Saturday, March 15, 2008

AL Central Update (3.15.08 Edition)

Chicago White Sox

  • The Sox, who at various points during the offseason, were interested in signing everybody from Torii Hunter to Aaron Rowand to Kosuke Fukudome. Instead, they traded prospects for Carlos Quentin and Nick Swisher, signed Cuban defect Alexi Ramirez and retained Jerry Owens hoping that one would emerge as a centerfielder candidate. They had discarded one-time heir to center at the Cell, Brian Anderson, as an afterthought. Naturally, Anderson did nothing to impress the top brass in his tenure in Chicago, finishing in 2006 with a low .225/.283/.359 line. That season he showed little patience, walking in only 8% of his plate appearances while striking out in over 22%. At age 25 Anderson found himself back in triple-A trying to show Kenny Williams that he didn't commit an egregious error in judgement assuming that Anderson could be just as good as fan favorite Aaron Rowand who he sent to Philadelphia for Jim Thome. He was brought up to Illinois in April but demonstrated the same futility that earned him the passage to Charlotte by reaching base in 4 of his 19 plate appearances. This spring, however, Anderson has been hitting well enough to place himself back into the mix. ''The only thing about Brian," Manager Ozzie told the Chicago Sun-Times,"hopefully he takes this game the way we thought he can play and he starts his career.'' In more than double the plate appearances this spring compared to 2007 (50), Anderson has made a strong case for being given one last chance: He has hit .380/.481/.750 with 3 home runs in his time provided to him by Quentin's lingering shoulder injury.
  • Joe Crede, who was a catalyst of the 2005 Championship team with his glove and recovering from missing a chuck of the 2007 season, has been the topic of trade conversation all spring as Josh Fields emerged as a bonifide slugger in Crede's absence. Injury recovery is never a guarantee, any 30-year-old will tell you that, but Crede is a valuable commodity. Admittedly, Fields being a younger still in indentured servitude so his production is that much more valuable, but Crede is a rare two-way player. Offensively, Fields has a much higher ceiling. In his 418 plate appearances last season, Fields hit 23 home runs and accumulated .244/.308/.480 averages in Crede's stead. Meanwhile Crede's last healthy full-season performance he had over 500 plate appearances in 2006 he had 30 home runs and averages of .289/.323/.506. Crede finished 6 ops+ points higher (107) in 2006 than Fields did in 2007 (101). Defensively, a healthy Crede is that much better than the former Sooners quarterback. In 2007, Fields gave an effort at third that lead to 2.9 win shares with his glove. He started 19 double-plays (being a quarterback, he has a very strong arm, more suited for an outfield position) and made 15 plays out of zone leading to a revised zone rating of .668 in his 689 innings of work. In 2006, Crede provided 7 win shares with his defense. He started 36 double-plays and retrieved 57 balls out of zone, leading to a revised zone rating of .760 in his 1260 innings of work. Kenny Williams hasn't quite given Crede the vote of confidence, assuming that Williams is offered the right deal by San Francisco or Los Angeles, Crede could be on the first train west, especially because he is in the final year of his contract. The unfortunate part is that Crede hasn't given much reason to have him play with his 1 extra base hit (a home run) in 7 hits.

Cleveland Indians (Grapefruit League)

  • Cardinals Rule 5 draft pick centerfielder Brian Barton, snatched from the Indians organization, is having a great spring batting .333/.385/.666 with 2 triples, 2 home runs and 1 double. Cleveland has reiterated that in spite of having one of the AL's best centerfielders in Grady Sizemore, they are hoping that St. Louis returns him at the end of spring training. When the Twins were light on the centerfield candidates during the Rule 5 draft, there was speculation that if Barton were available when the Twins selection came, Barton could be brought in to audition for the position. Unfortunately the Cardinals had the same need and drafted prior to the Twins. Barton is competing with former MVP Juan Gonzalez, who is hoping to mount a major league comeback, is also having a good spring hitting .308/.333/.482 with one home run off of Johan Santana. But a nagging injury to Gonzalez's abdomen has given a better opportunity to Barton to make the team making it less likely of a chance of a Cuyahoga homecoming for Barton.
  • The Indians rotation - outside of Sabathia, Carmona, Byrd and Westbrook - is still wide open between Jeremy Sowers, Cliff Lee and Aaron Laffey. Sowers continued to impress Cleveland management this late in the spring with 12 days remaining until the team heads north. The one mitigating factor is that Lee is still due $3.75 million in 2008 and $5.75 in 2009 in a mishap of a contract while Sowers and Laffey are still secured in their indentured servitude portion of theirs. The 24-year-old Sowers has thrown 3 times against the Twins for 23 innings and maintains a 3.13 era. In his only game facing the Twins on April 23rd Sowers did not receive the decision in a 7-3 Indians victory after he threw 7 innings of 9 hit ball and giving up all 3 runs. Laffey, meanwhile, made his major league debut against the Twins last August 4th going 5.1 innings versus Matt Garza. The Twins won 3 to 2 (Ramon Ortiz was the pitcher of record as Garza exited in after 4 innings) and they dinged Laffey for 6 hits and all 3 runs. Lee, who was battling injuries last season, did not face the Twins in 2007. The 29-year-old Lee has amassed a decent record of 5-2 with a 4.23 era in 66 innings facing the Twins in his career. Considering that they are all lefties, the albatross to the Twins offense last season, none of the three are ideal. Laffey is a shade less experienced than Sowers but did win 17 games in three levels in 2007.
  • Kelly Shoppach, Victor Martinez's understudy catcher, spent the 2007 season being Paul Byrd's personal catcher. For whatever the reason, be it rapport,

    Synchronicity, or just preference, some pitchers will request the services on one particular catcher no matter the circumstance. In 2007 the Byrd/Shoppach battery took the field 31 time in 2007. In those games the combination finished 19-12 (Byrd was the 15-8 in those matches). For his career, Byrd had allowed hitters to hit .274/.319/.451 against him while he struck out 13.7% of batters faced and walked just 5.6%. However, in 2007 coupled with Shoppach at his behest, Byrd was touched up for .301/.329/.473 with a strike out rate of 10.5% and a walk rate of 3.3%. While the correlation may be weak and the notion that a catcher can influence a pitcher is still an on-going debate among statheads, it would appear that Byrd/Shoppach is a successful combo for the Indians as evident by the .612 winning percentage in spite of producing a batting line similar to Miguel Tejada.

Detroit Tigers

  • Scouts on have elected Justin Verlander's fastball as the best in the major leagues. While the impromptu poll doesn't quantify the basis for the award, Verlander, according to pitch f/x data, throws his fastball on average at 95.1 mph. While this is a very good velocity, Verlander certainly doesn't have the most unhittable fastball. In a partial study of the data, Verlander leaned on his fastball using it 63% of the time and had a WHIFF of .082. Javier Vazquez, an AL Central rival, throws his at 92.6 mph but carries a WHIFF of .190. Johan Santana throws his at 92 as well and accumulated a WHIFF of .209. The runner-up in the category was Yankee Joba Chamberlain who throws his significantly harder than Verlander at 98.2 and had a WHIFF of .146. The point is without any defined parameters it is hard to understand why it is the best fastball. Then again, SI did name him the number 1 young pitcher in the major leagues.
  • The once dominant bullpen that led the Tigers to the World Series in 2006 is facing turmoil in 2008 as both Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney could be absent from the beginning of the season. While the confidence is high because Todd Jones, arguable one of the most underwhelming closers in 2007, is still anchoring the bullpen. Though crafty, Jones is not a dominating closer. The 2006 World Series appearing Tigers benefited from the dominance of Zumaya and Rodney in crucial late innings situations and handed the ball to Jones in cushy "save opportunities".
  • Even though they have relinquished several key arms in the past few offseasons including Andrew Miller to Florida (who might be the opening day starter for the Marlins), 2007 draft pick Rick Porcello is proving that the Tigers still have a plethora of arms in their system for the future.

Kansas City Royals

  • Free agent acquisition right-handed pitcher Brett Tomko is off to a poor start in the ides of March. In 10.2 innings of work, Tomko has allowed 12 earned runs (15 total) and is sporting a 10.12 era. The 34-year-old Tomko, who is due $3 million for 2008, has been mostly a spot-starter and long relief the past several seasons. At the time of the signing the Royals figured that Tomko would be in the rotation behind a solid Gil Meche, stathead sophomore Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke but has instilled doubt after his preseason performance.
  • Joe Posnanski does an excellent, if not long-winded, preview (part II) of the Kansas City Royals.
  • Billy Butler is a really, really, really good hitter. In his 37 spring training at-bats, Butler is hitting .378/.452/.676 with 5 extra base hits (3 home runs). This could be the story-line of the 2008 season for the Royals and when Royals fans are grasping for straws mid-season, they may enjoy having Butler as the KC All-Star representative. Making the call right now.

Minnesota Twins

  • Always the bearer of cold shower columns, Patrick Ruesse didn't fail to pen a depressing opinion piece detailing the shortcomings of the 2008 Twins. Admittedly, the starting rotation has plenty of question marks but Ruesse missed the mark by calling Scott Baker and Boof Bonser "4-and-5 starters, not 1-and-2's". In his iceberg reporting of just calling it as he sees 'em style is a method as outdated as the newspaper it is printed on. While Baker and Bonser have yet to produce season in the major leagues that equate to being frontline starters, both hurlers have minor league track records that suggest it is possible. Baker showed his brilliance in his 1-hit shutout of the Kansas City Royals and Bonser has worked hard to drop excess poundage which has given him better numbers this spring. Furthermore, Ruesse pointed to just the second outing of Francisco Liriano since 2006 as an early canary in the coal mine that Liriano is finished as a pitcher. "Liriano had no more life on his pitches than in his first comeback start last Friday" wrote the Strib scribe. The truth is that Liriano is rebounding from an injury that cost him the entire 2007 calender year. His velocity will not be at the point it was in 2006 most likely until May or June. The slider lacked both bite and accuracy but it is hardly appropriate to write him off after two spring training outings.
  • The problem is that Baker could begin the season the disabled list, after suffering from similar malady to Glen Perkins, who missed more than 3 months last year. In his 4 innings in the spring, Baker did not give up a run and struck out 4 while walking only one.
  • Bonser, meanwhile, has continued his torrid pace, finishing 9 innings and giving up only three runs. The success has been attributed to both his weight loss and his approach. Part of that new approach is instituting more change-ups during the game. "Last year, I threw like maybe one or two a game,'' he said, "and that was amazing." Actually, Bonser used his change-up 6% of the time according to pitch f/x data. The problem is, it appears to be very hittable. Bonser's 92 mph fastball, which he employed 58% of the time, had a WHIFF average of .071 (roughly average for a fastball). His 83 mph change-up (1 mph faster than Hernandez's top speed) when thrown had a WHIFF average of .068. This is a very low rating for a change-up meaning that contact was made when it was thrown. For perspective, Baker throws his change-up at 81 mph (and used it even less frequently at 4% of his pitches), but managed to make bats miss with a WHIFF average of .200. More might not be necessarily better however it may disrupt the hitters ability to sit on his fastball or curveball (which enjoyed a high WHIFF average of .247).
  • One correct line out of the Ruesse column was "Livan Hernandez will need five runs (or more) to win a game." Last season the enigmatic Cuban's Diamondbacks needed more than 5.11 runs of support on average to lift the team to victory. This season with the adjustment to American League hitters may require additional runs from the Twins. His 9 runs given up in 9 spring training innings is not reassuring anyone in the Twins Territories.