2012 MLB Award Picks—Cy Young Award

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Let’s look at the award winners for 2012 starting with the Cy Young Award with my 2012 picks, who I picked in the preseason, and who I actually think is going to win regardless of who should win.

American League

1. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

Verlander won the Cy Young Award and the MVP in 2011. His numbers in 2012 weren’t as dominating as they were in 2011 and the Tigers had a better team in 2012, so he’s not an MVP candidate this season, but he still did enough to outdo the competition for the CYA.

Verlander led the American League in innings pitched, strikeouts, complete games, and was at or near the top in advanced stats such as Adjusted ERA+ and Wins Above Replacement (WAR).

The WAR argument is a factor, but not the factor to set the stage for the MVP analysis between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout.

2. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

Price led the AL in ERA and wins, but was far behind Verlander in innings pitched and strikeouts.

3. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

If he hadn’t had two terrible games in September in which he allowed 7 earned runs in each, he would’ve been higher. In addition to those games, he allowed 6 earned runs in two other games; and 5 earned runs in three others. He was pitching for a bad team that couldn’t hit, pitched a perfect game, and threw 5 shutouts.

4. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels

Had he not gotten injured and missed three starts, the Angels might’ve made the playoffs. It wouldn’t have won him the award unless he’d thrown three shutouts, but he’d have had a better shot. He won 20 games and was third in ERA, but only logged 188 innings.

5. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

In his first year as a starter, it was Sale’s smooth transition to the rotation that led the White Sox to surprising contention.

***

My preseason pick was Price.

The winner will be Verlander.

National League

1. R.A. Dickey, New York Mets

Which will win out? The story of Dickey and how he rose from a first round draft pick whose contract was yanked from under him because his elbow didn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament, then to a 4-A journeyman, then to a knuckleballer, then to a sensation? Or will the fact that he is a knuckleballer and the perception of him using a trick pitch sway some voters away from his numbers to the concept of giving the award to a “real” pitcher (as ridiculous as that is).

When Jim Bouton was making a comeback as a knuckleballer in 1978, he pitched well against the Reds of Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and Johnny Bench. The Reds quantified their inability to hit Bouton with head shakes at how slow his offerings were. Bouton’s friend Johnny Sain said something to the tune of, “You’ve discovered a new way to assess a pitcher’s performance—go and ask the opponent what they thought.”

How Dickey did it and debiting him for using a “trick pitch” is like refusing to give Gaylord Perry the Cy Young Award or Hall of Fame induction because he admittedly threw a spitball. Everyone knew it and he got away with it. It’s the same thing with Dickey except he’s not cheating.

Dickey won 20 games for a bad team and led the National League in strikeouts, innings pitched, complete games, and shutouts.

2. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

I wouldn’t argue if Kershaw won the award. You can flip him and Dickey and both are viable candidates.

Kershaw led the NL in WAR for pitchers, was second in adjusted ERA+, led the league in ERA, was second in innings pitched and strikeouts. He was also pitching late in the season with a hip impingement injury that was initially thought to need surgery. (He won’t need the surgery.)

3. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

I am not punishing a great pitcher for being a closer. Saying he’s not a starter is similar to saying that a player like Derek Jeter isn’t a great player because he never hit the home runs that Alex Rodriguez hit. He’s not a slugger. That’s not what he does. It’s the same thing with Kimbrel and Mariano Rivera. Make them into a starter, and it won’t work. But they’re great closers.

Hitters are overmatched against Kimbrel. And yes, I’m aware you can make the same argument for Aroldis Chapman, but Chapman’s ERA was half-a-run higher than Kimbrel’s, but Kimbrel’s ERA+ was 399 compared to Chapman’s 282. For comparison, Rivera’s highest ERA+ in his career is 316; Eric Gagne won the 2003 NL CYA with an ERA+ of 337.

4. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

Cueto was second in WAR (just ahead of Dickey), third in ERA, first in adjusted ERA+, and third in wins.

5. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals

Gonzalez won 21 games, but didn’t pitch 200 innings. He has a Bob Welch thing going on. Welch won 27 games in 1990 and won the Cy Young Award in the American League, but Dave Stewart had a far better year than Welch and Roger Clemens was better than both. Welch was the beneficiary of pitching for a great team with a great bullpen. Clemens was second, Stewart third. Dennis Eckersley had an ERA+ of 603 (that’s not a mistake) and walked 4 hitters (1 intentionally) in 73 innings that season. Welch had a good year, but it’s not as flashy as it looked when delving deeper into the truth. This is comparable to Gonzalez’s predicament.

***

My preseason pick was Tim Lincecum.

Kimbrel is going to win on points as Dickey, Gonzalez, and Kershaw split the vote among starters. I see some writers punishing Dickey for being a knuckleballer due to some silly self-enacted “rules” or biases just as George King of the New York Post deprived Pedro Martinez of a deserved MVP in 1999—link.

//

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American League Contenders Remaining Schedules—Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles

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The Rays were expected to be here and the Orioles weren’t. Yesterday I looked at the Yankees schedule, now here are their two competitors in the AL East.

Tampa Bay Rays

Rays vs Orioles, Sept. 11-13 at Tampa; Oct. 1-3 at Baltimore

This is being seen as a benefit for the Yankees because the two teams in hot pursuit are playing one another six times while the Yankees supposedly have the “weakest” schedule of all the contenders. On paper, that may be so, but this Yankees team isn’t very good. They’re playing Steve Pearce at first base for the next two weeks (and I suspect that the “good” news on Mark Teixeira was a best case scenario; I doubt we’ll see Teixeira again as anything other than a pinch hitter this season). They’ve made a big show of recalling prospect Melky Mesa. Mesa is 25 and batted .230 in 33 games in Triple A. This is your savior. They’re anticipating the return of Andy Pettitte with the memories of 15 years ago swimming in their panicky heads. If the Yankees were at full strength, the weakness of schedule would be relevant, but they’re not, so it’s mitigated to a large degree.

As for the Rays and Orioles, one of the teams is going to win at least 2 of the 3 games this week. If it’s the Rays, they’ll come into Yankee Stadium this weekend looking to overtake the Yankees; if it’s the Orioles, they’ll still be right on the Yankees’ heels or will have caught them.

The Rays and Orioles have split their 12 games against one another so far. The Rays have a decided pitching advantage and the Orioles are trying to piece their offense together after losing Nick Markakis to a broken thumb. Their starting pitching is short. The Rays are going to pass the Orioles by the time the season is over.

Rays vs Yankees, Sept. 14-16 at Yankee Stadium

The Rays have their pitching set up for this weekend. David Price will pitch against CC Sabathia (whose diminished fastball was the impetus for the dustup between Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Joel Sherman of the NY Post). I would expect Pettitte to pitch Saturday against James Shields, and Alex Cobb will go against Hiroki Kuroda on Sunday.

By Sunday night, the Rays could be in first place in the AL East with the Yankees tied with the Orioles and Angels for the second Wild Card spot and behind the Athletics.

Rays vs Red Sox, Sept. 17-20 in Tampa; Sept. 25-26 at Boston

I’m not accusing the Red Sox of laying down for the Rays and Orioles and playing hard against the Yankees, but the players who remain from the Yankees-Red Sox wars from so long ago know that if they’re able to significantly damage the Yankees’ playoff hopes—and everyone had better understand that if the Yankees don’t win the division, they’re not making the playoffs—they’re going to do everything possible to make it happen. The compromised Red Sox are an awful team, but they haven’t forgotten that the Yankees didn’t play their regulars in their final series with the Rays in 2011 and that contributed to the Red Sox being bounced from the post-season and sent them into this downward spiral.

Put it this way: the Red Sox would prefer to see anyone other than the Yankees in the playoffs this season and their play will reflect it. The front office would prefer it as well.

Rays vs Blue Jays, Sept. 21-23 in Tampa

The Blue Jays are playing hard down the stretch and the two clubs split a four-game series in Toronto a week-and-a-half ago.

The Blue Jays record is bad, but they can hit the ball out of the park and have two talented starters in Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero, plus Carlos Villanueva who should’ve been in the starting rotation from the beginning of the season. This isn’t a gimme series.

Rays vs White Sox, Sept. 27-30 at Chicago

Either the White Sox or the Tigers are going to win the AL Central and neither team—barring a catastrophe on the East or West Coasts—is making it to the Wild Card play-in game. The Tigers have shown zero consistency in 2012, but they have a weak schedule through the end of the season. It may not matter though. If they don’t run off a winning streak, the AL Central race could be over by the time the Rays come to Chicago to play the White Sox. Then the Yankees are going to be really desperate. No one in baseball wants to help them and they’re increasingly incapable of helping themselves.

****

Baltimore Orioles

The two series against the Rays are discussed above.

Orioles vs Athletics, Sept. 14-16 at Oakland

The A’s are continuing their run toward the playoffs. It’s at least as surprising as that of the Orioles, if not more. They have a deeper starting rotation, a good bullpen, and can score with the Orioles. The A’s are now ahead of the Yankees, Orioles, and Rays. They’re currently playing the Angels, who’ve launched themselves back into contention as well.

There’s an opportunity for the Orioles to make up ground on the Yankees and/or Rays and the Athletics this weekend.

Orioles vs Mariners, Sept. 17-19 at Seattle

The Mariners can’t hit, but they have a lot of starting pitching and would like to finish the season at .500. That said, I would expect the Orioles to go into Seattle and take at least two games.

Orioles vs Red Sox, Sept. 21-23 at Boston; Sept. 28-30 in Baltimore

The Red Sox don’t like the Orioles, but they hate the Yankees. We might see a lot of young players getting a “look” vs the Orioles that won’t get a “look” vs the Yankees.

All’s fair.

Orioles vs Blue Jays, Sept. 24 (doubleheader)-26 in Baltimore

That’s four games. The Orioles are 9-5 against the Blue Jays this season and the Blue Jays also wouldn’t mind whacking the Yankees out of the playoffs. They might choose to “look” at some youngsters just like the Red Sox.

The team in the driver’s seat here is the Rays. If they have a record of say, 16-6, they’re going to win the AL East. For the Orioles, they’ll have to win 13 games and I don’t know if they’re going to. 11-11 is more likely and if that’s the case, that would mean that they didn’t help the Yankees against the Rays or the A’s.

Either way, the schedule that’s being portrayed as the Yankees’ lifeline, is anything but.

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American League Mid-Season Award Winners

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Normally I don’t like doling out awards for half-a-season, but everyone else does it so someone has to do it right when they’re more than likely doing it wrong.

Here’s the American League along with the people I selected in my book before the season started.

MVP

1. Mike Trout, OF—Los Angeles Angels

The Angels recalled him in what appeared to be a desperation maneuver similar to the way the Yankees recalled Robinson Cano in 2005. The difference being no one knew who or what Cano was. That’s including the Yankees since they’d offered him to the Rangers in the Alex Rodriguez trade a year earlier and the Rangers said no.

Trout was a star-in-waiting and has delivered. It’s no coincidence that the Angels’ ship righted when Trout joined the team and provided what the front office wants with pop and what manager Mike Scioscia wants with speed and defense.

2. Josh Hamilton, OF—Texas Rangers

In May it looked as if Hamilton was going to make a viable (and ironically a presumably clean) run at the “legit” home run record of 61.

No, I don’t advocate an asterisk or blotting out of the Barry Bonds record, but it can be discussed as if the modern records were achieved dubiously. Hamilton’s faded in June and July.

3. David Ortiz, DH—Boston Red Sox

Without him the Red Sox would probably be 4-5 games under .500 and pretty much buried.

4. Robinson Cano, 2B—New York Yankees

Quite simply there is nowhere to pitch to him to consistently get him out. With A-Rod, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira degenerating into one-dimensional, occasional threats, without Cano and Curtis Granderson the Yankees would be a pedestrian offensive club, if that.

5. Mark Trumbo, OF/1B/3B/DH—Los Angeles Angels

The day is going to come when he hits a ball and it never comes down.

Before the season I picked Jose Bautista. He’s having a big power year with 27 homers but his other numbers are down and the Blue Jays are a .500 team.

Cy Young Award

1. Justin Verlander, RHP—Detroit Tigers

He’s leading the Majors in strikeouts, innings pitched and has 5 complete games. For the second straight season the Tigers would be non-contenders without him and in 2012, they haven’t been all that good with him.

2. Chris Sale, LHP—Chicago White Sox

There are seamless transitions to the starting rotation from the bullpen and there’s blossoming into an ace. Sale has done the latter.

3. Jered Weaver, RHP—Los Angeles Angels

He’s 10-1 with a 1.96 ERA.

4. David Price, LHP—Tampa Bay Rays

He’s leading the league in wins and has the ability to dominate every time he goes out to the mound.

5. Jake Peavy, RHP—Chicago White Sox

Peavy is almost—not quite, but almost—back to the dominant pitcher he was in his best years with the Padres. His fastball isn’t as fast and his stressful motion is a constant concern for another injury, but he and Sale have saved the White Sox.

My preseason pick was Price.

Rookie of the Year

1. Mike Trout, OF–Los Angeles Angels

See above.

2. Jarrod Parker, RHP—Oakland Athletics

He has a great hits/innings pitched ratio of 65/85, has 67 strikeouts and only allowed 4 homers.

3. Will Middlebrooks, 3B—Boston Red Sox

Middlebrooks’s emergence expedited the departure (and essentially giving away) of Kevin Youkilis.

4. Jesus Montero, DH/C—Seattle Mariners

He’s struggling in his rookie year, but has 20 extra base hits while learning to catch a good pitching staff.

5. Addison Reed, RHP—Chicago White Sox

His ERA was blown up by one awful game in which he allowed 6 earned runs, but he’s stabilized the White Sox closer’s role and without him they wouldn’t be in first place.

My preseason pick was Montero.

Manager of the Year

1. Robin Ventura—Chicago White Sox

The absence of managing experience at any level made me a skeptic, but his laid back attitude is diametrically opposed to the former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen which has relaxed the clubhouse from its hair-trigger and has notably helped Adam Dunn and Alex Rios.

2. Buck Showalter—Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles are playing Buckball.

3. Bob Melvin—Oakland Athletics

Having that team with their ballpark issues and influx of youngsters has proven Melvin to be what he always was: a good manager.

4. Joe Girardi—New York Yankees

Girardi’s never gotten the credit he’s deserved. They’ve survived the aforementioned decline of A-Rod and the season-ending injury to Mariano Rivera.

5. Ron Washington—Texas Rangers

No he’s not a strong strategic manager, but the players play hard for him and they win.

My preseason pick was Manny Acta of the Indians.

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The Truth About The Yankees’ Home Runs

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The simple stupidity of the Yankees being criticized for relying on the home run ball speaks for itself. Are they supposed to stop trying to hit home runs to prove they can win without it? What’s the difference how they score their runs? Are they sacrificing other aspects of their game chasing homers?

The answer to the above questions is no.

They have players who hit a lot of home runs. If they lose games in which they haven’t homered, it’s a safe bet that they ran into a pretty good pitcher.

The out-of-context stat argument is more complicated. Picking and choosing a convenient stat to bolster an argument is not the true intent of using statistics to begin with. They’re designed to promote a factual understanding and not to fool readers into seeing things the way the writer wants.

Is it a bad thing that the Yankees score via the home run? No.

Is it indicative that they’ll continue that trend once the playoffs start and do they need to be prepared to find other ways to score runs when they’re in games against better teams with better pitchers? They’ll hit their homers, but it won’t be like it is now.

The truly important factor to examine isn’t whether or not they’re hitting home runs, but who they’re hitting the home runs against.

During the regular season there aren’t the top-tier pitchers they’re going to face in the playoffs. The better the pitcher is, the better his stuff is; the better his command is; the better his control is. He’s not going to make the same mistakes as the mediocre and worse pitchers they’re fattening up their power numbers against.

I looked at all the pitchers the Yankees have homered against this season.

The list follows:

Russell Martin: Clay Buchholz, Justin Verlander, Jose Mijares, Homer Bailey, James Shields, J.P. Howell, Jonathon Niese, Jon Rauch

Mark Teixeira: Anthony Swarzak, Felix Doubront, Matt Albers, Bruce Chen, Luis Ayala, Tyson Ross, Bartolo Colon, Graham Godfrey, Hisanori Takahashi, Alex Cobb, Dillon Gee, Mike Minor

Robinson Cano: Jason Marquis, Luke Hochevar (2), David Price, Bronson Arroyo, Tyson Ross, Bartolo Colon, Ervin Santana, Alex Cobb, Johan Santana (2), Tom Gorzelanny, Anthony Varvaro, Tommy Hanson, Miguel Batista (2)

Alex Rodriguez: Ervin Santana, Clay Buchholz, Derek Holland, Justin Verlander (2) Tommy Hottovy, Will Smith (2), Octavio Dotel, Jonny Venters, Tommy Hanson, Jon Niese

Derek Jeter: Wei-Yin Chen, Hisanori Takahashi, Carl Pavano, Matt Capps, Bruce Chen, Justin Verlander, Tommy Hanson

Raul Ibanez: James Shields (2), Jason Isringhausen, Neftali Feliz, Burke Badenhop, Felix Hernandez, Hector Noesi, Bronson Arroyo, Jonny Cueto, Randall Delgado, Chris Young

Curtis Garnderson: Jake Arrieta, Ervin Santana (2), Carl Pavano, Anthony Swarzak (2), Jeff Gray, Phil Coke, Max Scherzer, Brian Matusz, James Shields, David Price, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Will Smith, Bobby Cassevah, Casey Crosby, Bobby Parnell, Tim Hudson, Tom Gorzelanny, Edwin Jackson

Nick Swisher: Joel Peralta, Kevin Gregg, Clay Buchholz, Vicente Padilla, Drew Smyly, Jose Valverde, Luke Hochevar, Tyson Ross, Johan Santana, Cory Gearrin, R.A. Dickey

Eric Chavez: Clay Buchholz (2), Jason Hammel, Tommy Hanson, Jon Rauch

Andruw Jones: Darren O’Day, Matt Maloney, Collin Balester, Steve Delabar, Tommy Milone, Johan Santana, Jon Niese

There are some names above that the Yankees might be facing in the post-season. Shields, Price, Verlander, Hanson and a few others. But they’re not going to be able to use Hochevar, Pavano or most of the other mediocrities to beat on.

I don’t see the names Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez or Yu Darvish in there.

If the Yankees don’t hit homers, then what?

Understanding the value of their homers is not the brainless bully strategy of, “Me swing hard; me hit home runs; team win.”

What was the score when the home runs were hit? What where the weather conditions? Did the pitcher make a mistake or did the hitter hit a good pitch? Was the game a blowout and the pitcher just trying to get the ball over the plate to get the game over with in either club’s favor?

These questions, among many other things, have to be accounted for.

Those who are complaining about the club needing to “manufacture” runs don’t know any more about baseball than those who are blindly defending the use of the home run without the full story.

Of course it’s a good thing that the Yankees hit a lot of home runs, but those home runs can’t be relied upon as the determinative factor of whether they’re going to win in the post-season because they’ll be facing better pitching and teams that will be able to use the homer-friendly Yankee Stadium themselves mitigating any advantage the Yankees might have. Teams that are more versatile, play good defense, steal bases and run with smart aggression and have strong pitching will be able to deal with the Yankees’ power.

Teams like the Mets are unable to do that.

The Yankees’ home runs are only an issue if they stop hitting them. Then they’ll have to find alternative ways to score when the balls aren’t flying over the fences. This is why it’s not a problem that they don’t have Brett Gardner now. In fact, it seems like the fans and media has forgotten about him. But they’re going to need him in the playoffs because he gives them something they barely have with this current configuration: he can run and wreak havoc on the bases and is an excellent defensive left fielder.

As much as Joe Morgan was savaged for his silly statements blaming the Oakland A’s inability to manufacture runs in their playoff losses during the Moneyball years, he wasn’t fundamentally inaccurate. It wasn’t about squeezing and hitting and running capriciously as Morgan wanted them to do and altering the strategy that got them to the playoffs; but it was about being able to win when not hitting home runs; when not facing a pitching staff that is going to walk you; when a team actually has relievers who can pitch and not a bunch of names they accumulated and found on the scrapheap.

The A’s couldn’t win when they didn’t get solid starting pitching or hit home runs.

Can the Yankees?

That’s going to be the key to their season. Then the true value of their homer-happy offense will come to light.

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2012 MLB Predicted Standings, Playoffs, World Series and Award Winners

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American League

American League East

Wins Losses GB
1. New York Yankees 94 68
2. Toronto Blue Jays 87 75 7
3. Tampa Bay Rays 85 77 9
4. Boston Red Sox 81 81 13
5. Baltimore Orioles 65 97 29

American League Central

Wins Losses GB
1. Cleveland Indians 91 71
2. Detroit Tigers* 88 74 3
3. Kansas City Royals 81 81 10
4. Chicago White Sox 72 90 19
5. Minnesota Twins 70 92 21

American League West

Wins Losses GB
1. Texas Rangers 93 69
2. Los Angeles Angels* 90 72 3
3. Seattle Mariners 70 92 23
4. Oakland Athletics 64 98 29

*Denotes predicted Wild Card Winner

Playoff Predictions

Wild Card One Game Playoff:

Detroit Tigers vs Los Angeles Angels

Winner: Angels

ALDS 1: Cleveland Indians vs Texas Rangers

Rangers in 4

ALDS 2: Los Angeles Angels vs New York Yankees

Angels in 3

ALCS: Los Angeles Angels vs Texas Rangers

Rangers in 6

AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONS: TEXAS RANGERS

American League Award Winners:

MVP: Jose Bautista—Toronto Blue Jays

Cy Young Award: David Price—Tampa Bay Rays

Rookie of the Year: Jesus Montero—Seattle Mariners

Manager of the Year: Manny Acta—Cleveland Indians

National League

National League East

Wins Losses GB
1. Atlanta Braves 93 69
2. Philadelphia Phillies* 89 73 4
3. Washington Nationals* 88 74 5
4. Miami Marlins 83 79 10
5. New York Mets 69 93 24

National League Central

Wins Losses GB
1. Cincinnati Reds 91 71
2. Milwaukee Brewers 87 75 4
3. St. Louis Cardinals 77 85 14
4. Pittsburgh Pirates 77 85 14
5. Chicago Cubs 73 89 18
6. Houston Astros 60 102 31

National League West

Wins Losses GB
1. Colorado Rockies 92 70
2. San Francisco Giants 85 77 7
3. Arizona Diamondbacks 84 78 8
4. San Diego Padres 80 82 12
5. Los Angeles Dodgers 69 93 23

* Denotes predicted Wild Card winner.

Playoff Predictions

Wild Card One Game Playoff:

Washington Nationals vs Philadelphia Phillies

Winner: Phillies

NLDS 1: Philadelphia Phillies vs Atlanta Braves

Braves in 5

NLDS 2: Cincinnati Reds vs Colorado Rockies

Rockies in 4

NLCS: Colorado Rockies vs Atlanta Braves

Braves in 7

NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONS: ATLANTA BRAVES

National League Award Winners

MVP: Troy Tulowitzki—Colorado Rockies

Cy Young Award: Tim Lincecum—San Francisco Giants

Rookie of the Year: Yonder Alonso—San Diego Padres

Manager of the Year: Davey Johnson—Washington Nationals

World Series Prediction:

Atlanta Braves vs Texas Rangers

Braves in 7

WORLD SERIES WINNER: ATLANTA BRAVES

Far more in depth analysis is in my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide, now available.

Click here for a full sample of team predictions/projections. (This sample is of the Rangers.) My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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American League East Predicted Standings

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American League East Predicted Standings:

1. New York Yankees                        94       68         —

2. Toronto Blue Jays                         87       75           7

3. Tampa Bay Rays                            85       77           9

4. Boston Red Sox                             81       81          13

5. Baltimore Orioles                           65       97          29

New York Yankees

The Yankees benefited greatly from the lack of decisively bold movements and drastic improvements of their rivals. While they’re repeating prior mistakes with paranoia and pitcher-babying, they have the offense, abundance of starting pitching and deep bullpen to again rise to the top of the division.

The bench is something that will have to be addressed as the season moves along because Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones aren’t suitable backups regardless of the Yankees’ propaganda machine unequivocally stating that they are.

Expect Alex Rodriguez to have a comeback season and hope that the overwhelming pressure they’re putting on Michael Pineda doesn’t haunt them.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays needed a name arm or a name bat to be a preseason favorite and didn’t get either.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t contend; it means that they’re going to have to get big seasons from young players Brett Lawrie, Yunel Escobar and Henderson Alvarez. Sergio Santos must prove he can close for a full season and throw strikes; Brandon Morrow has to develop into a trustworthy top-tier starter without restrictions.

I picked Jose Bautista as the AL MVP.

Tampa Bay Rays

Again forced to scrounge around the bargain bins, they reunited with Carlos Pena to increase their power at first base. The Rays have been good and lucky in finding bullpen arms who fit into their system and rejuvenate stalled careers—running a club that way is rife with risks that eventually it’s not going to work.

B.J. Upton will play like a maniac all season as he heads for free agency.

With their young starting pitching, they could make it to the World Series or falter and be out of contention to put such stars as Upton, James Shields and David Price in play for a trade at mid-season.

I’ve got them somewhere in the middle.

Boston Red Sox

It’s chaos.

Who’s running things?

Is there any cohesion between John Henry, Larry Lucchino, Ben Cherington and Bobby Valentine?

At least when Theo Epstein was there—like it or not—you knew there was one person mostly in charge; now with Theo gone and Lucchino grasping for power; Henry providing self-protectionist alibis; Cherington marginalized; and Bobby V being…Bobby V, there are going to be voices, whispers, Machiavellian power plays and rampant dysfunction the likes which have not been seen in Boston since 2001.

Are they making the types of moves that laid the foundation of their annual championship contending teams from 2003-2010 or are they desperately trying to patch holes and find “name” people to replace the “name” people who are gone?

I like Valentine, but his polarizing personality can go both ways. The Red Sox starting rotation is short and they have black spots in their lineup at shortstop, right field and possibly catcher.

It’s a time bomb with Valentine and Josh Beckett.

Baltimore Orioles

I don’t hear much about Buck Showalter’s status as a miracle worker after the team came apart last season.

Following a hot start, they reverted to being the Orioles of the past 15 years.

Dan Duquette has received unfair criticism and there’s a lack of context in the good work he did as the Expos’ and Red Sox’ GM, but a lack of talent is a lack of talent; an impossible division is an impossible division; and until they develop their young arms and stick to a strategy for the long term, there’s not much that will change in Baltimore.

Duquette must be allowed to take the marketable players—notably Nick Markakis and Adam Jones—and see what types of offers he can get for them to replenish the system with multiple players. They’re not going to do the Orioles any good as Orioles.

Far more in depth analysis is in my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide, now available.

Click here for a full sample of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Your 2012 Rangers Seeking A Different—Winning—Result

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Those trying to blame Rangers manager Ron Washington for the World Series loss are looking for scapegoats. Talent aside, there have been many teams who didn’t fulfill their promise for one reason or another; to suggest that another manager would simply have plugged in the correct players at the “right” time are taking second-guessing to its logical conclusion.

The players play hard for Washington and always have; the Rangers knew he wasn’t the strongest game manager going back to his first year and he hasn’t gotten much better; but to blame him?

It’s silly. Another manager might not have even made the playoffs at all.

We don’t know.

He had his closer on the mound with a 2 run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning of game 6 in the World Series; there were 2 strikes and 2 outs and his closer blew it. What more was he supposed to do?

The Rangers have more pressing questions to answer once they get past this devastating loss.

Let’s take a look.

Washington’s contract is up after 2012.

While Washington shouldn’t be dismissed because of this loss, there’s going to be the hovering question—valid or not—as to whether he’s the prototypical “manager to take them to the next level”.

That’s usually an excuse for a club wanting to make a managerial change, but it’s just as random as any other reason—they don’t have to give a reason to make a change.

Washington’s job is safe and he’ll probably get an extension through 2013 so he’s not working in the final year of his deal in 2012.

Mr. Intangibles is expensive.

The player with the most ancillary importance in baseball this side of Derek Jeter—rife with leadership skills and loyalty—Michael Young still might be trade bait.

He’s set to make $32 million through 2013 and is a 10-and-5 player (10 years in the league; 5 years with the same team) so he’d have to approve any trade; there’s something of a redundancy with the club’s position players and Young’s value is never going to be higher than it is now by those who either need someone who’s as versatile and well-liked as he is or are hypnotized by his “aura”.

The Mets for example could use him as a second baseman; the Phillies could use him as a roving utility player who plays every day.

The Rangers will listen to offers—again—for Young.

Contracts and free agents.

Josh Hamilton is a free agent after 2012 and the Rangers have to consider very carefully his injury history and substance abuse history before making a $120 million investment.

Perhaps God will whisper to Hamilton that he should stay in Texas at a reduced rate.

C.J. Wilson is a free agent now and while the Rangers want to keep him, they’re not getting into a bidding war to do it. Those that were suggesting that his price was reducing with every poor post-season outing don’t know anything about baseball, pure and simple. 200 innings are 200 innings and his post-season struggles had more to do with location than any diminishing of stuff. He’s going to get his big contract from someone and it’s probably not going to be the Rangers.

Strategies.

If the Rangers are going to move Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation, they have to make the decision once and for all—in the winter—and stick to it. The “let’s try it in spring training and move him back if it doesn’t work” isn’t a decision, it’s hedging.

Feliz is 23 and after the way the World Series ended for him, the choice has to be made with finality.

Pursuits.

The Rangers have been said to be preparing a pursuit of CC Sabathia if and when he opts out of his Yankees contract. It’s unlikely that the Yankees will let him leave, but worst case scenario, they’ll raise the price the Yankees have to pay and possibly negate them from going after other players the Rangers might want.

Yu Darvish is going to be worth every penny he costs in posting fees and contracts and will be better than Wilson.

The Rangers could use a bat if they decide to trade Young; David Ortiz and Jim Thome would fit nicely in at DH; if they allocate their money to a bat rather than on the mound, Prince Fielder is a target. Mark Buehrle wouldn’t ask for the world in terms of dollars and is a good fit in the Rangers clubhouse.

If they need a closer, Jonathan Papelbon has the post-season history that few closers in baseball do; Francisco Rodriguez and Heath Bell are big names; Brad Lidge, Joe Nathan and Ryan Madson are free agents on the lower tier.

On the trade front, the Rays are always ready to deal and James Shields is durable, good and signed long term. Both the Rangers and Rays think outside the box, so I’d ask about David Price and see what they say.

Would they—Nolan Ryan and Mike Maddux—think they could straighten out Mike Pelfrey? Would Pelfrey and Bobby Parnell and the hope of clearing Young’s salary make a deal possible with the Mets?

The Rangers and White Sox have dealt with one another before and John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Carlos Quentin are up for auction.

Rangers GM Jon Daniels and team president Ryan think differently and are aggressive to address needs. The Rangers are going to make the changes they deem necessary so they’re back in this same position a year from now, but finally achieve a different result—a winning result.

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Tampa Bay Rays vs Texas Rangers

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Tampa Bay Rays (91-71; 2nd place, AL East; won Wild Card) vs Texas Rangers (96-66; 1st place, AL West)

Keys for the Rays: Don’t be satisfied with simply making the playoffs; expose the Rangers starting rotation; force Ron Washington into mistakes; play solid defense; B.J. Upton.

It goes one of two ways with teams that make a frantic late-season run into the playoffs out of nowhere: they either maintain their good play and streak on (the 2007 Rockies); or they get into the playoffs, are satisfied with that and get bounced early (the 2007 Phillies).

Neither the Rockies nor the Phillies had the playoff experience that the Rays do—they’ve been here before—so they won’t be relaxed and happy that they proved a point by overtaking the Red Sox; they’re here to win.

The Rangers starting rotation is overrated after C.J. Wilson.

Colby Lewis was excellent in the playoffs last season, but he allows a lot of homers and was very inconsistent in 2011. Lefties feast on him making him a target for Johnny Damon, Matt Joyce, Casey Kotchman and Ben Zobrist.

I don’t trust Derek Holland—the Rays beat him up twice this season.

I don’t trust Matt Harrison—both Johnny Damon and Evan Longoria hammer him.

With all the extra bullpen arms Rangers GM got for manager Ron Washington, it leads down the road of overmanaging and making unnecessary changes once the starters are out of the games. Koji Uehara‘s strikeout numbers are impressive, but so too are the towering homers he gives up (11 out of the bullpen for the Orioles and Rangers is a lot); and Mike Adams has never pitched in the post-season.

The Rays are in this position because of their superior defense and a strike-throwing pitching staff—they can’t make any mistakes if they’re going to hold down the Rangers potent offense.

B.J. Upton is on a mission. He wants to get paid after next season and don’t discount the extra motivation of a potential World Series matchup with his brother Justin Upton of the Diamondbacks. When he’s playing as hard as he can—aggressively and smart—he’s something to watch at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths. In fact, he’s unstoppable.

Keys for the Rangers: get depth from their starting rotation; take advantage of Kyle Farnsworth‘s gopher ball; score a lot; mitigate managerial mishaps from Washington; keep the Rays off the bases; stop Upton and Longoria.

If Wilson and Lewis pitch as well as they did in last year’s post-season, the Rangers are going to be hard to beat. They have a lot of power and a superior defense behind their pitchers which is the actual strength of the pitching staff—not the pitchers themselves. They pound the strike zone and let the fielders—especially a nearly impenetrable infield—help their cause.

Washington tends to make too many moves once he gets into the bullpen; the Rangers push their starters during the regular season and will push them deeper in the playoffs to avoid that eventuality.

Farnsworth had a fine year closing for the Rays, but he’s still a manager’s nightmare with his wildness and tendency to allow homers. The Rangers have a group of bats who can crush a fastball—Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz.

Yorvit Torrealba also has a flair for the dramatic and has gotten big post-season hits before.

Because the Rays steal plenty of bases, it’s best to keep them off-base entirely. With their defense and strike-throwing pitchers, this is a reasonable goal for the Rangers.

Upton and Longoria have carried the Rays over the past month. If they don’t produce, the Rays lose.

What will happen.

Because they finally broke their playoff hex a year ago, got past the first round; beat the Yankees; and made it to the World Series, the Rangers are a battle-proven and experienced group in their second straight season in the post-season.

But the Rays have experience of their own from the World Series run in 2008 to last season when they lost to…the Rangers.

The Rays were beaten last year in large part due to the unreliability of closer Rafael Soriano. Soriano’s gone and the Rays overall pitching is in better shape now than it was a year ago.

I don’t like the Rangers bullpen despite the acquisitions of Adams and Uehara and the presence of Neftali Feliz.

Their starting pitching after Wilson is still questionable and they’re going to have to score plentiful runs to outshoot the Rays.

The Rays pitching is in a bit of perceived disarray after their desperate climb over the Red Sox to take the Wild Card; they’re starting rookie Matt Moore—their top prospect—in game 1.

But it could be the triumph of the uncluttered mind and the self-confidence of youth that makes starting Moore a brilliant maneuver.

The Rays have used young pitchers in key spots before. David Price closed games for them in 2008 and if they think Moore can handle it, I wouldn’t bet against that analysis.

A year ago, the Rangers were the team playing with low expectations and bent on killing demons of past post-season failures; they had a full-blown ace at the top of their starting rotation in Cliff Lee; they played with reckless abandon and a go-for-it mentality of “no one expects us to be here”.

The Rays are in that exact same position this year.

Wilson thinks he’s an ace—ask him and he’ll tell you in depth—but that doesn’t mean he is one on a level with Lee; if doesn’t mean he’s going to gut it out as James Shields and Price will. And don’t discount the financial aspect in Wilson’s mind as he tries to increase his free agent paycheck after the season a la Lee and Carlos Beltran.

No one expected the Rays to be here before or during the season; in fact, the consensus I’ve seen doesn’t think they’re going to be around that long either in the post-season.

But the Rays are here to stay.

They’re going to the ALCS and the Rangers are going home.

PREDICTION: RAYS IN FOUR.

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The Rays Chicanery

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I’d be very, very careful if I were an interested club and the Rays start taking offers for James Shields after this season.

I’d be even more careful if they do it begrudgingly; portraying the role of the hamstrung, financially-strapped entity that needs several pieces and can’t afford to keep Shields while entertaining the possibility of signing B.J. Upton to a long-term contract.

Suffice it to say that the Rays aren’t going to sign Upton to a long-term contract.

It’s all part of the subterfuge and trickery that’s become a part of the Rays way of doing business.

And parties interested in Shields need to be wary before giving up the house for him.

Yesterday, Shields pitched his 11th complete game. Even in the Roy Halladay-circle of old-schoolness, that’s an unheard of number of complete games. The Rays have pushed Shields hard this season. Curiously hard.

When examining his gamelogs this season, you’ll notice that he’s been allowed to throw a lot of pitches and pitch deeply into many games despite having one of baseball’s better bullpens backing him up.

It makes me wonder why.

Under GM Andrew Friedman, the Rays have never been a club to capriciously limit their pitchers because of arbitrary, easy to remember numbers like 100 pitches or 200 innings; Shields has been supremely durable during his career and has been allowed to regularly pitch deeply into games with over 100 pitches.

Has he learned to use his defense and pound the strike zone to a greater degree? Wheras he was pitching into the 6th-7th innings in prior years and giving up a lot more hits than innings pitched, in 2011 he’s drastically increased his strikeouts and reduced the number of hits allowed. The defense is a large factor in this as his batting average on balls in play (BAbip) this season is .267 and he’s allowed 22 homers; in 2010 it was .344 and he allowed 34 homers; in 2009 it was .311 and he allowed 29 homers. His line drive percentages are the same; his ground ball percentages are up; he’s walking more batters and striking out more.

Part of his success this year is due to better luck. The disparity between a .344 BAbip and a .267 BAbip accounts for a large amount of his improved results.

Shields will be 30 in December; by the end of this season, he’ll have thrown 215 innings in four of the past five years; the one he didn’t (2010), he threw 203. He’s signed through 2014 with club options for $7 million in 2012 ($2 million buyout); $9 million in 2013 ($1.5 million buyout); and $12 million in 2014 ($1 million buyout); his value is never going to be higher than it is now and there’s a limited number of innings a pitcher—no matter how tough—has before a decline/breakdown occurs. Believe me when I say the Rays have crunched those numbers. They also have to start thinking about contract extensions for David Price, Matt Joyce and possibly would like to sign Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson to cheap, preemptive contracts as they did with Evan Longoria.

The Rays have used the “we don’t have the money” excuse to let Rafael Soriano walk after his career-best season and take the draft picks as compensation; to trade Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir for multiple young, cheap players. That excuse is highly convenient, true and should be examined with suspicion since they keep doing it over and over again and making off like bandits in the process.

With the dearth of good starting pitching out there; the way Shields has pitched; the cheapness and long-term nature of his contract; and that his value is never going to be higher, it’s right to be a little dubious if he comes available. Interested teams need to wonder why the Rays are willing to discuss him. And if the Rays say it’s because they want to sign Upton, those teams had better run away. Fast.

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Masters Of The Universe

Hot Stove

Pending physicals, the Rays have traded RHP Matt Garza, OF Fernando Perez and a player to be named later to the Cubs for RHP Chris Archer, OF Brandon Guyer, C Robinson Chirinos, SS Hak-Ju Lee and OF Sam Fuld.

This is a gutsy and smart move for the Rays to extract a large chunk of the Cubs system for a pitcher who was going to get a big raise in arbitration and has always been a temperamental “go this way or that way” type who might implode (he has before) on the mound if a 3-2 borderline pitch was called against him.

Would the Rays front office led by GM Andrew Friedman be this courageous if they were functioning in a crisis-a-day atmosphere like that in New York, Boston or Philadelphia?

Don’t automatically say yes because the mental adjustment and accounting for public reaction—i.e. ticket sales and sports talk radio—is not something to dismiss out of hand. Even those who partake in such ancillary concerns may not realize they’re doing it; it’s imperceptible and affecting as it seeps into the thought process before making a deal.

Teams like the Mets have historically allowed an expected reaction, positively or negatively, influence what they do—many times to club detriment.

The Rays are able to do things such as trading their number 2 starter, Garza, or allow big free agent Carl Crawford to leave without any fight at all (a fight in which they had no chance to win) and clear out the entire bullpen because they’re in a venue that doesn’t live and die with the Rays. Judging from the comparatively sparse attendance figures for such a good team, much of Tampa barely pays attention to them at all.

The Crawford case is indicative of this. Other clubs would’ve been compelled to make a perfunctory offer knowing that it would be refused. Not the Rays. They tried to sign Crawford to a team-friendly extension and were rebuffed; they accepted that they were losing him and moved on safe in the knowledge that they were getting draft picks and had Desmond Jennings to replace him.

While it would be nice for the Rays organization to get more recognition, the lack of attention has allowed them to build the team correctly and cut loose players of diminishing returns and higher cost to replenish the system.

The Rays do it right. Part of the reason they’re able to do it “right” isn’t that they have a bunch of former “Masters of the Universe” (quoting from The Bonfire of the Vanities) running the club—the arrogance inherent in such a vocation and statement isn’t unimportant as they think they can do anything and get away with it—but because they don’t have anyone picking at everything they do; such entities in the media have one eye on ratings; another eye on fan reaction; and a third eye on waiting and seeing how it works out before taking a stand.

As for the players involved in the deal, I can only go by the ones I’ve seen and the stats of the minor leaguers.

I like Garza a lot and said so in my posting on New Year’s Day:

Garza just turned 27, he’s arbitration-eligible for the first time and the Rays have been listening to trade offers for him; he’s got three years to go before free agency, but he’s undoubtedly looking for his payday before then. He’ll be motivated to have a big year.

Having gone 15-10 in 2010, he’s primed to win 18-20 this year. His strikeouts dropped by 39 from 2009-2010; his hits allowed increased; but his walks diminished drastically, so he may have been pitching to contact by design.

He’s ready to step forward.

The Rays were able to do this because of the aforementioned departures, diminished expectations, the retooling on the fly and that they have enough starting pitching depth to get by with what they have if James Shields rebounds and Jeff Niemann steps up. With David Price at the top of the rotation and youngsters Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson at the back end, the Rays will be okay without Garza.

For the Cubs, it’s a questionable move.

What are they?

They needed a starter—there’s no question about that. The offense is serviceable; the bullpen is serviceable; the starting rotation is rife with questions. Ryan Dempster has essentially proven over the last three years that he’s consistent and trustworthy; but Tom Gorzelanny? Randy Wells? Carlos Silva? And the wildest of wild cards, Carlos Zambrano?

What are they getting out of this group with Garza and Dempster?

It’s an absurd assertion that Zambrano’s blowup in August cleansed his palate and led the way to a terrific final month of the season; to see this is a portent of a maturation and finally fulfilling his limitless potential is a recipe for disaster. He’s flighty; he’s mercurial; and he’s by no means a guarantee for anything one way or the other.

As mentioned earlier, Garza’s not Mr. Congeniality either. New manager Mike Quade doesn’t tolerate garbage, so if Garza or Zambrano start acting up, they’ll hear about it; but that doesn’t eliminate the explosive combination of ingredients the Cubs have thrown into the pot.

They’re a veteran team with immovable contracts like that of Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano. The situation is untenable unless everything works out right. If Zambrano wins 18 games and Garza repeats his 2010 season, the Cubs will contend for a playoff spot; if not, they’re around a .500 team in a rough division. Trapped in that vacancy, the only saving grace for the Cubs is—as it’s always been—the loyalty of their fan base.

Maybe that’s part of the problem.

It was either try to win now or hang onto those prospects and know they were non-contenders in 2011. Time will tell if they did the right thing.

For the Rays, they extracted a lot from the Cubs.

Chris Archer is 22 and his minor league numbers are ridiculously good; he might be a contributor to the Rays out of the bullpen—much like Price was—late in the season if they’re in contention. And they might be contenders despite all the turnover.

Sam Fuld is a fallen prospect who put up good numbers in 2009 and slumped back to the minors in 2010; the Rays have shown a propensity of getting use from such players as they did with Gabe Gross.

I can only judge the others by their numbers.

Brandon Guyer is a soon-to-be 24-year-old outfielder with speed and pop; Robinson Chirinos is a 26-year-old catcher who bashed both Double and Triple A pitching in 2010 and can really throw from behind the plate (his caught-stealing percentages are impressive); and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee is a speedy, 20-year-old shortstop.

It’s clear the Cubs did this deal because they felt they had no choice if they wanted to be relevant at all in 2011.

The Rays are the exact opposite.

In general, teams that do deals because they think they “have” to make mistakes.

The Rays don’t make many mistakes.

Do the Cubs? You tell me.