SweetSpot: John Danks

KonerkoAP Photo/Paul SancyaPaul Konerko, should he stay healthy in 2013, will be relied upon to produce for the White Sox.
Here we go again. The Tigers will run away with the American League Central! This is the year the Royals finally break through! Look at the Indians, they signed Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn!

Meanwhile, lurking and lying low as always and getting little respect, are the Chicago White Sox. The other day, I listed the White Sox as one of the three best bets on the "under" of their projected win total (80.5 wins). This seems to happen nearly every year: We underestimate the White Sox and yet they're almost always in contention, last year pushing the Tigers late into September.

Dave Cameron of FanGraphs had a terrific post on the White Sox phenomenon earlier this week. Two secret assets are trainer Herm Schneider and pitching coach Don Cooper:
The overall health of the White Sox during the last decade has been pretty staggering. Look specifically at the blue pitcher injury bars. From 2002 to 2011, the White Sox pitchers lost fewer than 2,000 days to the DL, while most teams were over 3,000, a lot of teams were over 4,000, and the Rangers were up over 6,000. The White Sox had a remarkable run of pitcher health, and as new GM Rick Hahn told a group of FG readers and authors in Phoenix a few years ago, the organization views Cooper and the training staff as one of the main reasons the team has been competitive during this stretch.


It's not just the pitchers staying healthy. Last year, four position players played 150-plus games, two more played 140-plus and catcher A.J. Pierzynski played 135. In 2011, three played 150-plus, two others played 140-plus and Pierzynski played 129. In 2010, four players played 147-plus games.

So the White Sox often overachieve their projection because of their health. When you're not forced to use your No. 6 or No. 7 starter much or dig deep into your bench for playing time, it obviously helps matters. The White Sox need good health because until hitting on Chris Sale, their farm system hasn't been too plentiful of late (in part because they're never drafting in the top 10, in part because they didn't spend on the draft until recently, paying the least amount of bonus money from 2007-11); the team doesn't go after big free agents, although they will occasionally sign a second-tier guy like Adam Dunn.

With all that in mind, here are five reasons the White Sox may surprise us once again:

1. Their top three of Sale, Jake Peavy and John Danks could be as good as anybody's.

Yes, Peavy has a long injury history, but he made 32 starts last year. Yes, Danks has to come back from shoulder surgery. Yes, people worry that Sale's skinny build and slingshot delivery will lead to arm injuries. In Herm we trust. (Here's a profile on Schneider from last July.)

Sale pitched like an ace in his first year in the rotation, going 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA, with 192 strikeouts in 192 innings. With a few more starts than the 29 he made last year, he should top 200 innings. Peavy and Danks slot in behind him, and veteran Gavin Floyd and second-year lefty Jose Quintana project as a solid 4-5. Remember, too, that U.S. Cellular Field is a good hitter's park, particularly for home runs, so we tend to underestimate the quality of Chicago's staff.

2. Paul Konerko isn't washed up.

He hit just .263/.333/.437 in the second half, so many see the end of the soon-to-be 37-year-old first baseman. But remember he got hit twice in the head, and suffered a concussion in early August. Assuming that affected his hitting, he should once again be a productive middle-of-the-order bat.

3. Gordon Beckham isn't terrible and may even have a good year.

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How many games will the White Sox win?

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After hitting .270/.347/.460 as a rookie in 2009, Beckham has a been big disappointment since, hitting just .238. One thing the White Sox have done through the years is show a lot of patience. For example, a lot of teams would have looked at what a guy like Pierzynski doesn't do (not a great arm, low OBPs) and let him walk at some point.

Beckham is kind of like that. He's not that great, but look at his 2012 batting line compared to the average for AL second basemen:

Beckham: .234/.296/.371
AL: .249/.310/.372

The point isn't that Beckham is good, but that you can live with him. Don't dump him if you don't have someone better. I'm not counting on him improving, but he is still just 26.

4. The bullpen is pretty good.

The pen had a 3.75 ERA last year, eighth in the league, but a pretty good ERA for The Cell. Addison Reed did a fair job as a rookie closer last year and should be better, but Cooper and the White Sox are always able to find unheralded relievers, or guys discarded by other teams: Bobby Jenks, Dustin Hermanson, Matt Thornton and so on. Last year, rookie Nate Jones, never a big prospect, went 8-0 with a 2.39 ERA. This year's project is Matt Lindstrom, a veteran signed as a free agent.

5. It's the AL Central!

Sure, the Tigers look good again, but the Twins are going to be awful, we've been waiting a decade for the Royals to crash .500 and the Indians' rotation can't stack up with a healthy Sale/Peavy/Danks.

So there you go. We look at the White Sox and too often focus on the weaknesses of players such as Beckham or Alexei Ramirez or Dunn or Alex Rios and forget that sometimes the sum of the parts add up. I'm predicting the White Sox will finish under .500 and I suspect I'll be wrong.
Heading into the offseason, the top free-agent starting pitchers looked to be Zack Greinke, Kyle Lohse and Jake Peavy, assuming the Chicago White Sox didn't pick up a $22 million option on Peavy.

Peavy
The White Sox didn't exercise that option, as they made a different move: They signed Peavy to a two-year, $29 million extension, making the already-sparse starting pitching market a little more sparse. It looks like one of those win-win moves: The White Sox get Peavy for a more cost-effective $33 million (including the $4 million buyout of his existing contract) and Peavy stays in a place where he wanted to play.

The White Sox also announced that they declined options on Kevin Youkilis and Brett Myers while picking up the $9.5 million option on Gavin Floyd, giving the White Sox a 2013 rotation of Chris Sale, Peavy, Floyd, John Danks and Jose Quintana or Philip Humber. Even with Danks making just nine starts due to surgery to repair a tendon tear (he's expected to be ready for spring training), the White Sox finished with a 4.15 ERA from their rotation, seventh-best in the American League but a solid figure considering U.S. Cellular Park is one of the best hitting parks in the league.

Peavy was a big reason the White Sox battled the Detroit Tigers for the AL Central title, the right-hander going 11-12 with a 3.37 ERA that ranked ninth in the AL. He also ranked fifth in innings pitched, helping give him 5.0 WAR, sixth-best among AL pitchers. The caveat: It was the first time he topped 200 innings since 2007 and the first season since 2008 he surpassed even 112 innings. His long medical history certainly suggests this isn't a risk-free deal for the White Sox.

The surgery he had in 2010 to reattach a tendon in his shoulder was the first time the surgery had been performed on a baseball player, but Peavy told ESPNChicago.com during the 2012 season that he was a different pitcher than in recent seasons, "worrying about game planning, not sitting in the trainer's room the whole time in between days."

If Peavy and Danks can stay healthy, it's certainly a rotation that can contend for a division title. Next up for the White Sox: Possibly re-signing Youkilis and free-agent catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who hit .278 with 27 home runs in 2012.

Kenny Williams never seems to get a lot of respect.

During his tenure as Chicago White Sox general manager, which began after the 2000 season, he's built two division winners, including the 2005 World Series champions. Maybe the most impressive aspect of his reign is that the White Sox are always competitive. They've been under .500 just three times, but two of those were 79-83. He's done this despite lacking the monster payrolls of teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies; despite only once having a pick better than 12th in the first round of the draft; despite never having a franchise superstar like Barry Bonds to build around or pitchers like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, like Brian Sabean has had with the Giants; despite a farm system -- in part because of ownership's unwillingness to spend in the draft and because of that lack of high picks -- that usually ranks near the bottom (Keith Law and Baseball America both ranked the White Sox system 30th heading into the season).

What I like about Williams is he never gives up. He's always trying to win, to build the best team he can given his resources. He never craters, never commits to a complete teardown and embarrassing on-field product, such as the one you're seeing from the Astros, Williams' 2005 World Series opponents.

This is why trading for Francisco Liriano is a typical Kenny Williams move -- high risk, perhaps mocked, but one with a potential nice payoff. Liriano's season numbers with the Twins look terrible -- 3-10, 5.31 ERA -- and his last start (against the White Sox, of all teams) was a rough, seven-run blowup. But after an awful April and temporary trip to the bullpen, Liriano pitched very well in a 10-start stint from May 30 though July 18, posting a 2.84 ERA with 77 strikeouts, 28 walks and 38 hits in 63.1 innings (a .171 average allowed). That stretch included back-to-back starts of 15 strikeouts and 10 strikeouts against the A's and Orioles on July 13 and 18, respectively.

In other words, there's a good chance Liriano will outpitch Zack Greinke the rest of the way, even though this trade will receive much less fanfare and required much less in prospect value: light-hitting infielder Eduardo Escobar and left-handed pitcher Pedro Hernandez.

In fact, despite the much-maligned farm system, the White Sox have received contributions from several rookies, most notably on the pitching staff with Jose Quintana, closer Addison Reed, and relievers Nate Jones and Hector Santiago. With Quintana still the big surprise in the rotation, Liriano presumably takes the place of Philip Humber, who did pitch well in a 5-2 victory over the Rangers on Saturday, but that strong start barely got his ERA under 6.00. With the hope that John Danks might return from his shoulder issues, the White Sox now have rotation depth and options in case of injury or if they want to conserve Chris Sale's innings.

The White Sox also have a lot to gain from a deal such as this; with a 2.5-game lead over the Tigers, winning the division title is obviously huge. There is a reason you're seeing teams contending for a division title making moves, while teams further back in the playoff chase -- such as the American League East wild-card contenders -- are more conservative. The reward for winning one of the two wild cards is essentially half as valuable as last season, with the one-game playoff plus the possibility that you've burned your best pitcher. But the payoff for the White Sox winning the division is worth taking a chance on Liriano.

As for the Rangers, they don't need to be as desperate as their division rival Angels, who gave up three good prospects to acquire Greinke. Yes, acquiring Greinke would have helped, but the Rangers have to ask: Do any of the other available pitchers make the team that much better? I agree with Jim Bowden: Probably not Insider.

The top three starters in a playoff series right now probably would be Matt Harrison, Yu Darvish and Derek Holland (who has had a disappointing season but lately has looked more like the pitcher who threw so well in the second half and postseason a year ago). The fourth spot might be open as Neftali Feliz rehabs, but among Feliz, Scott Feldman, Roy Oswalt and maybe even Alexi Ogando, the Rangers have options. Do you want to give up Mike Olt or another top prospect for what might be just a minor upgrade in Josh Johnson (having his worst statistical season and would be expensive to acquire) or Ryan Dempster (who is unlikely to approve a trade to Texas anyway)?

Plus, Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli are impending free agents, and there's no guarantee they'll be back, even though the Rangers have entered the upper echelon of payrolls. Maybe the Rangers will let one of those guys walk, spend some of that money elsewhere and give a starting position next season to Olt (with super prospect Jurickson Profar waiting in the wings).

The Rangers have options, but their best chance at holding off the Angels and surging A's might lie within: Namely, Hamilton and Michael Young finding their strokes. Hamilton was given a mental day off Saturday to clear his head. Since June 1, he's been one of the worst hitters in the league, batting .190 with a .274 on-base percentage. He's hitting .145 in July with 21 strikeouts in 19 games. Young is eating up at-bats at designated hitter and first base despite an empty .270 batting average. His OBP is less than .300, and he hasn't homered since May 7.

For all the talk of needing a starter, Young is a gigantic hole in the lineup right now. Kenny Williams filled one of his holes. We'll see whether Rangers GM Jon Daniels plugs his.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Chase UtleyDale Zanine/US PresswireAs quick as Chase Utley is to the ball, he's not so quick he'll beat the ball to first base.

Over/under: Wins for White Sox

March, 15, 2012
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"I think we're going to be a lot better than some people think -- a lot better," Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams said Wednesday to CBSSports' Danny Knobler.

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Over/under prediction: 77.5 wins for White Sox

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The White Sox won 79 games a year ago, a pretty remarkable achievement considering Adam Dunn hit .159 (lowest ever for a player with 450 plate appearances), Alex Rios had a .265 OBP (one of the 10 lowest figures ever for an outfielder with 500 PAs), Gordon Beckham hit .230 with a .296 OBP, Brent Morel posted a .287 OBP and Juan Pierre played 157 games.

That, my friends, is a lot of bad hitting.

The bad news is all those guys except Pierre are back. The good news is that they can't do any worse. The White Sox lost longtime starter Mark Buehrle and outfielder Carlos Quentin (second on the team in home runs and RBIs in 2011) via free agency. In their spots will be Chris Sale, moving from the bullpen, and prospect Dayan Viciedo. The rotation will count on better seasons from John Danks (4.37 ERA) and Jake Peavy (4.92 in 18 starts) and a repeat performance from 2011 surprise Philip Humber. Gavin Floyd fills out what could be a solid rotation, although one lacking a No. 1-type ace.

The bullpen is minus closer Sergio Santos, traded to the Blue Jays, but the White Sox believe they have depth with Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain, rookie Addison Reed and Will Ohman.

But it's the offense that will decide the fate of the 2012 White Sox. Do you believe in comebacks? If so, maybe you'll take the over on the betting line of 77.5 wins.
Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast with Mark Simon was a special one, as it figures to be our last weekly episode before we really get going. That’s right, we’re going daily next week! Anyway, we had a special guest and good fun with many topics.

1. Ben Jedlovec from "The Fielding Bible Volume III" (available from Amazon.com or www.actasports.com) joined us to talk defense, from runs saved to overrated/underrated (Derek Jeter, Matt Kemp) to the best defenders in baseball and a lot more.

2. I watch spring training games, Mark does not, but we’re both aware of who’s getting hurt. A few Mets are on our mind this day, as well as a Cardinals ace and a potential Angels slugger.

3. Is Chipper Jones really on the way out or did he just have a bad day when he told reporters he might not make it through the season?

4. We play the “star or Shlobotnick” game with pitchers, which isn’t so easy! What do you think of Mat Latos, Jeremy Hellickson and John Danks, among others?

5. If you ask a ridiculous question, you often get a ridiculous answer. So it was with our email segment today! Hey, it was fun!

So download and listen to Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast, as Mark and I talk defense, McDonald’s and yes, a little birthdays as well. And look for the next show next Monday, as we really prepare for the season.

Robin Ventura and the trial by fire

March, 4, 2012
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Robin VenturaAP Photo/Jae C. HongThe team GM Kenny Williams, left, hired Robin Ventura to manage certainly has its share of holes.


Robin Ventura succeeds Ozzie Guillen as manager of the White Sox, having never managed (or coached) at any level in pro ball. Just what has he gotten himself into?

Distinguished Playing Career

Although he will be hard-pressed to make as vivid an impression as his predecessor, Ventura should be able to command the respect of his players on the basis of his own career as a player. Though he isn’t a Hall of Famer, he has certainly had a career worthy of a Cooperstown exhibit. He was a three-time All-American at Oklahoma State University, where he set the NCAA consecutive game hitting streak record of 58 (he still holds the Division I mark). He was a first-round draft pick (10th overall) of the Chicago White Sox in 1988 and made his big-league debut a year later, after only 129 games in the minors.

While never a top-10 player, with few "black ink" stats on the back of his baseball cards, his career was notable for its consistency. Though he only surpassed 100 RBIs and 30 homers twice in his 16-year career, he was a six-time Gold Glover at third, and from 1991-2003 he compiled a 117 OPS+, with no season lower than 97. Whatever foot speed he had in his youth was erased in a horrific fractured/dislocated ankle injury suffered during a spring training game in 1997. He had compiled a line of .276/.367/.442 prior to 1997, but only .256/.357/.446 from 1997 onward.

Ventura had a knack for making history with the bases loaded. On September 4, 1995, he became only the eighth player to hit two grand slams in the same game. On May 20, 1999, he became the first and only player to hit a grand slam in both games of a doubleheader. During Game Five of the 1999 National League Championship Series, he hit a walkoff slam, which turned into a "Grand Slam Single" when his trip around the bases was interrupted by a celebrating teammate who hoisted Ventura up, preventing him from touching home plate. Another memorable moment came in a game against the Rangers in 1993, when he decided he didn’t like getting hit by Nolan Ryan, and charged the mound, only to be "noogied to death" by the 46-year-old Texan.

Track record of neophyte managers

Of those who will be pacing a dugout in 2012, at least seven went into their first big-league stewardship like Ventura is now, a babe in the managerial woods. But unlike Ventura, they all had prior coaching experience. Let’s examine how those seven did in their first two seasons:

  • Dusty Baker (1993 Giants): Baker inherited a team that won 72 games in 1992. Thanks in large part to the addition of free agent Barry Bonds (who compiled a 1.136 OPS), San Francisco improved to a 103-59 record in 1993, with Baker winning NL Manager of the Year. The '94 squad slumped to a 55-60 mark in the strike-curtailed season.
  • Bob Melvin (2003 Mariners): The 2002 squad went 93-69, only good enough for third place in the highly competitive American League West and six games out of the wild card. Melvin guided the M’s to the exact same record in his first year. This time they nabbed second place in the West, but still missed the wild card by two games. Melvin’s second year saw the Mariners fall from seventh to last in the AL in runs scored, and the team went 63-99. Melvin was fired after the season.
  • Ozzie Guillen (2004 White Sox): After the Sox went 86-76 in 2003, Guillen took over in 2004 and led the team to an 83-79 finish. His second season was when the magic happened: An AL-best 99-63 record and a 11-1 postseason record culminating in the franchise’s first title since 1917.
  • Joe Girardi (2006 Marlins): The 2005 Florida squad went 83-79, and Girardi somehow guided the team with the lowest payroll in the majors in '06 to a very respectable 78-84 record. He was rewarded with the NL Manager-of-the-Year award, but not before getting fired by the Marlins due to some clashes with ownership.
  • Bud Black (2007 Padres): Black’s fortunes were similar to Melvin’s -- he barely changed the team’s record in his first year (going from 88-74 to 89-74, with that 163rd game being a loss in the wild card tiebreaker), then saw the team totally collapse in his second season (63-99).
  • Kirk Gibson (2010 Diamondbacks): The D-backs had suffered through a 70-92 campaign in 2009, and were on the same path in the middle of 2010 at 31-48 when Gibson took over. He guided them to a slightly better 34-49 finish, then surprised most pundits with an NL West Division title in 2011, going 94-68 and earning the league’s Manager-of-the-Year award.
  • John Farrell (2011 Blue Jays): After the Jays finished in fourth place in the AL East 2010 despite an 85-77 record, manager Cito Gaston retired, and Farrell was surprisingly given the reins. The Jays meandered to an 81-81 ledger in 2011, never more than four games over or five games under .500 at any point.
  • Don Mattingly (2011 Dodgers): Donnie Baseball took over for a retiring Joe Torre, who had gone 80-82 in 2010. Despite all the off-field distractions, and very little offense outside of Matt Kemp, Mattingly was able to guide the Dodgers to an 82-79 record in 2011.

Two of the most recent examples of managers being hired despite no prior managing or coaching experience have turned out poorly:

  • Buck Martinez (2001 Blue Jays): The 2000 season saw the Jim Fregosi-led Jays go 83-79. Martinez, who spent most of his post-playing career in the broadcast booth, led the ’01 squad to a similar 80-82 record; after getting off to a 20-33 start in 2002, Martinez was fired.
  • A.J. Hinch (2009 Diamondbacks): The 2008 Diamondbacks went a disappointing 82-80, and when they started out 12-17 in '09, Hinch was given the job, at the tender age of 34. He led the team to a 58-75 finish to that season, and was 31-48 in the 2010 campaign when he was replaced by ... Kirk Gibson.

As you can see, most times there is little change in year one, but major upheaval (both good and bad) in year two.

The team he will manage

Since their splendid 99-63 regular season run to the 2005 World Series title, the record of the ChiSox has been neither wretched nor exemplary. With the exception of 2007 (a 72-win campaign), they’ve won between 79 and 90 games each year. They’ve compiled a .511 winning percentage and just one playoff appearance. They rank 13th in W-L percentage during that time.

[+] EnlargeJohn Danks
Jennifer Stewart/US PresswireHow John Danks, right, performs as No. 1 starter and whether Gordon Beckham can get his OPS back on track are key questions awaiting Ventura.
But last year’s club showed some glaring weaknesses. On offense, the 2011 squad had only two regulars compile an OPS greater than .728 (the league OPS was .730) or over a 100 OPS+. There were 22 players with more than 400 plate appearances and a sub-.660 OPS during 2011, and the Sox had five of them. The team finished no higher than seventh in the AL in any offensive category. It were also the third-oldest offense in the league. On defense, committing the second-fewest errors in the AL couldn’t mask the lack of range afield, as White Sox' Defensive Efficiency ranked third from bottom. If you reached first base against the Sox, you ran, as they threw out a league-low 22 percent of stolen-base attempts. The pitching helped keep some of the pressure off of the defense, as their 7.5 K/9 and 2.78 K/BB led the AL. But they still ended up with a league-average 4.10 ERA.

In 2012, the club will face some major hurdles if it wishes to improve on last season's performance or even just to keep pace with it. The starting rotation must replacing staff ace/workhorse Mark Buehrle’s 200-plus innings. Buehrle’s 2,425 frames since 2001 are 60 more than anyone else. John Danks, who pitched better than his 4.33 ERA might suggest, assumes the No. 1 starter position, with 22-year-old Chris Sale stepping into the rotation. Philip Humber pitched more than 21 2/3 innings in the majors for the first time in 2011, by 141 innings; his BABIP was a low .276, and something may have to give in 2012. In the bullpen, Matt Thornton has been the ChiSox primary set-up man for six years, and had a shot to close last year but lost it; with the departure of Sergio Santos via trade, can the 35-year-old Thornton step up, despite a sharp drop in his K/9 rate last year (12.0 to 9.5)?

On offense, there is a growing concern over second baseman Gordon Beckham. The former first-round draft pick has seen his OPS slide from .807 to .695 to .633, though his defense has improved at second base. Third baseman Brent Morel may not be the answer at the hot corner, as his profile (a .250 doubles hitter with few walks and below-average range) is lacking for the position. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski is 35 and closing in on 1,500 games behind the plate. His 120 games at catcher last year were his lowest since 2004, and he threw out only 20 percent of runners attempting to steal, below his career mark of 24 percent. There have been only 30 player-seasons in the past 50 years where a 35-or-older catcher has managed at least a .728 OPS (as Pierzynski did last year).

Then we come to the two biggest enigmas, Adam Dunn and Alex Rios. Everyone is well aware of Dunn’s legendary collapse in 2011, including his .064 batting average versus lefties. With three years and $44 million to go, can new hitting coach Jeff Manto get "The Big Donkey" standing upright again? Also, while Rios will never truly be worth the $21 million he is drawing each year through 2014, the Sox hope for something closer to the .284/.334/.457 line of 2010, rather than the .227/.265/.328 slash of 2011. They’re moving him to left field this season, where he has played one game his entire career.

Will Ventura exceed expectations?

So, Robin Ventura will certainly have his hands full (and tied) with a team that is, at best, in transition and, at worst, about to fall off a cliff. If he can move the White Sox in the right direction, it will be yet another extraordinary performance, as impressive as any of his grand slams. Given his history as a player, and the opportunity to establish a new atmosphere in the clubhouse, I think there is at least a chance he can pull it off.

Diane Firstman blogs about baseball at Value Over Replacement Grit, a SweetSpot network affiliate, and you can follow her on Twitter at @dianagram
Alex Avila, Carlos Santana & Joe MauerUS PresswireWith Alex Avila, Carlos Santana and Joe Mauer, the AL Central is loaded at catcher.


We're back with more divisional position rankings for 2012. You can scream, you can holler, you can protest and call me names. But just because I rated your player lower than you think he deserves doesn't mean I hate your team.

(Here are the NL East and NL West rankings.)

Catcher
1. Alex Avila, Tigers
2. Joe Mauer, Twins
3. Carlos Santana, Indians
4. Salvador Perez, Royals
5. A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox

The AL Central might not be baseball's glamor division, but it may have three of the top five catchers in the game if Mauer bounces back from his injury-plagued campaign. Since we're not certain of his health, I'm going to give top billing to Avila, who had the best hitting numbers of any catcher outside of Mike Napoli and plays solid defense. I wouldn't be surprised if Santana explodes; with his power-and-walks combo, all he has to do is raise his average 30 points and he'll be one of the most valuable players in the game. Considering that his average on balls in play was .263, there is a good chance of that happening. Perez hit .331 in 39 games; OK, he won't do that again, but he doesn't turn 22 until May and puts the ball in play. There's no shame in being fifth in this group but that's where I have to place Pierzynski, who keeps rolling along and is now 36th on the all-time list for games caught.

First base
1. Prince Fielder, Tigers
2. Paul Konerko, White Sox
3. Eric Hosmer, Royals
4. Justin Morneau, Twins
5. Matt LaPorta, Indians

In 2009, when Morneau played 135 games, he hit .274 AVG/.363 OBP/.516 SLG. Even if he replicates that line, he may rank only fourth. Konerko has hit a combined .306 with 70 home runs the past two seasons. He's 104 home runs from 500 but turns 36 in March, so he's probably four seasons away; not sure he'll hang on that long, but who knew he'd be this good at this age. If Hosmer improves his walk rate and defense and Konerko declines, Hosmer could climb past him. If it doesn't happen this year, it will happen next. The most similar batter to him at age 21: Eddie Murray.

Second base
1. Jason Kipnis, Indians
2. Gordon Beckham, White Sox
3. Johnny Giavotella, Royals
4. Alexi Casilla, Twins
5. Ramon Santiago, Tigers

Well, this isn't exactly a Robinson Cano/Dustin Pedroia/Ben Zobrist debate, is it? Kipnis' bat is a sure thing, as evidenced by his excellent play after his call-up (.272 average and .507 slugging in 36 games). His glove was once a question mark but now appears solid enough that he looks like a future All-Star to me. Can anybody explain what has happened to Beckham? He's second mostly by default; he's gone downhill since his superb rookie season in 2009 but is only 25, so there's hope that he'll find those skills again. Giavotella has some potential with the bat (.338/.390/.481 at Triple-A), which is more than you can say for Casilla and Santiago.

Third base
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2. Mike Moustakas, Royals
3. Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians
4. Danny Valencia, Twins
5. Brent Morel, White Sox

We'll go with the idea that Cabrera is Detroit's starting third baseman, although I predict he'll end up starting more games at designated hitter. Manager Jim Leyland will end up doing a lot of mixing of his lineups, but for this little exercise we have to choose a starter. Moustakas didn't tear up the league as a rookie and I worry about his ability to hit lefties (.191, homerless in 89 at-bats), but he showed more than fellow rookies Chisenhall and Morel. Valencia doesn't get on base enough and he rated poorly on defense in 2011. I hope he's at least good in the clubhouse. Morel was terrible all season and then exploded for eight of his 10 home runs in September and drew 15 walks after drawing just seven the previous five months. Maybe something clicked.

Shortstop
1. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
2. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
3. Jhonny Peralta, Tigers
4. Alcides Escobar, Royals
5. Jamey Carroll, Twins

Peralta had the best 2011 season, but he's a difficult guy to project. He had an .804 OPS in 2008 but dropped to .691 in 2009. He had a .703 OPS in 2010 and then .823 in 2011. I just don't see a repeat season, at the plate or in the field. Cabrera didn't rate well on the defensive metrics, and after a strong start he wore down in the second half. Ramirez has turned into a nice player, with a good glove and some power, and he even draws a few walks now. Escobar is a true magician with the glove. Carroll is actually a useful player who gets on base (.356 career OBP), but he's pushed as an everyday shortstop and he'll be 38. He'll be issued the honorary Nick Punto locker in the Twins' clubhouse.

Left field
1. Alex Gordon, Royals
2. Alejandro De Aza, White Sox
3. Ben Revere, Twins
4. Michael Brantley/Shelley Duncan, Indians
5. Ryan Raburn/Don Kelly, Tigers

I'm not sure what to do here. After Gordon, I just get a headache. We'll pretend to believe in De Aza after his impressive stint in the majors (171 plate appearances, .329/.400/.920). He's hit in Triple-A for three seasons now, and while he's not going to post a .400 OBP again, he should be adequate. Revere is one of the fastest players in the majors, but he's all speed and defense; he hopes to grow up to be Brett Gardner, which isn't a bad thing, but he'll have to learn to get on base at a better clip. Brantley doesn't have one outstanding skill so he'll have to hit better than .266 to be anything more than a fourth outfielder; Duncan provides some right-handed pop as a platoon guy. The Tigers have Delmon Young, but I'll slot him at DH. That leaves supposed lefty masher Raburn and utility man Kelly to soak up at-bats; both had an OBP below .300 in 2011, although Raburn has hit better in the past.

Center field
1. Austin Jackson, Tigers
2. Denard Span, Twins
3. Grady Sizemore, Indians
4. Lorenzo Cain, Royals
5. Alex Rios, White Sox

I can't rate Sizemore any higher since he's played just 104 games over the past two seasons, and he hasn't had a big year since 2008. Rios was terrible in '09, OK in '10 and worse than terrible in '11. I'm not betting on him.

Right field
1. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
2. Brennan Boesch, Tigers
3. Jeff Francoeur, Royals
4. Josh Willingham, Twins
5. Dayan Viciedo, White Sox

Choo would like to forget 2011, but there's no reason he shouldn't bounce back and play like he did in 2009 and 2010, when he was one of the 10 best position players in the AL. I don't expect Francoeur to deliver 71 extra-base hits again, but maybe he'll surprise us. Viciedo is apparently nicknamed "The Tank," which makes me wonder how much ground he can cover. He did improve his walk rate last season in the minors and turns 23 in March, so there's still room for more growth.

Designated hitter
1. Billy Butler, Royals
2. Travis Hafner, Indians
3. Ryan Doumit, Twins
4. Delmon Young, Tigers
5. Adam Dunn, White Sox

Has there been a bigger prospect disappointment than Young in the past decade? I mean, yes, there were complete busts like Brandon Wood and Andy Marte, but those guys had obvious holes in their games, while Young was viewed as a sure thing, a consensus No. 1 overall prospect. But his bat has never lived up to its billing. Other than one decent year in Minnesota, he has low OBPs and he clearly lacked range in the outfield. His career WAR on Baseball-Reference is minus-0.2 (1.6 on FanGraphs), meaning he's been worse than replacement level. He's just not that good, Tigers fans.

No. 1 starter
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers
2. John Danks, White Sox
3. Justin Masterson, Indians
4. Luke Hochevar, Royals
5. Carl Pavano, Twins

Masterson was better than Danks in 2011, and I do believe his improvement was real. He absolutely crushes right-handers -- they slugged an anemic .259 off him. Danks had two bad months but has the longer track record of success. Even in his "off year" he had a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate than Masterson. If you want to argue about Hochevar versus Pavano, be my guest.

No. 2 starter
1. Doug Fister, Tigers
2. Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
3. Gavin Floyd, White Sox
4. Francisco Liriano, Twins
5. Jonathan Sanchez, Royals

Yes, sign me up for the Doug Fister bandwagon club. Jimenez's fastball velocity was down a couple miles per hour last season but the positives are that his strikeout and walk rates were identical to 2010; he'll be better. Floyd isn't flashy but he's now made 30-plus starts four years in a row, and he'll become a very rich man when he becomes a free agent after this season. Sanchez won't have the luxury of pitching in San Francisco (and to eight-man NL lineups).

No. 3 starter
1. Max Scherzer, Tigers
2. Scott Baker, Twins
3. Philip Humber, White Sox
4. Bruce Chen, Royals
5. Josh Tomlin, Indians

I could be underrating Baker, who was excellent last season, but only once in his career has he made 30 starts in a season. Tomlin's fans will disagree with this ranking, but he's a finesse guy who relies on the best control in baseball (21 walks in 26 starts). He's the kind of guy you root for, but the league seemed to figure him out as the season progressed.

No. 4 starter
1. Felipe Paulino, Royals
2. Rick Porcello, Tigers
3. Jake Peavy, White Sox
4. Derek Lowe, Indians
5. Nick Blackburn, Twins

Scouts still love Porcello's arm and I know he's just 23, but he's made 89 big league starts and shown no signs of getting better. His WHIP has increased each season and his strikeout rate remains one of the lowest in baseball. Paulino has an electric arm -- he averaged 95 mph on his fastball -- and is getting better. How could the Rockies give up on him after just 14 innings? How could the Astros trade him for Clint Barmes? Anyway, kudos to the Royals for buying low on the guy who may turn into their best starter. Peavy can't stay healthy. Lowe has led his league in starts three out of the past four seasons, but I'm not sure that's a good thing anymore. Blackburn is a poor man's Lowe, and I don't mean that in a good way.

No. 5 starter
1. Chris Sale, White Sox
2. Jacob Turner, Tigers
3. Aaron Crow/Danny Duffy, Royals
4. Fausto Carmona/David Huff/Jeanmar Gomez, Indians
5. Brian Duensing/Jason Marquis, Twins

Welcome to the AL Central crapshoot. Turner and Sale have the most upside, but one is a rookie and the other is converting from relief. Crow will also be given a shot at the rotation, but his difficulties against left-handed batters (.311 average allowed) don't bode well for that transition. Even if the artist formerly known as Carmona gets a visa, what do you have? A guy with a 5.01 ERA over the past four seasons. Duensing is another typical Twins pitcher, which means he at least throws strikes. His first full season in the rotation didn't go well, so of course the Twins brought in Marquis, yet another guy who doesn't strike anybody out.

Closer
1. Jose Valverde, Tigers
2. Joakim Soria, Royals
3. Matt Thornton, White Sox
4. Chris Perez, Indians
5. Matt Capps, Twins

Four good relievers plus Matt Capps. I do admit I'm a little perplexed by Perez, however. In 2009, he struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings. In 2010, that figure fell to 8.7 but he posted a pretty 1.71 ERA. In 2011, it was all the way down to 5.9, but without much improvement in his control. Perez blew only four saves but he did lose seven games. He survived thanks to a low .240 average on balls in play. He's an extreme fly-ball pitcher but didn't serve up many home runs. Bottom line: I'd be nervous.

Bullpen
1. Indians -- Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith, Nick Hagadone
2. Royals -- Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Tim Collins, Jose Mijares
3. Tigers -- Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, Al Alburquerque
4. White Sox -- Jesse Crain, Jason Frasor, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod
5. Twins -- Glen Perkins, Alex Burnett, Anthony Swarzak, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros

If you're starting to think I'm not high on the Twins for this season, you would be correct.

Intangibles
1. Royals
2. Indians
3. Tigers
4. White Sox
5. Twins

I like the youthful exuberance of the Royals, plus the likelihood of improvement from the young players and the possibility of some midseason reinforcements from the minors. The depth of the bullpen will help bolster a shaky rotation, and this just feels like an organization that is finally starting to believe in itself. The Indians are riding last year's positive results and enter the season knowing they might get better production from Choo and Sizemore and full seasons from Kipnis and Chisenhall. I'm not knocking the Tigers here, but they do lack depth in the pitching staff and the pressure is on them.

The final tally
1. Tigers, 65 points
2. Royals, 55 points
3. Indians, 54 points
4. White Sox, 46 points
5. Twins, 35 points

No surprise here: The Tigers will be heavy favorites to win the division with a lineup that should score a ton of runs. I don't think it's a lock that they'll win -- Verlander, Avila, Peralta and Valverde will all be hard-pressed to repeat their 2011 campaigns, for example. But the Royals and Indians appear to have too many questions in the rotations, the White Sox have serious lineup issues, and the Twins have a beautiful ballpark to play their games in.
Tags:

Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Andy Marte, John Danks, Jonathan Broxton, Denard Span, Nick Punto, Alcides Escobar, Rafael Perez, Justin Morneau, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Brandon Wood, Anthony Swarzak, Dustin Pedroia, Tim Collins, Justin Verlander, Jonathan Sanchez, Alexei Ramirez, Ryan Doumit, Justin Masterson, Jason Frasor, Jason Marquis, Francisco Liriano, Matt Capps, Luke Hochevar, Alex Gordon, Matt LaPorta, Prince Fielder, Gordon Beckham, Alexi Casilla, Joakim Soria, Gavin Floyd, Delmon Young, Ramon Santiago, Carl Pavano, Mike Napoli, Ubaldo Jimenez, Grady Sizemore, Jeff Francoeur, Travis Hafner, Jose Valverde, Jake Peavy, Billy Butler, Derek Lowe, Miguel Cabrera, Brian Duensing, Ben Zobrist, Fausto Carmona, Jim Leyland, Shin-Soo Choo, Max Scherzer, Michael Brantley, Danny Valencia, Jose Mijares, Danny Duffy, Carlos Santana, A.J. Pierzynski, Austin Jackson, Robinson Cano, Chris Perez, Clint Barmes, Brett Gardner, Brennan Boesch, Nick Blackburn, Paul Konerko, Scott Baker, Chris Sale, Josh Willingham, Jhonny Peralta, Asdrubal Cabrera, Vinnie Pestano, Matt Thornton, Aaron Crow, Josh Tomlin, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, Jamey Carroll, Jesse Crain, Alex Avila, philip humber, Brent Morel, Joaquin Benoit, Ben Revere, Eric Hosmer, Al Alburquerque, Ryan Raburn, Mike Moustakas, Dayan Viciedo, Octavio Dotel, Jacob Turner, Salvador Perez, Johnny Giavotella, Lorenzo Cain, Jeanmar Gomez, Shelley Duncan, Alejandro De Aza, Bruce Chen, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Glen Perkins, Felipe Paulino, Nick Hagadone, Daniel Schlereth, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod, Alex Burnett, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros

The American League Central may have a reputation as baseball's skinflint division, but such is not the case: The White Sox, Twins and Tigers each had payrolls over $100 million in 2011 and ranked in the top 10 of highest-salaried ballclubs.

The problem was that two of those three teams didn't get much for their money. Considering the issues in Chicago and Minnesota, and the youth and unwillingness to spend big in Cleveland and Kansas City, Detroit will enter 2012 as the heavy favorite to win the division -- no matter what happens in the offseason. But even the Tigers are far from a sure thing and if the Indians can get good health from Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore in 2012, plus strong seasons from youngsters Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall, their offense could be dramatically improved.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Here's a quick look at some action plans and items of interest for the five teams.

Detroit Tigers

1. Third base (Brandon Inge)

With Inge plummeting to a .197 average, Detroit's third-base production was among the worst in the majors. The team has already been linked to free agent Aramis Ramirez and trade discussions with Angels on Maicer Izturis. Both would be big upgrades over Inge, who still has one year remaining on his contract. The dark horse possibility: With Carlos Guillen ($13 million) and Magglio Ordonez ($10 million) off the books, the Tigers pursue Jose Reyes to fill their leadoff void, moving Jhonny Peralta to third base.

Likely solution: As much I love the Reyes idea, Ramirez to Detroit seems like a logical fit. The negatives are Ramirez's lack of range and Detroit's need for a little more athleticism in the lineup.



2. Middle relief

By the postseason, Jim Leyland was down to two relievers he trusted: Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit. Al Alburquerque had a strong rookie season out of nowhere and Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth provide rare power lefty arms, but Albuquerque and Schlereth still have trouble throwing strikes. The Tigers could go after a low-cost veteran like LaTroy Hawkins, Mike Gonzalez or Darren Oliver, or maybe make a trade pitch for White Sox lefty Matt Thornton, although it seems unlikely Chicago would trade Thornton to a division rival.

Likely solution: A veteran righty-hander, with the Tigers counting on improvement from Coke and Schlereth.

3. A left-handed bat.

The Tigers missed Brennan Boesch's stick in the playoffs, as Victor Martinez and the hobbled Alex Avila were the only threats from the left side (granted, Don Kelly hit a big home run). Boesch's return will help, but Detroit could use a lefty bat to help balance out the lineup.

Likely solution: Andy Dirks may given another shot at that third/fourth outfielder job after hitting .251/.296/.406 as a rookie. But what about Rockies left fielder Seth Smith, who is on the trade block? His career .518 slugging percentage against righties has been bolstered a bit by Coors Field, but he's a solid hitter who could platoon with Ryan Raburn in left, or allow Raburn to play some at second base.

Cleveland Indians

1. Find a left fielder who can hit.

Michael Brantley is a decent asset -- but as a center fielder. The plan to use Brantley as an everyday left fielder was never a great one to begin with, as he's never going to pop many balls over the fence. Brantley, Austin Kearns, Shelley Duncan and Travis Buck all started at least 20 games in left; Jared Head started six games there. As a group, Cleveland's left fielders hit a miserable .233 with seven home runs; only Baltimore and Minnesota received a lower OPS from their left fielders.

Likely solution: Signing Grady Sizemore doesn't necessarily push Brantley back to a starting role in left field. He's best used as a fourth outfielder and Sizemore insurance. Michael Cuddyer may end up getting priced out of Cleveland's range, so how former Twins teammate Jason Kubel? He can play left and step in as designated hitter when Travis Hafner suffers his inevitable breakdown.

2. Find at least one more starter.

Right now, the Indians can only count on Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez for their rotation. Carlos Carrasco is out for the season following Tommy John surgery, Fausto Carmona was terrible and even Josh Tomlin is a question mark after the league caught up to him in the second half (5.26 ERA).

Likely solution: Jeanmar Gomez has been roughed up in two stints in the majors (146 hits in 116 innings), but his Triple-A numbers were solid, if unspectacular. He'll be given another chance in spring training to battle David Huff for a rotation spot.

3. If not Matt LaPorta, who plays first base?

The big prospect acquired in the CC Sabathia deal, LaPorta just hasn't hit as expected, posting a .299 on-base percentage in 2011. The Indians seem ready to punt on LaPorta, who turns 27 in January so isn't even that young. Carlos Santana ended up playing a lot of first base down the stretch, but let's hope he's kept behind the plate, where his hitting value would be maximized.

Likely solution: If free agent Carlos Pena lowers his price, he's a possibility, and the Indians reportedly talked with Houston about Brett Wallace. I'm not sure Wallace is much of an upgrade over LaPorta, but at least he's younger. Casey Kotchman could fit nicely here as lower-cost alternative after posting a .378 OBP with Tampa. And hey, he's only two years older than LaPorta.

Chicago White Sox

1. What do you do with Adam Dunn and Alex Rios?

Dunn hit .159 with a .569 OPS. Rios hit .227 with a .613 OPS. Dunn was the least-valuable position player in baseball, according to Baseball-Reference.com, while Rios was seventh-worst. They made $24 million in 2011 and will make a combined $26 million in 2012. Both are signed through 2014.

Likely solution: General manager Kenny Williams will be busy during the winter meetings, perhaps shopping around guys like Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Matt Thornton, looking for some sort of backup plan to these two pieces of junk. The 40-man roster currently includes Alejandro De Aza, who probably deserves a chance to play somewhere after a nice run (if over his head) last season. Let's put it this way: he can produce an OPS higher than .613.

2. Third base (Brent Morel)

After struggling all season, hitting .250 with just two home runs and seven walks in 328 at-bats through August, Morel suddenly changed his approach in September, got more patient and swung for the fences. He hit just .224 the final month, but with eight home runs and 15 walks. Was it a legitimate improvement, or merely feasting off September tired arms and rookie call-ups?

Likely solution: Morel's hot September earns him another shot.

3. The new manager

This isn't so much an action plan, as a big question mark. Robin Ventura has no previous managerial experience, but the good sign for the White Sox is that respected pitching coach Don Cooper is still around to handle the pitching staff.

Likely solution: If Dunn and Rios stink it up again, it won't matter how well Ventura transitions into the job -- he'll be doomed.

Kansas City Royals

1. Fix the rotation

The Royals had a 4.82 ERA from their starters; only Baltimore was worse in the American League.

Likely solution: The Royals already made a move here, trading Melky Cabrera to the Giants for Jonathan Sanchez. The club also re-signed Bruce Chen. With the signing of Jonathan Broxton, and the emergence of rookie relievers Greg Holland, Louis Coleman and Tim Collins in 2011, fellow 2011 rookie Aaron Crow will be given a shot at the rotation. I have my doubts it will work: Crow walked 31 in 62 innings out of the bullpen and left-handed hitters tagged him for a .311 average and .538 slugging percentage. There's a reason he struggled in the minors as a starter in 2010 (5.73 ERA). He has a great arm, but won't be able to rely on his fastball/slider combo as a starter.

2. Second base (Chris Getz)

Royals second basemen posted a .301 OBP and .636 OPS (26th in the majors) in 2011.

Likely solution: Rookie Johnny Giavotella played the final two months there and hit .247 with a .649 OPS. He'll head into spring training as the favorite to win the job. He hit .338/.390/.481 at Triple-A, so the batting potential is there: Bill James projects him to hit .295/.342/.419.

3. Center field (empty -- Cabrera traded)

The Royals were smart to deal Cabrera after his career season.

Likely solution: Lorenzo Cain, acquired from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade, will finally get a chance to play after spending 2011 in Triple-A. Cain is old for a guy still considered a prospect -- he turns 26 in April -- so he should be a polished product by now. He showed some power for the first time in his career, hitting 16 home runs for Omaha while batting .312. He doesn't walk much, so won't be a star, but should come closing to matching Cabrera's 2011 production.

Minnesota Twins

1. The M & M boys

After 2011's train wreck -- the club's first 90-loss season since 2000 (and at 99 losses, the most the 1982 Twins lost 102) -- it seems pretty clear this team will be dead in the water again unless Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau get healthy and regain their All-Star status. But they also can't assume these guys are going to play 140-plus games.

Likely solution: Obviously, the Twins need a better backup plan for Mauer than giving .167-hitting Drew Butera 250 plate appearances. They already accomplished with the smart signing of Ryan Doumit to a one-year deal for $3 million. Doumit can catch or play right field, but his bat is good enough to warrant a regular place in the lineup even when he's not behind the plate. Of course, he's also been injury-prone throughout his career. Prospect Chris Parmalee, who impressed in a September call-up, gives the team a potentially decent backup option for Morneau as well.

2. Right field: Empty (Michael Cuddyer, free agent)

For all the attention Cuddyer is getting, let's remember that he's really just a complementary bat on a good team. Unfortunately, considering some of the other outfielders the Twins tried last season -- Rene Tosoni, Jason Repko, Trevor Plouffe -- you realize they had nobody in the upper levels of the system.

Likely solution: Doumit may factor into their plans here, but regardless, the Twins need another bat to play a corner or DH. Smith is a trade option and free agent Josh Willingham is another possibility.

3. Closer: Empty (Matt Capps and Joe Nathan, free agents)

Nathan signed with Texas while GM Terry Ryan recently told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that it's likely Capps could return.

Likely solution: Capps was terrible last year, allowing 10 home runs in 65.2 innings while striking out just 4.7 hitters per nine innings. Two years ago, he had a 5.80 ERA. I can't fathom why any team would want to make Capps its closer. Sadly, however, the rest of the Minnesota bullpen is nearly as uninspiring (as is the rotation, but I don't have room to get to them here), but Capps throws strikes and there's nothing the Twins love more than a pitcher who throws strikes (velocity are ability to miss bats don't seem to be a factor). There's no reason for this team to spend big money on one of the remaining free-agent closers, so it probably will be Capps or lefty Glen Perkins.

Podcast: Kemp, GM meetings, Astros

November, 15, 2011
11/15/11
2:39
PM ET
We jammed 55 minutes of intense analysis into this week’s edition of the Baseball Today podcast. Among the highlights from our chats with Jayson Stark and Fangraphs.com co-founder Dave Cameron:
  • Jayson and I agree on the Matt Kemp signing seeming a little too hefty, particularly given what happened in 2010. Dave offers an analytical way to look at deals of this nature using a tool on Fangraphs' site.
  • Jayson runs through the other business at hand this week: The latest managerial rumblings, calling the Cubs' situation a tough read and explaining how some free agents may sign under the terms of the old collective bargaining agreement and some under the new one.
  • I offer up an idea, albeit unrealistic, about eliminating divisions altogether. Jayson shoots it down and explains how interleague play will work when Astros switch to AL in 2013.
  • Dave shows how perception and reality differ when looking closely at the stats for potential trade target John Danks and free-agent starter Edwin Jackson, and home-road splits for Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton .
  • Can the Mariners afford Prince Fielder? Dave offers his thoughts.

Plus, we dive into some questions that these guys won’t be asked in their myriad other spots this week. Subjects include Scott Kazmir, Jack Cust, unsung MVPs and the chance that the Mets' biggest move of the offseason is ditching Mr. Met and bringing in Youppi. That and much more are in today's Baseball Today podcast.
It's not even September and we may be down to just two races: the Rangers lead the Angels by three games in the AL West and the Diamondbacks lead the Giants by four in the NL West. There is hope the Rays (6.5 behind the Yankees) or White Sox (six behind the Tigers) will claw back into things. Let's check out the week ahead.

SERIES OF THE WEEK

Yankees at Red Sox, Tuesday through Thursday

Tuesday: CC Sabathia (17-7, 2.99) vs. John Lackey (12-9, 5.98)
Wednesday: Phil Hughes (4-4, 6.46) vs. Josh Beckett (11-5, 2.43)
Thursday: A.J. Burnett (9-11, 5.31) vs. Andrew Miller (6-1, 4.42)

Home-field advantage in the playoffs is important, but not all that important. As Dayn Perry writes on ESPN Insider today, since 1998 the home playoff team has won 54.9 percent of its games, nearly the same percentage as the regular season. The team with the home-field advantage has also won 48 of 91 series since 1998, or 53.8 percentage. What's more important is winning the first game of a series, particularly in the best-of-five Division Series; since 1995 the team that won the first game went on to win the Division Series nearly 72 percent of the time.

That said, I think both teams want to win the AL East, both for pride and also for the possibility of avoiding starting on the road in Texas, since the Rangers are a much better team at home. Hughes had been excellent in August until his last start, when the A's knocked him out in the third inning. Burnett allowed 30 runs in 22.2 innings in August and he allowed runs in his only start against Boston this season. Miller is still trying to get his mechanics into a consistent rhythm and release point, but his last two starts were excellent, especially his last one in Texas where he held the Rangers scoreless over 6.1 innings, struck out six and induced nine groundballs.

PITCHING MATCHUP OF THE WEEK

John Danks (6-9, 3.63) vs. Justin Verlander (20-5, 2.38), White Sox at Tigers, Friday

Verlander has won eight straight starts and should have five starts remaining, giving him a chance to be the first pitcher to win 25 games since Bob Welch of the 1990 A's. If the White Sox have any chance to the Tigers, they'll likely have to sweep this weekend series. Don't count out on Danks coming up big -- he has a 2.03 ERA since June 6.

THREE SWINGS

1. Ervin Santana won his start on three days' rest for the Angels, but Jered Weaver got roughed up a bit on Sunday, tiring in the seventh inning. Considering game-time temperature was 100 degrees and Weaver was pitching in a ballpark where the ball flies out, it's hard to know if Sunday's mediocre results came from pitching on short rest or not. If I were Mike Scioscia, I'd definitely consider starting Santana, Weaver and Dan Haren on short rest at some point. The Angels do need to take advantage of the next three series -- they play the Mariners twice and Twins once, while the Rangers have two series against the Rays and one against the Red Sox. And while I liked Scioscia's decision to move up Santana and Weaver, his lineup decisions are still hurting the club. As The Common Man pointed out, Mike Trout is hitting .389/.450/.778 with two homers in 20 PAs since his recall, so of course he sat Sunday. And don't get me started on Jeff Mathis ...

2. Zack Greinke, who improved to 10-0 at home on Sunday, returned from the DL on May 4. Since then, the Brewers have the best record in the NL at 67-37 ... yes, better than the Phillies' 63-37 mark. The Brewers are on pace to break their franchise record for wins (95 in 1979 and 1982) and even have an outside chance at catching the Phillies for best record in the NL. They have eight more losses, but just two fewer wins. As Bill Baer points out, if they Phillies play all their remaining regular-season games, they'll finish with 33 games in 31 days. That schedule, combined with the desire to rest some regulars, could give the red-hot Brewers the opportunity to secure home-field advantage.

3. Matt Kemp is batting .320/.390/.574 and absolutely remains in the NL MVP race. It's worth noting, however, that only five players have won an MVP Award from a losing team: Alex Rodriguez of the 2003 Rangers, Cal Ripken of the 1991 Orioles, Andre Dawson of the 1987 Cubs, and Ernie Banks of the 1958 and '59 Cubs. While Kemp may end up as deserving of the honor, I don't think he'll win -- his year doesn't stand out above his peers like Rodriguez or Ripken, who were clearly the best players in their league those seasons. (Dawson is another matter; that was one of the worst MVP choices ever.)
“Just stay positive”
--Ozzie Guillen on Twitter, April 21

“Great time the best thing we no talk about baseball”
--Ozzie Guillen, April 25

“Iam in very very bad mood stay away from me the most you can”
--Ozzie Guillen, June 7

It hasn’t been the most enjoyable season for White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. On May 6, the team stood 11-22 after struggling through a 4-18 stretch that included several bullpen implosions. They clawed back to 42-42 and 43-43, but after losing 4-2 against Royals rookie Danny Duffy on Tuesday night, the White Sox are 47-50.

Of course, in the AL Central, that means they’re in the thick of the pennant race. Which is remarkable considering:

  • Adam Dunn is hitting .158. That’s not a misprint. Yes, he draws some walks and has hit a few home runs. HE’S HITTING .158! Believe it or not, that wouldn’t be a major league record for a hitter who received at least 300 plate appearances. Bill Bergen hit .139 for the 1909 Brooklyn Superbas. Bergen is, quite simply, the worst hitter in major league history to have any kind of significant career. He had three extra-base hits in 346 at-bats that year and hit .170 in his 11-year career. The point is it’s not a good thing to be mentioned in the same breath as Bill Bergen … especially if you’re a designated hitter making $12 million.

  • Alex Rios has a worse OPS than Dunn. Yes, he’s worse than the guy having one of the worst seasons ever. And Rios hit fifth in the lineup on Tuesday. I don’t know whether to laugh at Ozzie or cry with him over a beer. Oh, Rios is making $12.5 million this season. And you thought Cubs fans had it bad.

  • Rookie third baseman Brent Morel entered the season with high hopes. He’s hitting .240 with one home run and three walks in over 200 at-bats. His OPS is lower than Rios’.

  • Top starter John Danks began the season 0-8 without a win in his first 11 starts and is now on the DL with an oblique strain.

So what’s it mean? I’m picking the White Sox to win the AL Central, of course.

Call me stubborn. I picked the Sox at the start of the season.

OK, five reasons they can win the Central:

1. They have the best rotation in the division. The Twins actually have a slightly better rotation ERA, but once you adjust for the homer-friendly confines of the Cell, the White Sox have the best rotation. Detroit may have the best one starter, but Justin Verlander is the only starter they have with an ERA under 4.40. Chicago’s rotation depth will prove key as the season winds down.

2. Once Danks returns from the DL, they have six starters. Edwin Jackson is rumored to be on the trading block. He’s a free agent after the season (as is Mark Buehrle), so he may not bring back much. But maybe the Sox could find a match with another contender and get a hitter with an average above .158 or on-base percentage above .260.

3. The bullpen is deep and solid. The bullpen ERA was 3.36 entering Tuesday, fifth in the AL. The Indians were 3.29 and the Tigers 4.78. But I like Chicago’s power arms: 258 strikeouts in 254 innings, versus Cleveland’s 224 in 276 2/3 innings. Indians closer Chris Perez’s poor 23/18 strikeout/walk ratio is a warning sign (as I mentioned when he was selected to the All-Star team) and he’s allowed runs in three of his past four appearances, drawing two losses in the process.

4. Paul Konerko is raking. He’s not Jose Bautista or Adrian Gonzalez, but he gives the White Sox one of the best hitters in the league. And in 2011, with a deep pitching staff and two hitters like Konerko and Carlos Quentin, you just may be able to score enough runs.

5. It’s the AL Central!

OK, look, there’s no way Dunn, Rios and Morel will continue to be this bad. They’ll either play better or Ozzie will start playing other guys. Otherwise we’ll soon see a tweet like this:

“Moving Juan Pierre to fifth hole. Don’t laugh hes one of our best hitters.”
--Ozze Guillen, July 29

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Evan LongoriaKim Klement/US PresswireOK, see, if you look up there, you'll see it. No, over there. See it? No, look up.
We're draft heavy on Tuesday's Baseball Today podcast , as expert Keith Law and I analyze from the same studio for the first time. Keith breaks down what you need to know after the first round, as well as these other fun tidbits that make your download well worth it.

1. Keith tells us the winners, losers and other interesting facts from the Monday portion of the draft, including why the Tampa Bay Rays couldn't help but succeed, and how the No. 2 overall pick might not have been the correct one.

2. What does the term "over slot" mean and why are so many teams likely to pay their new youngsters well, and likely anger the league office?

3. Bryce Harper gets himself into the news for something he did Monday ... but there might be repercussions. Is the atty-tude warranted?

4. Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Rubby De La Rosa makes his first start in Philadelphia Tuesday, and Mr. Law tells us why his future is a bright one.

5. There's plenty to watch on Tuesday night, but here's why among the names we're rooting for include Vin Mazzaro and Kyle Drabek. Hey, don't get Mazzaroed!

Plus: Excellent emails, why we fear the worst for Brett Anderson, Milwaukee's haul from Monday, how the Nationals and Royals could be ruling MLB in a few years and congratulations to Chicago White Sox left-hander John Danks, all on a packed Tuesday edition of Baseball Today!
Here are the top five reasons why you really must download, listen to and follow to the letter Monday's Baseball Today podcast with myself and Mark "Mr. Negative" Simon:

1. Former GM and current ESPN contributor Jim Bowden talks about Monday's draft, from the influence general managers have (or don't have) to the current GMs to watch this week. Bowden’s interviews are, by the way, really good.

2. Mark finally gets to Citi Field this past weekend to see his beloved --although it sounds like he's saying depressing -- Mets, and shares tales from the visit, including a very superstitious hat!

3. It's Power Rankings day, and let's just say I totally regret jumping on the bandwagon of a certain team a few weeks ago. Naturally, Mark doesn't really agree. We reveal each of our top 10s.

4. More discussion and numerous emails about our "stars versus superstars" discussion, and while I'm shocked which side most people seem to be on with the defending NL MVP, I guess I understand it. Hey, let’s ask grandma (listen and you’ll understand the reference!).

5. Ted Lilly versus Adam Dunn: Who's the better hitter? OK, so there's no real debate there, but there is a similarity, and let’s just say one of their performances is pretty annoying.

Plus: Excellent emails, Bill Dickey stands alone, trivia on the Dodgers-Phillies playoff history, focus on the interesting pitching matchups of Monday and really, so much more on a packed Baseball Today!
Corey Patterson was supposed to have many weekends like this one, games in which he’d be the best player on the field, a tantalizing mix of power, speed and defense. He had five hits on Saturday in Toronto’s 9-8 victory over the White Sox, including the game-winning home run in the 14th inning off Gavin Floyd, a low screamer that just cleared the fence in right field. It was just the seventh time in 30 years that a player had five hits and a walk-off home run in the same game. He added four more hits in Sunday’s 13-4 rout, including another home run.

Corey Patterson, super stud. A decade ago, this is the way it supposed to happen.

Before the 2000 season, Baseball America rated him the No. 3 prospect in baseball. The next year, he was moved up to No. 2, behind only another center fielder named Josh Hamilton. The glowing report in BA’s “2001 Prospect Handbook” read, in part: “He’s the best hitter, the fastest runner and top outfielder defender in the organization. His other two tools, power and arm strength, are both above-average. His top-of-the-line speed is probably his most impressive physical asset, and he has a chiseled physique with biceps that seems a couple of sizes too large for his 5-foot-10 frame.”

The Cubs rushed him through the majors and he debuted just a few weeks after his 21st birthday. They loved his makeup and work ethic. When the Cubs drafted Mark Prior in 2001, Cubs fans could envision the future: Patterson leading the offense, Prior leading the pitching, and pennants coming to Wrigley.

But baseball is a difficult sport. Athletic ability and tools aren’t always enough. Young talent disappoints as often as it surprises. That scouting report on Patterson hinted at a couple of problems: He had hit just .195 in the minors against left-handed pitching. His plate discipline needed improvement.

Those, indeed, would become his tragic flaws.

In his first full season in 2002, Dusty Baker entrusted him to the leadoff or No. 2 spot much of the season. Patterson hit .253 with 14 home runs in 153 games ... but with a strikeout/walk ratio of 142/19, leading to an abysmal .284 on-base percentage. (Dusty hasn’t yet met the speedy outfielder with the poor OBP he hasn’t loved to hit leadoff.) Patterson actually played better the next season, hitting .298 with 13 home runs, before a knee injured prematurely ended his season in July.

But that would be the highlight season of his Cubs career. After hitting .215/.254/.348 in 2005, he was traded to Baltimore for two minor leaguers. It just wasn’t going to work in Chicago, especially as Cubs fans booed him loudly and often during the ’05. season. "If he is not going to have a chance to be a full-time player, he is not going to be able to correct the things that led him to have a bad year last year," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said at the time of the trade. "It was not a good fit for him to be a bench player here at this point.”

He played a little better with the Orioles over two seasons, but not enough for them to keep him when he became a free agent after the 2007 season. A year in Cincinnati -- under Dusty Baker -- didn’t go well. He spent most of 2009 in the minors, making brief appearances with the Nationals and Brewers. He signed a minor league contract for 2010 with the Mariners, but he exercised his option to opt out in spring training. The Orioles picked him up. He became a free agent again. He was a baseball vagabond, now 31 years old, still a good defensive center fielder, but scraping for jobs. He’s made more than $13 million in his major league career -- no tragedy there -- but this was a guy who was going to make $13 million per season.

So he signed with the Blue Jays over the winter for $900,000, making the team out of spring training in part thanks to an injury to Scott Podsednik. And here he is, hitting .301/.333/.477 after his nine-hit weekend, the best weekend of his baseball career. After sweeping the White Sox, the Blue Jays are above .500 and just 3.5 games out of first place in the AL East. Corey Patterson is a big reason why.

He’s unlikely to keep this up. He still swings at too many bad pitches -- 35 strikeouts, just nine walks. Entering Sunday, according to FanGraphs, he had swung at 37 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, a rate actually higher than his career rate. He hasn’t suddenly learned to recognize sliders off the plate. For his career, among outfielders with at least 4,000 career plate appearances, only Tony Armas has a lower career OBP.

But I’ll be rooting for him. Maybe he can keep this up for another four months and play exciting baseball for the Jays.

Baseball is like that. It’s a cruel sport. But it also offers plenty of redemption stories. Corey Patterson could have given up in 2009, his career in tatters in the minor leagues. But he stuck with it. Maybe 2011 will be the season Corey Patterson’s talent -- and not his flaws -- finally shine.

SERIES OF THE WEEK

New York Yankees at Los Angeles Angels, Friday-Sunday

Friday: Ivan Nova (4-3, 4.67) vs. Jered Weaver (6-4, 2.10)
Saturday: CC Sabathia (6-3, 2.98) vs. Dan Haren (5-3, 2.29)
Sunday: Bartolo Colon (2-3, 3.77) vs. Ervin Santana (3-4, 3.95)

We’ve heard a lot about how the Yankees rotation has been better than expected. While that’s true, that’s not to be misinterpreted as thinking the Yankees’ rotation has been one of the best in the AL. Entering Sunday, it had the 10th-best ERA in the AL (4.04) and the 11th-best WHIP. Its ERA in May has been 4.00. The bullpen, even with Rafael Soriano and Pedro Feliciano now on the DL, has been excellent, with a 2.97 ERA. Keep an eye on David Robertson, who has 35 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings.

For the Angels, Weaver is due. After winning his first six starts, he’s gone winless in his past six -- even though he’s allowed one run over his last two outings. His season numbers remain superb, with a .197 average against, 0.95 WHIP and 77 strikeouts in 85 2/3 innings.

PITCHING MATCHUP OF THE WEEK

James Shields (5-3, 2.15) vs. Felix Hernandez (5-4, 3.19), Rays at Mariners, Thursday

Somehow the Mariners are 26-26 and only 1.5 games out of first place, despite: (1) King Felix hasn’t really dominated yet; (2) Ichiro Suzuki is hitting just .272; (3) Chone Figgins, the No. 2 hitter, is even worse, at .193; (3) Jack Cust has one home run; (4) their cleanup hitters have combined for three home runs and a .219 average; (5) their left fielders are hitting .188; (6) their center fielders are hitting .193; (7) closer David Aardsma has been on the DL all season and his replacement, Brandon League, lost four games in one week. What does that have to do with the pitching matchup of the week? Nothing, I guess, other than I expect a big game from Hernandez.

THREE SWINGS

1. Justin Verlander’s 132nd and final pitch on Sunday night against Boston was clocked at 100 mph. OK, so it was ball four and put two runners on in the eighth inning, but was it was another strong effort from the Tigers’ ace. Joaquin Benoit got Dustin Pedroia to fly out to left to escape the jam and protect Detroit’s 2-0 lead. Jose Valverde got the save. Interesting that Jim Leyland used a pitcher with a 6.16 ERA to get the biggest out of the game. Valverde had thrown 24 pitches (and got the loss with a blown save) in the opening game of the doubleheader, so Leyland may have been reluctant to use him ... but then why bring him in for the ninth with a three-run lead? Ahh, yes, you manage to the save no matter what.

1. The Brewers are 8-2 over their past 10 games and Yovani Gallardo has been a big reason why. He’s won his past five starts after pitching eight shutout innings against the Giants on Sunday. After a lackluster April, he pitched 35 innings in May and allowed just 20 hits and five runs. He’s back on track and the Milwaukee rotation is starting to look scary. Yes, Zack Greinke has a 5.79 ERA through five starts, but with a 39/3 SO/BB ratio through 28 innings, that ERA will drop.

3. Poor John Danks. First, he was just unlucky. Now he’s just bad. One of baseball’s best lefties the past few seasons, he’s now 0-8 after getting ripped by Toronto. He threw 51 pitches in the first inning. In his past four starts he’s allowed 22 runs in 23 1/3 innings. Ozzie Guillen can rant and rave all he wants, but that’s not going to turn around Danks’ luck.

RANT OF THE WEEK

For some reason, Joe Girardi has fallen in love with the intentional walk. After issuing just two intentional free passes in April, he’s issued 15 in May. Many studies have been done on the intentional walk and they all say the same thing: It’s not a good strategy. It opens up big innings. Use it too much and you’re asking for trouble.

Initially this season, Girardi used it only when trailing. And it kept working. His first six freebies all resulted in no further damage. Three times this season he intentionally walked Boston's Dustin Pedroia to face Adrian Gonzalez, and it worked all three times. So maybe he started getting a little brazen.

On May 11, he had Luis Ayala walk Kansas City's Melky Cabrera to load the bases with one out to face Eric Hosmer in extra innings. Ayala throws a sinker, so he was setting up a double play, but he also ended up facing a better hitter. Hosmer hit a sacrifice fly that proved to be the game-winner.

And then came May 23 against Toronto. Tied 1-1 in the sixth, Corey Patterson doubled off Bartolo Colon to open the inning. Girardi then walked Jose Bautista. After a groundout advanced the runners, he had Colon walk Juan Rivera, hitting .228 at the time. Aaron Hill singled in one run, Eric Thames walked with the bases loaded and J.P. Arencibia hit a bases-clearing double. Girardi’s two free passes set up the big inning. Toronto won 7-3.

Saturday night in Seattle, Mariano Rivera had runners on second and third in the bottom of the 12th with one out. Franklin Gutierrez was up, Adam Kennedy on deck. Even though Gutierrez strikes out a lot, Girardi walked him to bring up Kennedy (who had grounded into one double play all season), who singled in the winning run.

Keep it up, Joe. You’re playing with fire. By the way, Terry Francona has issued four intentional walks.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Daniel DescalsoAndrew Carpenean/US PresswireThink Rockies fans got a little excited when Daniel Descalso couldn't hang on to a ninth-inning popup?

Starting and winning a Danks-less exercise

May, 18, 2011
5/18/11
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John Danks made his ninth start Tuesday night, and it was the first time the White Sox won a Danks turn all year, squeaking out a one-run win over the Rangers, 4-3. In other words, not only had Danks endured the indignity of opening the season 0-6, the Sox were 0-8 in his starts.

Not that it makes matters worse -- can you get worse than oh-fer on a season? -- that’s dramatically worse than the record Danks should have based on how he’s pitched and if he’d gotten normal support from his offense, which should be me more along the lines of 4-3, according to Support-Neutral Wins -- a mark that would make him the rotation’s staff leader in victories.

[+] EnlargeJohn Danks
Jerry Lai/US PresswirePitcher John Danks has six quality starts this season but no wins to show for them.
Danks has not pitched that badly, of course: He’s delivered six quality starts in his nine turns. Naturally, three earned runs or less and six innings pitched or more doesn’t tell the entire story of a man’s season. Consider Danks’ second start of the year: He pitched six innings, and gave the Sox a quality start through those first six, while allowing seven baserunners and three runs, putting the Sox in great position for a win with a two-run lead -- or, as Baseball-Reference reports, giving the Sox an 81 percent chance of a win. Mission accomplished?

Well, as you already know, not quite, because 81 percent isn't 100 percent. Ozzie Guillen sent Danks back out in the seventh inning, Danks loaded the bases on two walks and a single, Jesse Crain came in and allowed one of those baserunners to score, and voila -- a quality start achieved gets "unachieved." Given the situation -- two-run lead, low number of batters faced, a pitch count well shy of 120 -- Ozzie made a reasonable tactical choice, and Danks didn’t deliver in the seventh.

Contrast that with last night, when Danks got hooked in the seventh after not pitching all that well (he walked six), but he’d still provided the Sox with roughly a 50-50 shot at a win, leaving the game with one out and a man on first, an easier relief situation that Crain nailed down this time around. But with the score tied at three, it didn’t matter: Danks came away without a win, again.

Which gets to the heart of the reason why the Sox are Danks-less in the win column: run support, and the lack of it. After providing Danks roughly 4.5 runs per 27 outs in the last three years in the White Sox rotation, he’s now trying to get by with 2.8 runs of support. As the Sox try to muddle along with an offense that is tied for 11th in the league in runs per game (3.8), Danks hasn’t been the only victim -- Philip Humber has been even less fortunate, getting just 2.6 -- but given his oh-fer in the win column, Danks has been the most egregious.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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