The Lost Letters: v1.0

I’ve decided that I want to publish what went unpublished at Baseball Prospectus while I was their AL Central columnist.

For those unaware, I submitted five columns, which consisted of about 20 hours of work for me, all of which went unpublished.

So starting today, and for the next five days, I’ll run each of them and let you all be the judge.

AL Central Mantras, Slogans, and Buzzwords
slated to run 3/9/11

Every season, baseball squads at virtually every level of competition have shirts printed up with that year’s slogan. It’s often as simple as “Beat (insert rival’s name here),” or something even more inspirational, like “We really will end the Curse this time, honest!” or “One-hundred years isn’t that long to wait!” or “We won’t win, but we won’t have any Super Twos either!” In 1932, the Nihilists League played under the one-word slogan, “Death,” but this proved unpopular and attendance suffered. The revised slogan, “Hot dogs, beer, and death,” was only slightly better received and the circuit folded in July.

This year’s Sox squad, much like each squad since its 2005 championship run, is operating under the slogan of “Finish what we started.” Each season since the team brought home the hardware, the club has been projected at or near the top of the Central, but has only reached the postseason once in that time. The Sox have much to prove after they were battered in a decisive mid-September sweep at home at the hands of the Twins last year. The bruising they took made the battle for the division look like it had been a one-horse race all along, as Minnesota extended its lead in the Central to nine games with only 16 to play. “It’s starting to get old,” Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen said after a loss against Oakland clinched the division for the Twins. “We didn’t get what we were supposed to get done.” It’s obvious that the Sox’ stunning ability to fold like lawn furniture (see Thornton, Matt v. Thome, Jim) against the Twins down the stretch has Ozzie beginning to gray just a decade after he last donned a player’s uniform. He has been dealing with it for a few yeas now—since he coined the nickname ‘piranhas’—but this season seems destined to be different, as the White Sox pumped up the offense and slimmed down its pitching staff in an attempt to catch those dastardly Twins.

Rather than sit idly as the offseason crawled by, Chicago decided to beef up its roster by adding slugger Adam Dunnmiddle reliever Will Ohman, and pilfering late-inning set-up man Jesse Crain from the Twins while letting volatile ninth-inning man Bobby Jenks leave on less than amicable terms. They also re-upped a revitalized Paul Konerko and are expecting more from Gordon Beckham after his second-half rebound (877 OPS) from a first half swoon (581). This mix of new additions and born-again holdovers should bolster the Sox’ chance at regaining the division crown, thereby finishing what they are now starting.

Another denizen that the club is holding out high hopes for is Jake Peavy, as he seeks redemption in 2011 by trying to stay healthy and justifying the Sox doling out the dollars for his hefty contract. Peavy was limited to just 107 innings last season after suffering a completely detached latissimus dorsi muscle. Fellow pitcher Tom Gordon was able to recover from a partially-detached lat muscle, so there is some hope for Peavy’s return. “As of right now, we’re on that schedule,” Peavy said recently in an ESPN interview, in regards to making his first start April 10. If Peavy is ready to fire the salvo on Opening Day, the entire pitching staff will improve via the trickle-down effect. Chris Sale could shift to a late-inning role, joining Crain and incumbent Matt Thornton to form one of the best late-inning trifectas in the majors. There is still no word on who will close in 2010, but as long as it’s Sale or Thornton grabbing the bulk of the opportunities to finish what their teammates started, it’s probably the right move.

This year’s official Indians slogan should be, “Hello, my name is _________.” With a team coming off consecutive 90-loss seasons, manager Manny Acta’s goal is to field a young team that will compete daily and, failing that, play spoiler late in the year. With that in mind, the club has brought a handful of players at almost every position to camp to compete for spots on what will no doubt be a fluid roster. The 2011 Indians have exactly two starters locked into the lineup: catcher Carlos Santana and right fielder Shin-Soo Choo. Otherwise, it’s a wide-open competition to see who will receive regular playing time. Grady Sizemore, who isn’t likely to open the season on the active roster, will have center field to himself as soon as he has recovered from knee surgery (though that timetable is iffy at best), and Travis Hafner’s contract will likely mandate that he gets the lion’s share of time at designated hitter, but his contract is the definition of a sunk cost. If any young player can come through spring training and impress, there’s a job to be had. Matt LaPorta would seem to have the inside track on playing time at first base, but his stock as a former top prospect is falling quickly, and Nick Johnson recently passed the longest physical in baseball history, so even though he’s not a candidate to break camp with the Tribe, he may pilfer some playing time in the unlikely event that he can stay healthy.

The pitching staff isn’t much different, as de facto number-one starter and top trade candidate Fausto Carmona and closer Chris Perez are the only pitchers who appear to be locked into specific roles. Recent signee Chad Durbin will be in there somewhere, as will 2010 holdovers Justin Masterson and prospect Carlos Carrasco, but where exactly they will be slotted is up in the air. The rest of the staff will be comprised of the likes of Tony SippRafael PerezJoe SmithJensen Lewis, and a bunch of other lively but untested arms.

As an aside, old-school baseball minds have continued to call Orlando Cabrera a winner; this season he’ll officially put that reputation under some serious strain. First, he’s battling against Jason DonaldJayson NixAsdrubal CabreraLuis ValbuenaLonnie Chisenhall, and a cast of other non-roster invitees for one of the precious few middle-infield spots. This only serves to make the Cabrera signing even more of a head-scratcher.  If he doesn’t ‘win’ the second-base job outright, his winning reputation could be DOA. He did single-handedly save the Reds from themselves in 2010 though, right?

The key for the Detroit Tigers in 2011 is to “Find the happy medium.” After all, the club is led by uncensored, chain-smoking, battle-tested Jim Leyland, who gives interviews in shaving cream and bike shorts while maintaining the same facial expression at all times. The club’s leading hitter has struggled with drinking in his short time in the Motor City, although it has yet to affect his on-field performance. One of the team’s premier relievers pumps more heat than his arm can handle. Finally, a pair of sophomores, Brandon Boesch and Austin Jackson, will seek to find balance to establish themselves as everyday regulars on a team that’s seeking to be the third horse in the Central pennant race.

Finding this happy medium hasn’t been an overnight development for the Tigers, however. To backtrack a bit, ever since the club was rescued from the depths of despair of the 2003 season, the club spent, using little moderation, to build the team that eventually lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2006 World Series. First it was Ivan Rodriguez, followed by Magglio OrdonezTroy PercivalKenny RogersGary SheffieldDontrelle WillisMiguel CabreraNate RobertsonTodd Jones, and others. The Tigers spent money as though general manager Dave Dombrowski’s computer printed it. Aside from that World Series appearance, a glance at the club’s franchise index paints a picture of perpetual also-rans, culminating in a last-place finish in 2008. Afterward the club, like the city, scaled back on expenditures in a big way, albeit briefly. Gone are the albatross contracts of Robertson, Willis, and company, replaced with more sensible deals to Cabrera, Ordonez, and Justin Verlander. Sure, there’s still fat to be trimmed—Carlos Guillen will make $13 million in the last year of his contract after two injury-plagued, 750 OPS seasons—but otherwise Detroit has been more disciplined as they have restructured their payroll.

The Tigers are also seeking to find happy mediums with 2010 rookies Boesch and Jackson. Boesch got off to a scorching start in 2010, with a 990 OPS at the All-Star break. However, his blistering pace didn’t survive the summer’s high heat, as he posted a frigid 458 mark the rest of the way. Also worrisome is that Boesch handled portsiders with a 951 OPS, but righties returned the favor in limiting him to a 673 tally. It was certainly a small sample size, but it’s undoubtedly rare that a lefty would show such a disparate platoon split in favor of facing similar-sided hurlers. His minor-league track record doesn’t suggest that his first half was much short of a fluke, and Nolan Reimold‘s sophomoric comparisons may certainly be valid. One thing is certain: Boesch needs to settle in much closer to the first-half outlier if he has visions of a long-term future in Motown. As for Jackson, his Rookie of the Year runner-up season was no doubt impressive, but he has to settle for the midpoint in a pair of areas. First of all, he’ll no doubt fall short in attempting to repeat his league-pacing .396 BABIPfrom 2010. That territory is reserved for MVP candidates such as Josh HamiltonJoey Votto, and Carlos Gonzalez, all of whom filled the second through fourth spots in the major leagues in BABIP, and all of whom sported isolated power totals of .200 or better (Jackson’s was a mere .107). Jackson will also have to cut down on his strikeouts, as he whiffed in 27.5 percent of his at-bats, placing him 15th among all hitters with 500 or more plate appearances. If both of these factors conspire against him in 2011, he could quickly fall into Carlos Gomez territory as a player that still carries a fair amount of value, but not one that general managers fall over themselves to carry on a 25-man roster.

“Are we there yet?” The same words that have beleaguered parents since the beginning of time are now plaguing Royals fans. However, unlike the identically-titled movie starring Ice Cube, this horror show has lasted longer than 95 minutes of cringe-inducing running time. Desperate for the Royals’ first winning season since their unlikely 83-win season in 2003, fans finally have the right to be excited for the first time in a long time as the future in the City of Fountains truly is bright enough to have a sunglasses giveaway day at Kauffman Stadium, perhaps to the first 10,000 1,000 who utter the now-infamous phrase “Trust The Process.” A vast horde of prospects are almost there, and a very small part of the future is now, as Billy Butler and PECOTA pet project Kila Ka’aihue, who personifies the slogan better than anyone, should crack the everyday lineup. Outside of those two, most everyone on the big-league roster, with the exception of closer Joakim Soria, would appear to be keeping a spot warm for a well-regarded prospect or 11.

Mike Moustakas may be the first called to the scene, not too dissimilar to the first responder at an accident scene. After a subpar 2009, Moustakas blasted Texas League pitching to the tune of a .347/.413/.687 line, and hit reasonably well in 52 Triple-A games. His plate discipline is a work in progress, but there’s very real power potential. Though he’s limited by a lack of foot speed, Moustakas does have a plus-plus arm. Eric Hosmer, Christian Colon, Johnny GiavotellaLorenzo CainJarrod Dyson, and Wil Myers round out the list of hitting prospects who could crack the lineup within the next calendar year, giving the club excellent depth across the diamond.

Tim Collins has a chance to make the club out of spring training as a reliever, but the club has a handful of starters who may have a bigger impact. John Lamb and Mike Montgomery are five-star prospects that may see big-league time as soon as the end of this season. Both lefties, neither has pitched above Double-A yet, so expectations have to be tempered slightly as they get their first taste of advanced minor-league ball. The club also has a pair of left-handed four-star prospects in Chris Dwyer and Danny Duffy. Just like their five-star predecessors, both rely on above-average heaters and have yet to clear the logjam at Double-A. This could be scary for the rest of the division, not only because all of these players are aligning themselves to be promoted around the same time, but also because the division is rife with solid left-handed hitters, most notably Dunn, Mauer, Morneau, and Choo. Scarier yet could be managing all of the paydays that will be allocated should a large number of these players fulfill their incredible potential, but that’s a number of years down the road, and as the cliche goes, “That’s a good problem to have.”

For a quick and dirty comparison, this club’s farm system has similar potential to the Tampa Bay Rays from a few years ago, only in a division less dominated by high-payroll clubs. However, the fans will have to be content with waiting while being subjected to Jeff FrancoeurMelky Cabrera, and their ‘former Braves’ traveling road show (now with less Yuniesky Betancourt!) until the farmhands can find their way to the big city.

If any mantra were to typify the way the Twins did business over the offseason, “speed kills” would be as good as any. For some reason, the offense of slow-moving stiffs that propelled the club to a collective 106 OPS+, a modest mark but the Twins’ best since the 1991 World Series team, needed to add speed in the eyes of manager Ron Gardenhire, much like cracking open the dash of a Corvette to add an Audiovox CD player. With this notion in mind, the club parted ways with its erstwhile middle-infield partnership of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson in favor of the more fleet afoot Alexi Casilla andTsuyoshi Nishioka.

It’s certainly not impossible to justify the moves from the club’s point of view. The H2 infield combined to miss 97 games, but if that was a primary reason for revamping up the middle, the similarly fragile Casilla and Nishioka don’t seem to be ideal fits. There was also sentiment that the club had grown tired of Hudson’s antics, because while Hudson’s mouth never stops, his bat sure did, as he dropped to a 505 OPS in September. Hardy didn’t fare much better, though he rebounded nicely from an early-season wrist injury, posting an OPS north of 800 once he finally let it heal. Still, he drew the ire of the club’s officials for some reason or another, leading some media members to opine that it was because he took his time coming back from said wrist injury. A quick peek at Hardy’s line from the initial wrist injury shows that when he rushed back he was clearly not ready, as his 333 OPS over the subsequent 40 plate appearances suggest. Whether this or the sizable arbitration raise he was due to receive was the reason for his departure, he nonetheless was traded with Brendan Harris to the Baltimore Orioles for a pair of fungible relievers.

In turn, the club invested $16.5 million over the next two seasons in Carl Pavano, which was risky even before taking away two of his most useful assets in the defensively-capable double-play duo. With five capable starters already in tow (if you can count Nick Blackburn), it didn’t make a ton of sense to make a financial commitment to a pitcher whose skill set doesn’t largely distinguish him from the rest of the pack. Getting one season of Type-A compensation-caliber performance out of Pavano for Yohan Pino would be enough for most general managers to cut the cord, but the Twins will tempt fate in hopes that the American Idle doesn’t strike twice. The club has made similarly odd decisions regarding rotation spots for 2011, promising two of the final three spots to Blackburn and Brian Duensing despite Kevin Slowey and Scott Bakerboth being arguably superior pitchers.

For a team that slipped to 16th in defensive efficiency in 2010 and dispatched three very capable defenders (counting the venerable Nick Punto), it doesn’t make a ton of sense for the club to invest in pitch-to-contact pitchers, but that’s exactly what they’ve done with Pavano, Blackburn, and Duensing. If the club was so intent on adding speed, perhaps a better route might have been to add another capable outfielder to a unit that only contains one passable gloveman.

Indeed, speed kills. However, it could be a suicide mission for the 2011 Twins. PECOTA likes the club to repeat, but the smart money just might be on the White Sox.

About Brandon Warne

Sportswriter trying to make it.
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