Last year we saw something historic when Jose Bautista went from career bench player to leading the league in home runs. (Historic in baseball terms, not in world terms. Obviously.) We’re not likely to see that again anytime soon. Bautista sucked and then he was great. He had been cut by awful teams such as the Orioles, the Pirates, and the Royals and then he became an MVP candidate. I wouldn’t bet on that happening again anytime soon. That said, here are some of the players likeliest to repeat Bautista’s improbable run to stardom.
Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays. We will start with the man responsible for pushing Bautista off of third base this season. The man whose defense is shaky enough to earn him the nickname “E5” had an interesting off-season. He was waived by the Blue Jays and claimed by the Athletics, only to be cut by the A’s and reclaimed by the Blue Jays. I hope he didn’t buy a house in Oakland. (Also, because that house is in Oakland.) Like Bautista, Encarnacion has tons of power. Even with his poor defense, he is already a useful player because he can hit some. A huge breakout is unlikely, but possible.
Chris Davis, Rangers. Davis was considered a top prospect two years ago but he hasn’t hit at all in his trips to the Big Leagues. Poor guy can’t tell a curveball from a cannonball. But the power is there. If he gets playing time, he might figure things out. Then again, he might continue to get on base at an ugly .279 clip, as he did last season. Davis might need a change of scenery, to a team that doesn’t have better options at first and can afford to play him every day just in case things work out. The same thing happened a decade ago when the Rangers shipped off a struggling Travis Hafner to Cleveland and Hafner promptly became a premiere hitter.
Wilson Betemit, Royals. In September, 2009, Bautista gave us a hint of what was to come. He hit nine homeruns in that month and carried the momentum through 2010. Similarly, Betemit got hot last season. Like Bautista, Betemit has bounced around as a backup 3B/utility guy for a few seasons. He had never played 100 games for the same team in any season. In 2010, Betemit played roughly half the season and slugged .511. That momentum has continued into the young 2011 season. Betemit isn’t in the Royals’ long-term plans, given they already have top prospects at 1B and 3B, but if he keeps swatting the ball like he is he will force his way into the conversation. Can he, like Bautista, switch to right field? More importantly, can he keep hitting?
I will make four out-of-line wild-ass predictions for the 2011 baseball season:
Jason Heyward improves, is even better than he was in his rookie season, and yet still disappoints everyone. I say this because Heyward has been compared to Dave Winfield, Daryl Strawberry, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron, among others — and he might be that good. But he’s 21 years old. He hasn’t learned how to hit the ball in the air yet. He could be a spectacular player and hit only 15 homeruns. He might be the best player on his team and everyone will be pissy that he doesn’t top 100 RBI.
Joakim Soria will be traded to Cincinnati. He’s young, he’s cost-controlled, and he loves playing in Kansas City. But the Royals have a ton of young power arms coming up through their system, a couple of whom profile as “future closer.” Cincinnati’s general manager, Walt Jockety, has a history of making major and unexpected trades in mid-season. Kansas City’s general manager, Dayton Moore, has stated that he would like a good young catcher and Cincinnati’s system has two great catching prospects in the high minors. One of those catchers would headline the package.
The Blue Jays scare the bejeesus out of the AL East. Toronto has a bunch of live young arms in their rotation, several hitters who have recently had huge years, and a smart front office. They won’t win the division but they will be in the race in September. But what is really scary to that division is their lack of bad contracts going forward and a potentially huge fan base. Toronto will be talking to every big name free agent after the 2011 season and would be a frontrunner to bring in Albert Pujols should he actually test the market. Prince Fielder would also make a lot of sense, as would any overpriced but useful player being shopped around. They also hold a mess of high draft picks thanks to baseball’s archaic free agent compensation scheme and will improve what is already one of the best farm systems in the game.
Three franchises will sell: the Astros, the Dodgers, and the Mets. The Astros may already have a done deal.
The Dodgers’ ownership is in peril because the owners are going through divorce proceedings. Frank and Jamie McCourt, the heads of the ownership group, each apparently have a stake in the team (depending on what a judge says on a given day…). My guess is they have to sell the team in order to split up its value in what’s become an ugly public spectacle, given that there’s apparently no way that one side will be able to raise the money to buy the other out.
And the Mets, well their situation might be even uglier. Owner Fred Wilpon may have benefited quite a bit from his friendship and partnership with disgraced businessman Bernie Madoff. He’s already taken financial hits and had to take on loans from MLB in order to make payroll. Baseball owners are all fabulously wealthy. However, they need to have cash at hand in order to make payroll. Baseball players make huge salaries. Wilpon does not appear to have the liquidity to make payroll, regardless of what he’s worth. He’s already at the debt ceiling allowed by MLB’s bylaws. I think he’ll have to sell.
It’s my favorite time of year. I can spend my weekends watching March Madness while baseball starts in a little over a week. Time to fire up the ol’ blog machine and make a series of dumb predictions that I will once again deny ever having made once the season is over.
As a reminder to those of you inclined to gamble, use my predictions at your own risk. I am not a professional and I only spent a few minutes thinking about this in between looking at pictures of cute kitty cats with bad grammar, while there was a Sergio Leone movie on my TV, and while drinking too much scotch. Also there was an earthquake or something. Caveat emptor.
- Braves, 91 wins
- Phillies, 89 wins, wild card
- Marlins, 82 wins
- Mets, 78 wins
- Nationals, 69 wins
Comment: The Phillies pitching staff is awesome but I’m a little concerned that their team is full of old guys who are past their primes and can’t stay healthy. And that was before Chase Utley got hurt. The Braves pitching isn’t too bad, either and their lineup has a few interesting young bats.
- Reds, 88 wins
- Cardinals, 86 wins
- Brewers, 82 wins
- Cubs, 75 wins
- Pirates, 73 wins
- Astros, 65 wins
Comment: The Brewers are the chic pick to win this year after an offseason that saw them acquire Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. In order to get these guys, however, the Brewers decimated their farm system. There’s nothing left. If someone gets hurt they can’t go to the minors and find a replacement, nor can they trade for one without giving up something useful on their Major League roster. In a 162-game season, someone will get hurt or under-perform and need to be replaced. Also, Yunieski Betancourt is their starting shortstop. That can’t be good.
The Reds, on the other hand, have the goods to improve their team as the season goes on. They have too many viable starters, meaning they can go out and make a trade in July to push them into the playoffs. I think that’ll put them over the top in a fun division.
- Rockies, 92 wins
- Giants, 88 wins
- Dodgers, 84 wins
- Padres, 79 wins
- Diamondbacks, 72 wins
Comment: This is another fun division. The Dodgers could surprise because of their starting pitching depth. The reason they won’t, in my opinion, is the toxic ownership situation that won’t allow the club to add any payroll to fill holes. That and the abyss in left field. The Rockies have good starting pitching and a couple of stars in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. They will have to fight off the defending champion Giants, who will be in the race until the end of the year but are unlikely to get the kind of bullpen performance down the stretch that catapulted them into the playoffs last year.
NL MVP: Albert Pujols NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw NL Rookie of the Year: Brandon Belt
- Red Sox, 94 wins
- Rays, 92 wins, Wild Card
- Yankees, 91 wins
- Blue Jays, 77 wins
- Orioles, 69 wins
Comment: The best division in baseball. Anything could happen with the three teams at the top. The Yankees will struggle in the back end of their rotation until they can trade for an improvement. This, and the team’s relative age, has them slipping in my predictions just slightly enough to allow the Rays to sneak back into the playoffs. Tampa Bay lost some star power this offseason but has a deep rotation and plenty of good offensive potential.
- Twins, 87 wins
- White Sox, 86 wins
- Tigers, 80 wins
- Royals, 72 wins
- Indians, 69 wins
Comment: As a Royals fan, I might be more interested in watching their AAA affiliate than their Major League club. The White Sox and Twins are about equal strength. I give the advantage to the Twins mostly because I don’t like the White Sox. Again, don’t use my predictions to bet real money.
- Rangers, 89 wins
- Athletics, 84 wins
- Angels, 75 wins
- Mariners, 72 wins
Comment: The A’s have the firepower to stage a run at the division. My feeling is that the Rangers have invested so much in winning this year, and with a new ownership group at that, that they will pull out any and all stops to get back to the playoffs. Any minor league player will be available at the trade deadline if it helps them land a big piece, like an ace pitcher. The Angels have nice starting pitching but no offense. The Mariners have one nice starting pitcher but no offense.
AL MVP: Adrian Gonzalez AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez AL Rookie of the Year: Jeremy Hellickson
World Series: Red Sox over Phillies in six
Jonah Keri’s new book about the Tampa Bay Rays is the most self-aware baseball book ever written. Keri is overtly conscious of comparisons to Moneyball, another book by a part-time business writer about a small market baseball team competing despite overwhelming financial obstacles through use of Wall Street strategies. The Extra 2% is a very different book from Moneyball, however, not nearly as fascinating but still an entertaining and breezy read.
My biggest complaint with The Extra 2% is that it seems too dumbed down. Keri is trying to write to a bigger audience than stat junkies like me, I suppose. I just wonder what that audience is. I don’t need two paragraphs at a time explaining “advanced defensive metrics”* that I’ve already accepted. I’ll bet that a large portion of the audience for this book doesn’t either.
* We need a new term for Advanced Defensive Metrics. One that’s easier to write and say.
And boy is Keri self-aware. I know the title of the book refers to the lengths that the Rays organization will go to find a small advantage, but it could also refer to the length of the acknowledgements at the end of the book. Two percent. The problem is that it’s not aware of the biggest conceit of the book; while the subtitle of the book suggests the book is about “How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First,” the book isn’t really about Wall Street strategies. At all. It’s more of a story of the franchise from its inception to now. There is as much about the previous regime as there is about the current Wall Street-ified regime.
I know I sound a bit critical of the book, but it was a good read, flaws and all. There are some really good stories that paint a picture of how the Devil Rays were so poorly run in the first decade of the team’s existence. It’s illuminating how much the culture of the front office can affect the product on the field.
I come out of hibernation to relay two crazy baseball personnel moves today.
First, the Blue Jays found a way to unload the horrible contract (and mediocre player) that is Vernon Wells to the Angels. What’s more, they managed to get something in return, reportedly catcher Mike Napoli and left field statue Juan Rivera. What’s even more, there are preliminary reports that the Jays might not eat any of the $84M coming to Wells over the next four years. Whatever Blue Jays’ GM Alex Anthropolis has on Angels’ GM Tony Reagins, it must be good.
Now there are reports that the Rays have signed both Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon for about the same amount of money as they paid Pat Burrell to go away last year. I have no idea how that situation will work out. I can’t imagine two potential Hall of Famers will want to share a DH platoon but I also have no idea how much Damon can play in the field or if he can learn a passable first base.
There is no truth to the rumor that the Rays have signed Kevin Millar, Pedro Martinez, and Keith Foulke, nor have they traded for David Ortiz.
…a real head scratcher. David Dejesus to the A’s for two pitchers.
On the surface, it’s a sensible trade for both teams. The A’s need offense and have a surplus of pitching. Dejesus is an above-average player earning a sensible $6M next season. The Royals aren’t going anywhere next year, the last on Dejesus’ contract. They’ll get two young pitchers, Vin Mazarro and Justin Marks, with lots of service time left.
Under the surface, I can’t make heads or tails of it. The Royals already have a roster crunch, with too many players than they can protect on the 40-man roster before the Rule 5 draft. Mazzaro, moving to KC, has failed to pitch well in Oakland in parts of two seasons despite pitching in front of a good defense in an extreme pitchers’ park. And, as a Royals fan, I am particularly horrified by the idea of dealing with Billy Beane’s A’s. We’ve seen that before. It’s not pretty. (Excuse me while I shed a tear for Jermaine Dye and Johnny Damon.)
After watching their cross-town rival Giants win the World Series, the A’s have to feel that they’re in a good place. Like the 2009 Giants, the 2010 A’s had good pitching, a great bullpen, and good defense, but below-average hitting at several spots. Those Giants shored up their hitting without spending big to acquire stars but instead by making several small improvements. The result was a team capable of winning a lot of games. The A’s are on that path. Dejesus is a step in the right direction. But he’s only got one year left under contract and they just traded two young arms — and 11 years of cost-controlled service time — for the rights to a good-but-not-great player.
As always, we need to see how this trade fits in the context of the off-season for both teams. If Oakland can make a couple more moves and puts together a competitive 2011 squad and this trade is merely the starting point, then it might be worth it. If Kansas City makes a trade or two to get its 40-man roster in some kind of order, this trade gives the team good pitching depth and a couple of interesting arms.
Congrats to the Giants. They won. But a baseball executive’s work is never done. Now it’s the off-season. What should Brian Sabean do?
San Francisco won with a lineup that had a lot of spare parts. For much of the postseason, every position featured a different player than it had on opening day. A bunch of their role players are free agents. The Giants are unpredictable in terms of spending money in the off-season and often splurge to get a big-ticket player. And for once, their minor league system is starting to produce.
Here is what I think they should do:
- Wait out free agents Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff. If they demand too much money, let them walk. Burrell probably won’t get much interest from American League teams leery of how mediocre he was in Tampa Bay. He’s also a poor defensive player. I would bet that he doesn’t get offered too much money and could probably be retained for something like the one-year, $5.5M contract Bobby Abreu signed with the Angels in 2009. Huff, meanwhile, is notoriously inconsistent from year-to-year. The Giants have a top first base prospect named Brandon Belt who is close to ready for the Big Leagues and thus they have leverage against paying Huff too much money.
- Go after a big name outfielder. The Giants have shown the willingness to spend on big names. They have a boost in revenues from winning the World Series. They should get involved in bidding on Carl Crawford, who would be a perfect fit in that ballpark and in that lineup. If Crawford spurns them, they should go after Jayson Werth.
- Try to re-sign Cody Ross at a reasonable price. Ross would make an ideal third outfielder, along with Crawford/Werth and Andres Torres. He’s another good defensive player with a decent bat. The Giants’ biggest weakness down the stretch this past season was outfield defense, especially when Burrell and Jose Guillen played at the same time. If they were able to get three good defenders in the same outfield their pitching would look that much better.
- Make the high-priced veterans expensive backups. Bruce Bochy did an excellent job of rotating his players in and out of the lineup to put them in a position to succeed. That often meant putting expensive veterans on the shelf. Expect more of that next year with Aaron Rowand and a healthy Mark DeRosa.
- Re-sign Juan Uribe. The fan favorite shortstop and the Giants have mutual interest in staying together. This is one of the easiest decisions the Giants will have to make this winter.
- Follow the Yankees model — in one specific case. In 2009, Hideki Matsui had the worst season of his career until the World Series. He was a pest against the Phillies, though, and won the World Series MVP. The Yankees let him walk anyway and Matsui signed with the Angels, where he continued his steady decline. In 2010, Edgar Renteria had the worst season of his career until the World Series. In spite of his Autumn heroics, the Giants don’t need him.
- Put Pablo Sandoval on a diet. This serves two purposes: it gives him a chance to be an All-Star hitter again; and it gives the rest of the team a chance to eat something at the post game spread.