The Lost Letters: v4.0

I’ve decided that I want to publish what went unpublished at Baseball Prospectus while I was their AL Central columnist.

For those unaware, I submitted five columns, which consisted of about 20 hours of work for me, all of which went unpublished.

Today is the fourth of five columns in this series.

Piecing the Puzzle Together
slated to run 4/6/11

In my view, constructing a team is similar to piecing together a puzzle. Much of the time, there’s a guide there that tells what the finished product should look like. Additionally, sometimes the big picture can be portrayed without every single piece in place. With this dynamic in mind, let’s take a look at where a few of the Central division teams are in the construction of their puzzles.

The Kansas City Royals have achieved cult status among amateur minor league gurus, a group that I would place myself into. They’ve basically become a prospect factory, with some prospect experts suggesting as many as 15 of their top prospects could carve out solid MLB careers. Let’s take a step back from that for a second, however. Many people grumble about the signings of general manager Dayton Moore, suggesting that he only stocks the team with mediocre talents such as Rick AnkielJeff FrancoeurJason Kendall, and others. On the surface, it might appear to be a valid point. Why sign these guys at all? But a recent conversation with Kevin Goldstein helped put this practice into perspective. “They need guys to play at these spots anyway, who the hell cares if they’re any good?” Goldstein noted.

He’s got a great point. Most of them are only signing one-year deals, and even though signing these guys makes Moore’s puzzle appear simple, like one found in a pediatrician’s waiting room, the fact is, the one that he’s working on behind the scenes is the kind your grandmother keeps on her other dining room table. You know, the 5000-piecer that she’ll no doubt finish in about two months and then paint with clear fingernail polish so she can frame it? Anyone? Anyone? But to digress, Goldstein’s point shouldn’t be lost on anyone; these are guys that will hold MLB jobs only long enough to facilitate the development of uber-prospects Mike MoustakasEric Hosmer, or any of the other handful of burgeoning youngsters biding their time down on the firm.  Once the young men are ready to explode upon the MLB scene, it isn’t exactly difficult to give Francoeur the old DFA, or better yet, trade him to the Astros.

The Cleveland Indians appear to have found their puzzle while cleaning out their mother’s place; previous management threw out the box but left some of the pieces, and now it’s up to Chris Antonetti and company to figure out what pieces are good and what pieces are Orlando Cabrera. Left without the cover of the box to view the desired final image, it’s been a rough going so far on the major league level. Grady Sizemore’s injury couldn’t have been prevented, but Travis Hafner’s bad contract and payroll-mandated trades of C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee in recent years have no doubt sapped the club’s potential to contend in a division that’s as winnable as any.

To Antonetti’s credit, it appears the pieces that they’re finding around the house, such as Carlos SantanaCarlos CarrascoLonnie ChisenhallJason Kipnis, and others are the ones that appear to be the young corner pieces that should nicely complement those already in place in Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo, and flame-throwing closer Chris Perez. Drew Pomeranz and a few others aren’t likely to be too far behind, as the Indians have used a tough decade at the big league level to turn their farm system into a top-10 group.

By and large, the one issue with the Indians and their puzzle pieces is that they’re really having no luck bringing in anyone from the outside to help out much. Austin Kearns was useful last season, triple-slashing .272/.354/.419 while helping hold down left field, and brining Russell Branyan back later in the year didn’t hurt, but Mike RedmondAndy Marte, and Mark Grudzielanek were all busts, and none of these guys at all can be viewed as anything more than stopgaps. The Twins have no doubt proven that a team in the Central doesn’t need to lean on free agency heavily to stock a roster, but even they have some smalltime free agents pan out from time to time. None of the Indians offseason pickups, a list that includes Cabrera, Nick JohnsonAdam Everett, and Jack Hannahan, project to do anything more than hold down a roster spot. I may be wrong, because I just defended the Royals for doing the same thing, but let’s not suggest their farm systems are comparable, either.

The Twins roster construction has been altogether puzzling this offseason. Between dealing viable shortstop J.J. Hardy for pennies on the dollar, bumping Kevin Slowey from the starting rotation, or inexplicably carrying Dusty Hughes or Glen Perkins on their 25-man roster while giving up hard-throwing closer prototype Billy Bullock for the rights to Rule-5 pickup Scott Diamond, they’ve made some pretty odd moves. The Diamond move may be the most baffling, as he doesn’t appear in Goldstein’s Braves rankings in any season nor does he project any better than the other pitchers on the outside looking in on a rotation that’s set to gain Kyle Gibson in the near future, and perhaps Alex Wimmers in the more distant future as well. Bullock, on the other hand, rounded out Goldstein’s top 11 on the Twins’ side.

It’s as though the fully completed puzzle, one that won 94 games last year, was shook up by general manager Bill Smith at the insistence of manager Ron Gardenhire, whom insisted that the club lacked speed. Never once minding that the offense powered and plodded its way to the best OPS+ in team history, Smith dutifully dealt J.J. Hardy to the Orioles and let Orlando Hudson walk via free agency, filling their positions with blazers in Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla. To clarify respectively, an unknown quantity in his first big league action, and a returning ne’er do well whose lone claim to fame is a solid first half to the 2008 season.

No, Hardy and Hudson weren’t offensive stalwarts, but with a team that only really boasts Francisco Liriano as a true strikeout-type, the rotation’s propensity for balls in play require a top-notch defense, something the club couldn’t even boast with Hardy and Hudson in the fold, due in large part to Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer’s nomadic ways in the outfield. The Twins were almost exactly middle of the pack in defensive efficiency last year, contrary to their “do the little things right” image, and it’s not going to get better.

For those exact reasons, I was strongly against a Carl Pavano extension, and believe strongly that he could regress by up to a full run on his earned run average. He certainly, in my view, doesn’t provide enough of an upgrade over Slowey, whose skill set doesn’t exactly lend itself to single-inning pitching, to justify an $8 million a year salary, anyway. Lo, the Twins have their way of doing things, and those who don’t fall in line fall out of luck. If they keep winning division titles, I guess I’ll be the one who looks bad. For now, I’ll take the under.

A completely random observation from Tigers’ opening day: With plenty of capable options on a potent (and expensive) offense, it’s still pretty odd to see Jim Leyland bat wee Will Rhymes second. It’s almost as though “batting second, playing second” is an axiom to which old school managers are bound to. It’s still odd to me that managers feel like shaking up the batting order is such a bad thing (i.e. having Rhymes bat at the bottom of the order even though Carlos Guillen won’t when he returns), though there’s plenty of evidence out there that batting order isn’t nearly as important as once thought.

The White Sox open their 2011 schedule in Cleveland today, with Mark Buehrle making his franchise-record ninth opening day start. The weather calls for a high around 45 degrees, with a rain and snow mix that has groundskeepers scrambling to have the field at Progressive Field ready for all scenarios. As is the case with many opening days, a lot of the focus will be on how new additions, like Adam Dunn, will fare in their new digs. With a projected .301 TAv, 35.7 VORP and 3.4 WARP, it’s safe to say that the DH role will be at least as kind to Dunn as his time in the National League. As if adding Dunn to the middle of its order wasn’t going to be enough to topple the Twins, the White Sox also have a much more forgiving early schedule. The Sox open with the Indians and Royals, before a two-week homestand. Additionally, the club has two off-days in the first two weeks, while the Twins have only two for the entire month. To be sure, divisions are never won or lost in April, but huge holes can certainly be dug, which could certainly be the case as the Twins open in Toronto and New York, before coming home to face an Athletics squad that many like to steal the AL West division.

About Brandon Warne

Sportswriter trying to make it.
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