Saturday, December 19, 2009

AL Central Divisional All-Stars

I'm not gonna mince words: the AL Central is one of the weaker teams in terms of pure power bats. But pitching more than makes up for their offensive weaknesses.

POS NAME swp swp/g
CF Curtis Granderson 2,005 12.5
LF David DeJesus 1,590 11.0
C Joe Mauer 2,340 17.0
1B Miguel Cabrera 2,389 14.9
RF Shin-Soo Choo 2,198 14.1
DH Michael Cuddyer 2,131 13.9
3B Mark DeRosa 1,550 11.2
2B Alberto Callaspo 1,774 11.4
SS Asdrubal Cabrera 1,694 12.9

SP Zack Greinke 2,726 82.6

Justin Verlander 2,482 70.9

Cliff Lee 1,948 57.3

Edwin Jackson 1,713 51.9

Scott Baker 1,621 49.1

CL Joe Nathan 2,247 32.1
RP Matt Thornton 986 14.1

Matt Guerrier 861 10.9

Brandon Lyon 851 13.1

D.J. Carrasco 661 13.5

Jose Mijares 585 8.2

P Robinson Tejeda 686 19.6

In addition to his tremendous athletic talent, Curtis Granderson is one of the most charming, charismatic, and well-spoken players in the major leagues - he occasionally sits in for commentary and analysis on Baseball Tonight and, until last year, ran a blog for Despite a drop in his batting average (.302 to .280 to .249 over the last three seasons), Granderson maintained his usually impressive totals of home runs and steals. Some fancy pants analysts say that the drop in his average is due to a lower line-drive percentage; he's hitting more fly balls, which accounts for the home runs. Obviously, flyballs are more likely than line drives to turn into home runs, but they are also more likely to turn into outs. Judging by these findings, Granderson should benefit greatly by his recent acquisition by the Yankees, where he'll get to swing for the shortest fences in the game.

David DeJesus's selection as starting left fielder gave me no end of anxiety because, quite frankly, he didn't have a great season. Much better was the season of Denard Span, who split his time between all three outfield positions for the Twins. But seeing as Span spent most of his time in center and played about half as many games in left as DeJesus, the Royals' leadoff man is our guy. DeJesus did hit for some average power and played pretty good defense, but there was just no speed on the basepaths. Left field just had a weak year for this division - the only other contender for the position was Indians castoff Ben Francisco, who ended his season as a defensive replacement for the Phillies.

Catcher Joe Mauer is the heart of this offense, as he would be the heart of any offense of which he might be a member. The AL MVP had an unprecedented offensive season, more than doubling his home run totals and winning his second batting title in a row. In fact, he led the AL in all three rate stats of note: batting average (.365), on-base percentage (.444), and slugging percentage (.587). He also won a gold glove behind the plate, playing arguably the game's most crucial defensive position. The guy that finished second wasn't too bad either: Victor Martinez who split his year between the Indians and the Red Sox.

Miguel Cabrera has continued to benefit from his full-time switch to first base - 2009 was the first year in which he didn't man any other position in the field. His on-base percentage made a good recovery from when it dipped below .300 in 2008, for the first time since he was old enough to drink. He's just an offensive powerhouse, no two ways about it. Other first basemen of note in the division: Kansas City's Billy Butler, whose career appears back on an upward trend, and Minnesota's Justin Morneau, who reached the 30-100 plateau for the third time in his career despite missing the tail end of the season with an injury.

Korean Right Fielder Shin-Soo Choo turned in a great season (.300 average, 20 home runs, 20 steals) in his first campaign with regular playing time. He was one of the few bright spots on the Cleveland Indians roster that didn't get shipped out partway through the season. His runner-up in right field, Michael Cuddyer, ended up earning a spot on the team as the DH. The solid outfielder hit topped 30 home runs for the first time while also spending some time filling in for his injured teammate Justin Morneau at first.

I had to give a lot of thought before handing the DH job to Cuddyer, rather than treating the DH as an actual position and only considering players who spent significant time designatedly hitting. In that case, the spot would have gone to Cuddyer's teammate Jason "The Future" Kubel, who had a pretty good season with the bat in his own right, topping 100 RBI and continuing his impressive career path. In the end, I went by the numbers, and Cuddyer got the nod.

Mark DeRosa, one of those Indians castoffs gets the job at third base, despite playing only a little more than half his season in the AL Central. Some might call this practice unfair and claim that the job should belong to Brandon Inge, who toiled away for the entire season with the Tigers and enduring a heartbreaking last-game-of-the-season loss. But DeRosa had a better season overall, and I can't see another alternative that wouldn't punish the player for circumstances outside of his control. I know, those circumstances also could have contributed to his having better numbers than he would have otherwise. It's not a cut and dry issue. But my solution is the best I could think of at the time.

The last two guys in the lineup - our middle infielders - are relatively young contact guys. Cabrera moved to shortstop full time when DeRosa's departure kicked off a game of musical chairs that saw Cleveland's regular shortstop, Jhonny Peralta, shift to the hot corner. Callaspo took over at second base when it became apparent that third baseman Mark Teahen wasn't going to cut it as the keystoner. Cabrera has slightly better speed on the basepaths and defensive capabilities, while Callaspo has shown better power and plate discipline. But taken together, their skill sets are pretty similar. Callaspo beat out veteran Placido Polanco (for whom their might be a defensive switch in the future) while Cabrera finished ahead of another youngster Alexei "The Cuban Missile" Ramirez.

Out of this entire exercise, this AL Central team might have the strongest one-two punch in terms of pitchers. Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander certainly rival the NL West with Lincecum and Haren. Greinke led the league in ERA and WHIP while Verlander led the league in wins, innings, and strikeouts. How dominant was Greinke this year? He won the AL Cy Young award despite pitching for a last place team and finishing with well fewer than 20 wins (16 to be exact - the lowest win total of any Cy Young award winner, I believe). And to top it off, they're both just approaching the primes of their careers: Greinke is 25 while Verlander is just one year older.

Pitching third is Cliff Lee, another one of those dudes traded away by the Indians. We all know how well he pitched for the Phillies after the deal and how embarrassingly he dominated the Dodgers in the post-season, so we won't harp too much on that. He'll be facing some new competition next year as a member of the Seattle Mariners. But he's shown his ability to thrive in a variety of situations, so I don't think he'll have much trouble.

Another guy who'll have a change of scenery next year, Edwin Jackson, is the fourth pitcher. Jackson was supposed to be a hot prospect for the Dodgers, but he never really panned out until 2008 with the Devil Rays. And how has he been rewarded for all his success? By pitching for his third team in as many years. Twins' ace Scott Baker rounds out the rotation with a solid season - nothing spectacular, aside from the 15 wins. He missed out on pitching in the postseason due to injury, and he was sorely missed against the Yankees.

Pretty much the entire White Sox rotation missed the cut, but not by much. Mark Buerhle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd were all bunched together right behind Baker's swp total. I wouldn't be surprised if one or two of that bunch return to pitch for the Wild Card team.

Joe Nathan will close games, and it shouldn't come as any surprise. Not only has he been the best closer in the division for several years running - he earned a career-high 47 saves despite his ERA creeping over 2.00 for the first time in four seasons - but his competition wasn't anywhere close. The extremely talented Joakim Soria was his runner up, but something must have been up with him this season, because he pitched significantly fewer innings than last year when he surely gave Nathan a run for his money.

A couple of Matt's lead off their bullpen: Chicago's lefty Matt Thornton and Minnesota's righty Matt Guerrier. Another very rich reliever follows them: Brandon Lyon who just signed a three year $15-million deal with Houston. All three of these dudes posted ERAs under 3.00 in 2009. Longman D.J. Carrasco is next: despite only starting one game for the White Sox, he averaged nearly two innings per game. And last but not least, we have Twins LOOGY Jose Mijares. As for the swingman, it would have been nice to have Minnesota's Brian Duensing on the squad, seeing as he started Game 1 of the Division Series against the Yankees, but Kansas City's Robinson Tejeda just struck out batter after batter, earning him the last spot on the relief corps.

AL West to follow

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

AL East Divisional All-Stars

With coverage of the National League totally complete, let's jump over to the junior circuit. I begin with the Al East:

POS NAME swp swp/g
CF Jacoby Ellsbury 2,323 15.2
SS Derek Jeter 2,306 15.1
LF Jason Bay 2,392 15.8
1B Mark Teixeira 2,581 16.5
DH Adam Lind 2,341 15.5
3B Evan Longoria 2,336 14.9
2B Aaron Hill 2,337 14.8
RF Nick Markakis 2,081 12.9
C Jorge Posada 1,447 13.0

SP Roy Halladay 2,459 76.8

C.C. Sabathia 2,266 66.6

Jon Lester 2,020 63.1

Josh Beckett 1,992 62.3

A.J. Burnett 1,515 45.9

CL Mariano Rivera 2,141 32.4
RP Alfredo Aceves 1,002 23.3

Ramon Ramirez 646 9.2

Dan Wheeler 645 9.3

Hideki Okajima 629 9.3

Grant Balfour 597 8.2

P Phil Hughes 1,068 20.9

With two leadoff hitters, I made the logical choice: placing them first and second in the order. I put Ellsbury at the top of the order, due to his blazing speed, and Jeter second because that's where he's batted for the majority of his career. Jacoby Ellsbury led off for the Red Sox, stealing a league-leading 70 bases. Derek Jeter led off for the Yankees, continuing his usual brilliance despite his age: he hit .334, topped 200 hits, stole 30 bases, and played gold glove quality shortstop at age 35.

Here's the competition faced by the two leadoff guys: For Ellsbury, not much - the rest of the division was just about average in center field. For Jeter, the surprising first-time All Star Jason Bartlett and the recently much-improved Marco Scutaro both had great seasons, but didn't come close to Cap'n Jetes.

Jason Bay bats third and plays left field, where his defensive deficiencies can do the least hurt to his team. His 36 home runs and 94 walks sure are impressive, but his lack of skill with the glove might contribute to a slightly reduced payday for the 30-year-old outfielder. (According to today's most advanced metrics, Bay was actually quite average; however his career norms are not good and he did spend 2009 in Boston with his rear end all but resting lightly against the Green Monster - not a lot of ground to cover at all.) Speedster Carl Crawford almost caught up to Bay in swp, while hack-and-slasher Johnny Damon also had an impressive season playing for the Yankees.

Mark Teixeira was only a batting title away from winning the coveted Triple Crown award - as it stands, he'll have to be content with leading the league in home runs and RBI (39, 122). The switch-hitting, slick-fielding first baseman was probably the AL's best pure hitter, only losing out to Joe Mauer in MVP voting because he plays a less crucial and less challenging position. The oft(en enough, at least)-injured Kevin Youkilis is the runner up here. Youk spent some time at third base, filling in while Mike Lowell rested his knees, but, as you'll soon see, the lumberjack falls short in both positions.

Here's a rarity: the guy who occupies the DH spot was actually a full-time DH: Adam Lind of the Blue Jays. Given his first taste of regular playing time at age 25, Lind swung a hot stick, hitting over .300 and cracking 35 home runs. Behind him in the scoring is David Ortiz, who amazingly was able to eek out a respectable season after struggling embarrassingly to start, and Hideki Matsui, who for the first time in his major league career didn't spend a single inning in the outfield.

No sophomore slump for 2008's Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria (no relation to the desperate housewife). He raised his average and on-base percentage while racking up significantly more at-bats than his rookie campaign, but he also had the tendency to ground into double plays. Who knows to what heights Alex Rodriguez may have risen if he didn't miss the first month of the season recovering from hip surgery, but the sport's highest-paid player will have to be content with his 13th 30-100 season in 2009.

Talk about surprising seasons: who could have possibly expected Aaron Hill to rebound from a 2008 in which he played only 55 games due to injury, to a 2009 that saw him double his career-high in home runs (36 in '09 - up from 17 in '07). But the real story behind Hill's breathtaking performance is the competition he faced from his fellow second-sackers. Doubles machine Brian Roberts turned in perhaps his best season leading off for the Orioles, despite his gradual decline in steals (the last three seasons: 50, 40, 30). 2008's MVP Dustin Pedroia led the league in runs scored and showed off his stellar batting eye. Ben Zobrist, the Rays' replacement for injured Akinori Iwamura, rose to heights that no one could have predicted. And Robinson Cano also had an impressive season playing for the Yankees (sound familiar?).

Nick Markakis, who has that rare ability to drive in a ton of runs without a ton of power, headlined a relatively weak class of right fielders - neither of his runners up, Nick Swisher and J.D. Drew, managed to break 2,000 swp. And veteran catcher Jorge Posada rounds out the lineup, even despite his injury-shortened season. He and Derek Jeter are the two offensive members of the Yankees' "core four," who are somehow able to remain the best in their division after 15 years of baseball apiece.

Roy Halladay leads the AL East staff in what would turn out to be his last year playing in the AL East. Halladay is an extremely effective combination: an accurate workhorse who misses bats. He's led the league in complete games 3 years running, and in 2009 he also led the league in walks-per-nine-innings and strikeouts-per-walk. The injury problems that affected his 2004-05 seasons seem to have resolved themselves, as he's averaged 32 starts over the last four seasons. Now he's headed to the National League, where he looks to increase his dominance, if possible.

Both of the Yankees' big free agent acquisitions appear on this squad: C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Both pitchers seemed to suffer a bit from "first year as a Yankee" syndrome, and not because of the short fences in the new stadium. Both pitchers' strikeout-to-talk ratios showed significant declines from their past three seasons, and Burnett's walk rate also jumped above his career average. But both pitchers earned their salary in the post-season, where they made up two thirds of the Yankees' playoff rotation, pitching on short rest pretty much each time out.

Between the two Yankees in the rotation are two Red Sox. New ace Jon Lester showed he belongs in the top tier of lefty starters by striking out 225 batters and winning 15 games. Josh Beckett has apparently gotten over his blister problems, as he just barely missed 200 strikeouts while winning a team-leading 17 games.

Three members of the Rays' rotation just missed inclusion, with James Shields, Matt Garza, and Jeff Niemann each having pretty good seasons, about on par with the team's 2008 rotation production. But when you play in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox, sometimes whether or not a pretty good season will earn your team a playoff berth depends to a great degree on luck. Andy Pettitte, the third "core four" member, also sits in the also-ran pile.

Which brings us to "core four" number four: Mariano Rivera as the closer. Talk about dominance after age 30 - Rivera is currently 39, and in 6 of the past 7 seasons, he posted an ERA under 2. His competition, Jonathan Papelbon, also had a sub-2.00 ERA, but Rivera also had a sub-1.000 WHIP and an above-6.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. As long as he keeps breaking bats with his cutter, there's no telling when Rivera will slow down.

The Yankees' top long reliever, Alfredo Aceves, occupies the top spot in the bullpen. Very rarely do relief pitchers crack 1,000 swp, and even more rarely do they reach the point milestone without earning a significant number of saves or starting a handful of games. Yet this is exactly what the rookie Aceves did - he saved one game and started one game out of his 43 appearances. He earned his points the hard way: pitching plenty of innings and striking out plenty of batters. I'm not sure how so many people missed this success story, but I wouldn't be surprised if Aceves makes an impact for the Bronx Bombers in '10.

The Red Sox contributed two relief pitchers to the 'pen: righty Ramon Ramirez and lefty Hideki Okajima. Ramirez had a great ERA, while Okajima's is on a downward trend (which tends to happen at age 33), and both had rather pedestrian strikeout rates. The last two relievers come from the Rays. Dan Wheeler shared the closer duties in '08, but was back to regular middle innings work in '09. Grant Balfour had a great 51 game run in '08, but returned to reality this past season - his ERA jumped over 3.20 (1.54 to 4.81) and his WHIP rose by almost half a point (0.891 to 1.366). But we don't need relievers to be superhuman, just to show up every day with a willingness to act as one of baseball's unsung heroes.

Winning the job of swingman is superprospect Phil Hughes who has yet to find a regular role. At first when he couldn't start, the Yanks sent him to the minors. Then they sent him to the bullpen. Who knows what the future holds for this extremely talented young man... except that as long as Mo Rivera can still lift his right arm, he's not gonna get a shot at closing games.

Next time: AL Central.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

NL Wild Card Divisional All-Stars

It's been a while, but here's the long-awaited NL Wild Card Divisional team, with a slightly new and updated format! I've talked about most of these guys before, in one respect or another, since I like to cover the runners up in all the previous contests. But here they are, together for the very first time:

POS NAME swp swp/g
SS Jimmy Rollins2,117 13.7
CF Nate McLouth 1,779 13.8
RF Justin Upton 2,071 15.0
1B Derrek Lee 2,303 16.3
LF Carlos Lee 1,982 12.4
DH Joey Votto 1,983 15.1
3B David Wright 1,909 13.3
2B Dan Uggla 1,883 11.9
C Miguel Montero 1,348 10.5

SP Clayton Kershaw 1,655 53.4

Yovani Gallardo 1,592 53.1

Ryan Dempster 1,566 50.5

Bronson Arroyo 1,561 47.3

Jorge de la Rosa 1,479 44.8

CL Heath Bell 2,062 30.3
RP Luke Gregerson 684 9.5

Jon Rauch 667 8.9

Brandon Medders 649 10.6

Jeremy Affeldt 630 8.5

Burke Badenhop 621 17.7

P Tom Gorzelanny 406 18.5

Leading off is Jimmy Rollins, who finished behind Florida's Hanley Ramirez for the NL East honors. In addition to hitting for plenty of power and stealing bases at a clip only slightly lower than his per season average, J-Roll won his third Gold Glove in a row this year. His only competition was Atlanta's Yunel Escobar, showing that the NL East has a firm grasp on shortstop mastery, even without a season by Jose Reyes.

Nate McLouth represented two different divisions, so it's nice to see him on the Wild Card team; that way there's no controversy. He didn't equal his breakout 2008 season, but he put up very solid numbers nonetheless, after a trade to Atlanta from Pittsburgh. Behind him is Florida's Cody Ross, who was supposed to have moved to left field to make room for prospect Cameron Maybin. But the youngster couldn't escape the minors, allowing the veteran to stay put and continue hitting for marginal power without any patience.

Justin Upton, the younger and possibly more talented brother of the Rays' B.J., plays in right field and bats third. The former first-round pick turned in a 20-20 season (home runs/stolen bases) for the last place D-Backs, despite missing some time late in the season. At the tender age of 21, it appears that Upton has nowhere to go but up. He finished ahead of Colorado's doubles-machine Brad Hawpe in swp.

Boy, let's talk about NL Central first basemen this year: the Central Divisional team has two (Pujols and Fielder) and the Wild Card team has two more - Derrek Lee and Joey Votto, the latter appearing as the team's DH. One of the more consistent players of the last decade (barring an injury-shortened 2006), Lee perfected his power swing, and cracked 30 home runs for the first time since blasting 46 in 2005. He also broke 100 RBI for the second time in his career. Votto, in just his third year in the majors, batted .322 and was on base more than 41.4% of the time (although he did play just 131 games), all while slugging 25 home runs. He outslugged the master of plate discipline Todd Helton, who walked 89 times to just 73 strikeouts, but who hit just 15 dingers, even at Coors Field.

Between the two first basemen bats left fielder Carlos Lee. (He would have done just as well batting sixth, but I couldn't resist putting the two Lees back to back in the order.) The quietly consistent C. Lee drove in over 100 runs for the fifth straight year (it would have been the seventh, but for a 99 RBI 2004 campaign), even while seemingly swinging at everything that moves towards the plate. He was followed in the rankings by Florida's Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, and Florida castoff Josh Willingham.

Despite his home run total being closer to zero than to his previous year's total, David Wright gets a spot on this Wild Card team. I know the outfield fences at Citi Field are further out than at Shea, but Wright's 2009 power drought was ridiculous. Not too close on his tail are Braves' stalwart Chipper Jones, who might be showing his age, as his average fell 100 points from last year to a still marginally respectable .264, and Dodgers' starter Casey Blake, who didn't show us anything spectacular.

Over the last three years, Dan Uggla's home run totals have stayed remarkably consistent (31, 32, 31) while his walks have increased (68, 77, 92). Although his doubles power is on the decline (49, 37, 27) and his defense leaves much to be desired, he's still a valuable commodity: a middle infielder with a legitimate power bat. His runner ups both come from the NL West: world-renowned gloveman Orlando Hudson and newly-capable at the dish Clint Barmes.

Behind the plate, Miguel Montero gains the recognition he should have had as the catcher for the NL West team (I supplanted him with Bengie Molina, who scored a measly 3 fewer swp). A young catcher with upside at the plate, but who threw out just 26% of would-be base-stealers, he earned his paycheck by slugging 16 home runs, third most among all NL backstops.

21-year-old phenom Clayton Kershaw leads the pack of Wild Card pitchers, with a 2.79 ERA and 185 strikeouts. He's still wild (91 walks in '09), but he has great raw ability and should improve considerably over the course of his career. After losing Randy Wolf to free agency, the Dodgers are banking on Kershaw to become their ace of the future... Today!

The next three dudes behind him all come from the NL Central: Brewers' young stud Yovani Gallardo, who struck out 204 (but also walked 94) in 2009 after missing all of last year with a freak first base collision injury; Cubs' veteran Ryan Dempster, who cracked 200 innings for the second year in a row since converting back to a starter after four years of relief work; and Reds' workhorse Bronson Arroyo, who somehow won 15 games despite a declining strikeout rate (5.2 per nine innings).

Jorge de la Rosa turned in the first respectable performance of his career, winning 16 well-deserved games for Colorado while flirting with 200 strikeouts. Just missing out on the party were Dodgers' erstwhile ace Chad Billingsley and Phillies' swp leader Joe Blanton.

San Diego's Heath Bell earns the honors as closer in just his first year on the job. Although the guy he replaced (future HOFer Trevor Hoffman) won the job for the NL Central team, Bell outperformed his mentor, leading the league in saves (42) and striking out over 10 batters per nine innings. Both of his closest competitors came from his division: San Francisco stopper Brian Wilson and Colorado's recent acquisition from the A's Huston Street. Ryan Franklin and his sub 2.00 ERA also earns an honorable mention.

Luke Gregerson is another guy who was unjustly supplanted from his spot on the NL West team: I opted to include veteran Juan Rincon as the final middle reliever instead of this relative unknown. But hopefully I've made it up to the K-happy first-year player, as he gets the role of primary setup man for the Wild Card team. Following him is giant-on-the-mound Jon Rauch, whose monstrous 6'11" frame earns him the job basically on the basis of intimidation alone. Above-mentioned Brian Wilson's two main setup men on the Giants, Brandon Medders and Jeremy Affeldt, provide a potent righty-lefty combination out of the pen. Marlins long-man Burke Badenhop rounds out the dedicated relief corps.

After an epic-fail of a season as a starter last year (including a devil's ERA of 6.66), Tom Gorzelanny was first demoted to the Pirates' bullpen, then shipped off to the Cubs, where he was allowed to start in over half his appearances. Since I felt that each club needed a swing-man/spot starter, Gorzelanny's as good a choice as any.

Next time, I'll begin our sojourn into the American League.