I’ve decided that I want to publish what went unpublished at Baseball Prospectus while I was their AL Central columnist.
For those unaware, I submitted five columns, which consisted of about 20 hours of work for me, all of which went unpublished.
Today is the second of five columns in this series.
slated to run 3/16/11
The quintessential position battle among Central teams is the one in White Sox camp to see who will man the hot corner. The only thing that’s clear at this point is that the club didn’t view Dayan Viciedo as an option, as prior to breaking his thumb, he had been taking reps in the outfield to become more versatile in the event that he made the club as a bench bat. It’s not as though men of 240 pounds have a rich history of manning third anyway, and his plate discipline on all fronts is a bit alarming nonetheless. This leaves Mark Teahen, Brent Morel, and the venerable Omar Vizquel to duke it out.
Barring a trade, initial indications are that Teahen and Morel will split time early on in an effort to let the cream rise to the top, with Vizquel filling in around the diamond if needed. All the upside is with Morel, as Teahen has long since established that his .290/.357/.517 season of 2006 wasn’t so much a breakthrough as one of those “it was all a dream” alternative reality episodes to which bad television series often resort. Over the last four seasons, the former first-round pick has hit .269/.330/.404, perhaps satisfactory rates for a versatile utility player, but not for a starter whose primary positions are third base and right field and whose glove is a hand-me-down from Fred Flintstone. His contract solely drives his playing time, as he’s untradeable but at the same time too expensive to sit, at least for now. That said, Morel’s star potential is limited.PECOTA projects him to hit .273/.307/.414 while garnering nearly 60 percent of the playing time, which would amount to 0.7 WARP and a .252 TAv, although his penchant for strong defense could add value. Regardless of who wins the job and who grabs the most playing time, their title will more likely be ‘Mr. Right Now’ rather than ‘Mr. Right’, as the long-term answer for the club probably isn’t in the organization. This could be a spot hotly rumored as a trade deadline upgrade, though the team is pretty tight against its budget after a prolific offseason.
It isn’t easy to pick just one position battle in Indians camp this spring, so we’ll examine the infield as a whole, first base notwithstanding. The Baseball Prospectus Depth Chart page projects Orlando Cabrera, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jayson Nix to get the bulk of the playing time working counterclockwise around the diamond. Jason Donald figures to cut into the playing time all over the infield, though hand injuries continue to dog him. He was off to a good, albeit brief, start to his spring with a 944 OPS, but has fizzled of late as sample size has managed to locate him.
Lauded by some as the most indefensible signing of the offseason in the Central, O-Cab projects to vulture 63 percent of the playing time at second base away from equally capable options in Nix, Donald, and Luis Valbuena. Cabrera has long ceased to be anything more than moderately useful; he last posted a WARP over 2.0 while with the White Sox in 2007. Anyway, he’ll put his odd reputation as a “winner” on the line by hitching his cart to arguably the worst team in the division. PECOTA expects a .235 TAv, -0.5 WARP, and despite what he says, a probable ride into the sunset after the season. Middle infielders with the range of Lady Liberty and 650 OPS marks aren’t typically sought after on the free market, so Cabrera did well to secure anything more than a minor league deal. It should be considered a pretty big bust of a signing if he stunts the growth of any of the above players, or of the up-and-coming Jason Kipnis. With that said, Cabrera is a known commodity (sort of like store brand soda or industrial toilet tissue, for instance). Neither Kipnis nor Lonnie Chisenhall have played a single game above Double-A, so it doesn’t make sense to have them take their lumps on an Indians team that projects only slightly better than their Cavaliers counterparts, and that’s before considering starting their arbitration clocks. There’s a certain value to staying the course on a timeline for just shy of being “can’t miss” prospects, or in other words, those which fall short of the standard set by Carlos Santana one season ago. Not all prospects can be Dan Uggla or Albert Pujols and skip levels, after all. If playing Cabrera for a year, or any mix of non-prospects Nix, Valbuena, or Donald (who is still decently intriguing as a utility guy) keeps Kipnis and Chisenhall from a nightmarish debut to their careers, it was probably worth it. An 800 OPS in Triple-A certainly does much more for the psyche than a 650 in the bigs, at least until age 26 or so.
To O-Cab’s right will be As-Cab. Yeah, that one probably won’t stick. Asdrubal will look to recapture the magic of his very solid age-22 and -23 campaigns, both of which resulted in better than 3.0 WARPs and TAv numbers which exceeded .260. He has seemingly been around forever, yet he’ll still only be 25 years old on Opening Day. PECOTA is friendlier toward the younger of the Cabreras, suggesting he’ll have a .255 TAv with a 1.4 WARP, as he’ll draw nearly three-quarters of the starts at shortstop. In a sense, Cabrera is a bit lucky because the Indians don’t have top prospects breathing fire down his neck like they do at second and third base, with Tony Wolters, the club’s number nine prospect still probably three years away. Still, he’ll have to perform sooner rather than later because the youth excuse only lasts for so long. Unfortunately for Indians hurlers, however, Cabrera is equally statuesque as his elder. That sound you hear is Fausto Carmona packing his bags, quickly. In fact, only Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco fanned more than seven per nine innings, so there’s real potential for this rotation to get BABIP‘d to death. Yet, it gets worse…
It appears as though Nix and Donald will share third base to begin the season, though it’s even more likely that both will be usurped by Chisenhall, the 40th-best prospect in baseball. PECOTA predicts Nix to be moderately useful, with a .255 TAvand 0.5 WARP while possibly popping a dozen long balls and playing his usual shoddy defense, whereas Donald is projected to plateau, with a .238 TAv and 0.0 WARP. Donald’s defense will also have fans ducking around Progressive Field, as he’s universally bad. Still, Donald is expected to see action in well over half the club’s games, as his “versatility” will likely overshadow his ability. At one point Donald was a reasonably well-regarded prospect, as he hit .284/.371/.434 in the minors. However, numerous hand injuries have sapped him of his power to this point, and he just can’t seem to hack it at shortstop, where his best shot at regular duty exists. Chisenhall is projected to reel in about one-third of the playing time, but when adjusted for spending time in Triple-A to start the year, he’ll probably nail down regular third-base duty once he arrives on the scene. One of the crown jewels in a deep Indians system, Chisenhall figures to get his feet wet yet tread some water, as he’s project for a tepid .251 TAv. His 10-year forecast only portrays him as a league-average third baseman, but that may improve with time, as he’s still learning to hit southpaws. A former shortstop, he’ll be likely to improve the defense immensely upon his arrival with “good hands and an arm that ranks a tick above average.”
The intriguing position battle for the Tigers centers around the keystone. Incumbent Carlos Guillen would seem to have the inside track as the veteran with the $13 million salary and solid track record, but wee Will Rhymes played very well down the stretch in 2010, and Scott Sizemore is still only a year removed from his four-star prospect billing. Guillen has the endorsement of Jim Leyland when he’s healthy, but he’s already been ruled out for opening day. That endorsement is probably not a great deal different from endorsing everyone’s favorite guitar hero, Joel Zumaya. Fact is that even though Guillen is coming off two disappointing seasons, he’s due an outrageous pile of cash, and is still the most offensively sound of the bunch. His mobility is squat, but he’s never been celebrated as a defense-first player anyway. The Player Forecaster took Guillen’s hobbled history into account, forecasting him to have a near-even split of playing time with Sizemore. The projections for Guillen are modest: a .267 TAv and a 1.3 WARP while collecting just over 300 plate appearances. It’s certainly nothing terrific, but still more than can be said about his cohorts.
Guillen’s running mate Sizemore checks in at a .257 TAv with a 0.6 WARP, though the 10-year forecaster seems to think that he can carve out a career of seasons that mirror Rhymes’ 2010 (.270/.340/.410ish, which isn’t too bad for a second-sacker). Sizemore is no defensive stud, but he’s come a long way in the past few seasons, and may still progress to adequate with enough extra work put in. If the Tigers fall out of contention relatively early and can find a taker for Guillen’s albatross deal, they may be able to afford to let Sizemore and Rhymes duke it out for playing time down the stretch, a battle Sizemore, who carried an 850 OPS in his Triple-A stops, is almost guaranteed to win. PECOTA is frigid on Rhymes, however, marking him for -2.0 WARP. Rightly so, as he truly has no power to speak of, but if the projections have their way, he’ll lose whatever semblance of a chance he had to establish himself as a major-league regular as well. If spring training stats mattered, the Tigers might elect to leave an L-screen on the field to cover the second base duties, as neither Sizemore nor Rhymes have shown much of anything in Guillen’s stead to distinguish themselves thus far.
With all due respect to the Royals, the bulk of the position battles that matter to the club will be taking place in the minor leagues. With guys like Jeff Francoeur, Melky Cabrera, and Jason Kendall keeping spots warm for the up-and-comers, the lone intriguing battle is to see whether Lorenzo Cain will make the club out of spring training. Though it’s more likely that he is ticketed for Omaha, the Forecaster still has Cain pulling in nearly three-quarters of the time in center field in 2011 (albeit with a backstep from his solid 2010 debut), so there’s little doubt the Melkman is living on borrowed time. It’s not really surprising to see that either, as Cabrera has added bulk at the expense of what was already not a great skill set to begin with. At one point he looked as though he could be an asset in a corner outfield spot defensively, but now it appears that corner has teleported into the dugout. He still has a good arm, but neutralizing that is as simple as reading an advanced scouting report and not taking as many chances on the guy. He’ll soon be fourth outfielder, 25th man fodder at the tender age of 26. Offensively, he alternates hot and cold more frequently than a menopausal woman, with his hots lukewarm and his colds chilly enough to make Francoeur blush.
The primary reason given for Cain starting the season in Triple-A seems to center on one key issue: He still has options. As a soon to be 25-year old with major league experience (and a good showing at that), he doesn’t appear to have too much left to show at Triple-A after his 809 OPS showing in Nashville. It was however only in 100 plate appearances, so he’ll likely shove off to Omaha for just a bit. Thus, Mitch Maier (and maybe Gregor Blanco) figures to make the team despite the fact that he’s projected well below replacement level in most every sense. Maier’s shown the ability to work a walk every now and then, and is regarded as a passable defensive outfielder across all three positions. Blanco is cut out of the Jason Tyner mold, with absolutely no power to speak of but some speed and plate discipline to work with, as well as moderate defensive versatility. Neither are the kind of player that can’t be found languishing on Triple-A rosters league-wide, but hey, there’s something to be said about right-place, right-time. As for the Cain situation, there’s still a good amount of conventional wisdom in play here; it doesn’t make a lot of sense to bring him up to sit on the bench when he can gain valuable playing time in Triple-A. Keeping Cain in Omaha can also delay his arbitration clock, though his time with the Brew Crew will have to be taken into consideration when that time comes as well.
Chin up, Royals fans. This section will be infinitely more packed with position battles in 2012, as guys like Mike Aviles, Alex Gordon, and Wilson Betemit could very well be battling for their Royal lives. With guys like Mike Moustakasproviding legitimate power at third, Eric Hosmer doing the same in one of the available corners, and Wil Myers not far behind, the position battles in Kansas City in the future will be hotter than Ichiro in August (language).
The closer’s spot could be a moderately intriguing position battle for the Twins, as Joe Nathan is returning from arm surgery and the club re-signed Matt Capps. However, the job is Nathan’s to lose as he’s made it through spring training unscathed health-wise, leaving the last spot in the starting rotation as the one most hotly-contested. That spot is going to come down to Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey, both of whom were guaranteed rotation spots in previous seasons.
Indeed, Ron Gardenhire’s haste to christen Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing as his third and fourth starters (not necessarily in that order) borders on strange. Maybe “borders” isn’t a strong enough word. Blackburn has had some success at the major-league level, but he was battered to the tune of an 839 OPS last season (and 793 for his career), and he isn’t likely to be helped as the club moved on from defensive stalwarts J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson. To help gain some perspective, this means he basically made each hitter look like the reinvented Delmon Young in 2010. Still, Gardenhire branded Blackburn as one of “his guys” (his words, not mine), and that’s the same kind of treatment that afforded Nick Punto more playing time than even his old man could have justified. It also led to a potentially hilarious internet meme, which may be neither here nor there. Maybe the club wants to audition Blackburn for a trade, or maybe he’s just keeping the spot warm for Kyle Gibson. The Forecaster doesn’t seem to think it’s either of the two, projecting Blackburn to toss 175 innings of 4.55 ERA ball, or in other words, over a half-run worse than the fresh-squeezed Slowey. Duensing was, at the very least, a useful pitcher in 2010, but PECOTA suggests he’s in for massive regression with a 4.27 ERA. Again, that’s worse than Slowey and Baker. None of this should be surprising, but it could end up costing the club the division. The Twins are the prohibitive favorite at this point, but the White Sox are gaining steam in some circles, and a rotation with four pitchers with sub-standard strikeout numbers could put an enormous strain on an unproven infield defense and a proven, but proven poor defensive outfield.
So what will come of this Slowey-Baker debacle? The Toronto Blue Jays were allegedly sniffing around Slowey, perhaps offering reliever Jason Frasor, whom the Twins have expressed interest toward in the past. This might make sense if Frasor was on the favorable side of 30, but given the moves the club has made this offseason, anything may be possible. Perhaps none of this will matter, and both Gibson and Alex Wimmers could crack the rotation in 2012 and leave this speculation in the dust. One thing remains for sure: with so many pitchers that rely on balls in play, it could get ugly in Minnesota in 2011.