotional pendulum seemed to have swung all the way to unflappable from constantly flappable.
Thus the Indians’ hopes are pinned on what is still something of a patchwork pitching staff. Francona might be a tonic for the inconsistent Justin Masterson; they maintained a mutual admiration society before the Red Sox dealt Masterson to Cleveland. But can anybody fix Ubaldo Jimenez? Can anybody imagine the story if anybody could fix Scott Kazmir? Is Trevor Bauer’s idiosyncratic style the kind of thing that drove Kirk Gibson nuts in Arizona but wouldn’t get more than a shrug and a spit from Francona?
And is the bullpen ordered correctly? Besides Chisenhall the other lights-out Cleveland figure in the Cactus League was reliever Cody Allen. Allen struck out 80 in 72 innings last year as he rocketed from the Class-A Carolina League through Akron and Columbus to the Indians’ bullpen. He has the earmarks of a closer-in-the-making, especially if Chris Perez finally loses his balance on the pitching and public relations tightrope he’s been walking ever since Cleveland got him from St. Louis.
In a division in which every team has a flaw there’s a lot to be said for the one that brought in a guy who got booed out of Philadelphia and in his next year managing won Boston’s first World Series in 86 seasons. Francona brought Brad Mills and Kevin Cash with him as coaches (Cash will be the next Francona protege to manage somewhere), and the three of them might be the most significant free agent signings in the division.
Minnesota: This is a bad baseball team. This is not a Florida-level bad baseball team, but it’s bad. And it went bad because no matter how tempting it is, if you are a small market franchise, you cannot tie up all your resources in either a) a hitter at a high-risk defensive position (Joe Mauer, Catcher) or b) a first baseman (Justin Morneau), let alone c) both.
There’s no way around this. What you are left with is a line-up in which four of the guys should be in AAA because they’re not good enough to be in the majors, and a fifth (Aaron Hicks) should be in AAA because he hasn’t played in a baseball town bigger than New Britain, Connecticut. The same is probably true of two of the team’s starting pitchers and two or more of its relievers. The trades of Ben Revere and Denard Span were probably necessary but yielded nothing of immediate value, and unfortunately one of the assets it yielded (Vance Worley) is supposedly the ace of the team.
Worst of all, general manager Terry Ryan – who retired and stayed retired just long enough for the entire game to change while he was away and render his vast knowledge outdated – seems to be hinting that this mess is somehow the fault of people like Ron Gardenhire. Gardy deserves better than that, and better than this godawful lineup Ryan has put together.
Detroit: “Closer By Committee” does not work. Does not work. Does not work. Does not work.
Any questions about this? I’ll answer them by asking you one: when was the last time a World Series winning team has had a save from more than one guy in the same Series? (Answer below).
The Tigers, of course, are not really planning to use five different guys to finish games. They will do what the Giants did after Brian Wilson got hurt last year: Keep trying new closers until you get one who sticks. Now, of course, if Joaquin Benoit doesn’t stick, and Phil Coke doesn’t stick, and Octavio Dotel doesn’t stick, and Al Alburquerque doesn’t stick, and Brayan Villareal doesn’t stick, and a Bruce Rondon reprise doesn’t stick – if all this auditioning isn’t over with in a hurry, the Tigers could find themselves in a mess long before they make a trade for an established closer.
The Tiger window to make the Central theirs is a lot smaller than people think. Since the game began, forecasters have proved themselves almost always incapable of seeing anything besides what happened the year before. The annual tables in The Sporting News used to show 50% or more of writers taking the incumbent Champions to repeat, year after year. Apart from the substitution of hindsight for foresight, this also sometimes masks any holes in those defending champs.
This is a long-winded way of saying that the Tigers weren’t nearly as good as they looked last year. They entombed the Yankees in the ALCS, which completely obliterated the fact that the week before the Orioles came thisclose to beating the Yankees in five or maybe even four. Detroit’s World Series woes had nothing to do with the layoff; they executed poorly on the basepaths and in the field and their pitching had been scouted perfectly.
Flatly, the Tigers are an old and defensively-challenged team. Miguel Cabrera might be their second best infielder, and while Torii Hunter will do wonders in right, Andy Dirks will give that advantage back in left. There is simply nothing special about the double-play combination, I’m not buying the bullpen even with a good closer emerging or on order, and beyond Justin Verlander the rotation could produce any result from superb to sub-.500.
By the way, the last World Series winner to get saves out of two guys was the 2005 White Sox and one of those, the one from Mark Buehrle in Game Three, spanned exactly one at bat in the bottom of the 14th inning, and happened only because Real Closer Bobby Jenks had pitched the 11th and 12th.
The Division: I think this is the only one in which I’ll go out onto the crazy limb and take my chances that a recent also-ran will jell in a hurry. I think the Indians can and will do just that, in what might be a crazy race with the Tigers and White Sox. I have no faith in the Royals’ acquisitions and see nothing but carnage ahead there when they finish fourth. The Twins will be last and will have no one to blame but themselves.
With the fans of the 0-2 Red Sox and 2-0 Yankees having all taken the wrong instructions from these starts, let’s move into the Central:
Chicago: There are a lot of good players on this team. In fact, in a remarkable evenness ranging all the way from the bullpen to the outfield, the average White Sox player is above-average or better. Just – with the exception of Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko – not very much better. There are two men, coincidentally the team’s doubleplay combination of Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez, who are on the verge of stardom. If they achieve it, if they take the cliched next step, the White Sox can compete in the division. If not, this is a team that is indeed just above-average, and bound for nothing better than second place.
Cleveland: Three unheralded stars (Carlos Santana, Shin-Soo Choo, Chris Perez), the very good Asdrubal Cabrera, and filler. Quite awhile ago the Indians stopped taking competing seriously. The ’90s saw the Kenny Loftons et al locked up early and often (in the model since successfully copied in Tampa), but the ’00s saw ownership refuse to spend the money early enough to keep the Cliff Lees and CC Sabathias, and to have clearly also not spent it on careful study of the prospect yields when that talent had to be moved (quick: who besides Matt LaPorta did they get for Sabathia? Who did they get for Lee? And it’s not enough to say, ‘yeah but they got Santana, Choo, and Perez for almost nothing’ – Lee and Sabathia should have produced at least two blossoming stars each). And this decade seems to be the time of refusing to promote prospects when the season was still fresh and up for grabs. Even when placeholder Jason Donald went down with injury, the Tribe refused to promote third base stud Lonnie Chisenhall. And an approach like that gets you not just mediocrity now, but mediocrity later – when Chisenhall leaves anyway, by trade or free agency.
The answers, by the way? Sabathia produced LaPorta, Matt Jackson, Rob Bryson, and Michael Brantley. For Lee it was Donald, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Knapp, and Lou Marson. Not acceptable.
Detroit: The Tigers should have as much pitching as they have confidence. Brad Penny is the Number Two Starter? Brad Penny, who had a 5.61 ERA in his 24 starts in the AL in 2009? One also has to doubt Phil Coke’s ability to return to starting (the Yankees traded him because lefty hitters – especially those who saw him more than once – seemed to solve him), and there is the continuing non-afterglow of Rick Porcello. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are studs, but Penny’s placement at #2 implies some lack of confidence in Scherzer, who might still be one of baseball’s best starters. There is also a certain creakiness here: Carlos Guillen is hurt, Magglio Ordonez is a question mark, and the major investment in the off-season was in a catcher who cannot catch: Victor Martinez. I am not excited by the Tigers and in the first two games in New York there was a certain sloppiness to their play in the field – particularly by shortstop Jhonny Peralta and sub second baseman Will Rhymes – that must have Jim Leyland ready to break up the furniture.
Kansas City: If lightning were to strike and present the Royals with some kind of Cup-A-Soup Five-Pack of instant starters, they might actually be competitive. There is a decent infield with improvements coming up at the corners by mid-season, and the all ex-prospect outfield of Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Francoeur. But there are no Cup-A-Soup Five-Packs of instant starters (even if Aaron Crow and Mike Montgomery were to step into the rotation tomorrow).
Minnesota: The Twins’ main competition in this division is their own health. If Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan do not fully relapse (and a Nathan partial relapse would be neatly covered by Matt Capps) and no other star comes acropper, I don’t see Minnesota being severely tested. The infield is stronger with Danny Valencia at third and the guy I’d bet on as of tonight for ROTY (Tsuyoshi Nishioka) at second, and the rotation deep enough to move the aptly named Kevin Slowey to the bullpen. There is much more of a gap between the Twins and the rest of the division than conventional wisdom suggests.
OVERVIEW: 1. Minnesota (in a comparative romp); I’ll go for the Beckham-Ramirez growth spurt to make it 2. Chicago and 3. Detroit. The Royals will put up a valiant fight, but it’s got to be 4. Cleveland and 5. Kansas City.