The Royals and Confirmation Bias

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If you’d like to rip the Royals for this pathetic backwards plummet they’re on in which they’ve gone from 17-10 to 21-27 in the span of three weeks, then fine. Their horrific run however doesn’t automatically confirm the doom and gloom that was predicted the second GM Dayton Moore made the decision to send a package to the Rays led by top prospect Wil Myers, pitcher Jake Odorizzi and others for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis. Before starting the “I was right” brigade as if the record and stumble somehow interlocks with their retreat into familiarly rudderless territory and the only hope being that their young players will eventually develop and produce, looking at the real reason the team has played so badly is required.

Manager Ned Yost has received the bulk of the blame for the way the Royals have played since their 17-10 start and his decision to pull Shields out of the game that started the slide on May 6th at 102 pitches can be seen as the impetus to the fall. The whole purpose of acquiring Shields was to have the horse at the top of the rotation who would tell the other players—most of whom are young and inexperienced and have no history with a winner—this is how it’s done; I’ll carry you and show you the way. Yost didn’t accord Shields the opportunity to pitch that complete game against the White Sox after he’d allowed 2 hits and no runs, striking out 9 in eight innings. The game was handed over to closer Greg Holland by rote more than well-thought-out baseball maneuver and Holland blew the game. Then the Royals’ world came undone.

You can say that we wouldn’t be discussing this had Holland had a 1-2-3 ninth inning and the Royals went to 18-10 that day. You can say that Shields might have blown the game in the ninth as well. You can say that the team might’ve come apart anyway and instead of being 21-27, they’d be 22-26. And that type of woulda, shoulda, coulda only hammers home the point that whether they had made the trade of Myers for Shields or not, there’s no connection between them losing 17 of 21 and that the fall is being presented as Exhibit X as to why Moore needs to be fired or, at the very least, they need a new manager.

So what’s wrong with the Royals? The bullpen has been inconsistent; the back of the rotation (including Davis) has been shaky; and they’re not getting any offense from Mike Moustakas or enough offense from Eric Hosmer. That could be due to the two hitting coaches; it could be due to Yost’s familiar overwhelming intensity and strategic gaffes; or it could be due to bad luck. Myers isn’t exactly killing the ball in Triple A for the Rays (.263/.344/.441 slash line with 7 homers in 209 plate appearances) and Odorizzi was recently recalled to the majors. Would the Royals be in better position with those players in their lineup? Maybe, maybe not.

There are assertions to be made that the Royals weren’t ready to take that leap into going for it by trading youth like Myers and Odorizzi for veterans like Shields and Davis; that the front office jumped the gun by making that move now before the likes of Moustakas, Hosmer and Salvador Perez proved they needed veteran supplementation to become contenders; that they should’ve given Myers the right field job, kept Odorizzi and given their homegrown group a chance to win prior to doing something so drastic. But to imply the Shields trade is the “why” the Royals are staggering or that had it not been made they’d be in much better shape than they’re in now as if it has been “proven” to be a mistake is confirmation bias for those who hated the trade, hate the GM and hate the manager and are using it as a cudgel to batter their own desires into the public consciousness as if they “knew” it would happen.

I didn’t hear them complaining at 17-10.

It’s as if they were hiding and waiting to boost their own egos and would prefer to be right than be happy, to have their team lose and start the rebuilding process all over again with a new GM, one who will do what they want as if the strategies they prefer are unassailable and guaranteed to work any better than what Moore’s done. The trade was savaged and now the team is playing poorly, but there’s really not a link between the two. When ego and self-justification are involved, though, the reality doesn’t matter and instead of looking for solutions the Royals are getting “I told you sos.” And that rarely helps. In fact, it doesn’t help at all.

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Keys to 2013: Kansas City Royals

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Starting Pitching Key: Wade Davis

The Royals can write down what they’ll get from the majority of their starting pitchers. That goes for the good (James Shields), the bad (Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar), and the sometimes good/sometimes not so good (Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana). The season and the decried trade the Royals made with the Rays in which they surrendered Wil Myers and other young players to get Shields and Davis will go a long way in determining their 2013 fate and the job status of GM Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost.

Davis was a serviceable starter for the Rays in 2010-2011. He was moved to the bullpen in 2012 due to the depth the Rays had in their rotation and now he’s going to start again for the Royals. He has to be more than serviceable. If they can cobble him into a 190-210 inning arm, Davis can be a long-term, inexpensive solution because he’s signed with contract options that make him super cheap through 2017. If he falters, the trade will boil down to getting a top-tier starter in Shields and a swingman in Davis for one of baseball’s best prospects, Myers, and other talented youngsters.

Relief Pitching Key: Greg Holland

Holland takes over as the fulltime closer. He struck out 91 in 67 innings last season and saved 16 games after Jonathan Broxton was traded. He has a mid-90s fastball, a sharp curve and only surrendered 2 homers last season. If he improves his command, Holland can dominate.

Offensive Key: Eric Hosmer

Hosmer endured a sophomore slump in 2012. He failed to adjust to the way pitchers were approaching him and he must lay off the breaking balls in the dirt. As a young hitter who had it come easy to him as a rookie, there’s a resistance to taking advice from anyone. The next logical progression is taking advice from everyone. Neither is wise.

Hosmer can be an offensive force with power and speed. He doesn’t strike out and if he can be just a bit more selective while maintaining his aggressiveness, he’s an MVP candidate.

Defensive Key: Alcides Escobar

The Royals starting rotation is loaded with contact, groundball pitchers. Shields and Davis were reared in the Rays organization where they’re taught to pitch to contact and rely on defensive positioning and heavy slabs of data. The Royals are a more old-school organization in that they put the shortstop at shortstop, the second baseman at second base, etc.

The shortstop is the key to the infield. Mike Moutstakas has good range at third base which will allow Escobar to cheat a bit more toward the middle. If the Royals don’t catch the ball behind their starters, they’re in for a rough time.

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The Rays-Royals Trade Part II—The Responses

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When someone has a following—justified or not—they can pretty much do or say anything and that base is going to agree with them; purchase what they’re selling; and spread the supposed gospel. When this is done, not in public where there’s a face and consequences, but from the privacy and safety of behind a computer screen, on blogs, and in social media, it degenerates into an irresistible force crashing into an immovable object; of those who spout theories vs individuals who have an actual stake in the outcome.

The Royals traded top minor league outfield prospect Wil Myers, righty pitcher Jake Odorizzi, lefty pitcher Mike Montgomery, and low minor league infielder Patrick Leonard to the Rays for righty pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis and a player to be named later. This sparked reactions that ran the gamut, mostly falling in line with the factions of baseball analysis establishing their positions and following their leaders.

Let’s look at the reactions and assessments.

Royals GM Dayton Moore

Moore may or may not be under pressure to win in 2013 with his job on the line. His response to the criticism of this trade can be read here in a Bob Nightengale piece, but he seemed most annoyed at the implication by ESPN’s Keith Law that Moore did this to try and save his job.

Law has a right to his opinion—presumably there will be a Latin-laced reply coming soon—but looking at it from Moore’s point-of-view, having his baseball GM chops would be far preferable to having his integrity questioned. The entire basis of the argument is somewhat faulty. Does it turn Moore into a conniving schemer if he makes a move to try and win now if that’s what his bosses want?

I can see where Law and Rany Jazayerli are coming from in questioning the wisdom of this trade. Jazayerli makes a compelling case on Grantland. But the overwhelming and toe-the-line agreement coming from their loyalists is bordering on disturbing. If you’re the GM of a baseball team who’s spent your life in baseball and is respected, perhaps not for the work as a GM, but as an overall body of work in scouting and development and you’re forced to endure the taunts of a guy who is working at Best Buy and used his break to tweet about what an idiot you are, it would tend to get on your nerves. Multiply that by 1000. By 10,000. How would you react?

And this is the problem with the new age of baseball. Everyone’s an expert, thinks they know more than baseball lifers, and is free to critique with impunity. There’s no checking of credentials before they’ve carved themselves a forum and are somehow given credibility through osmosis and fantasy. It’s beyond comprehension for someone who has never picked up a baseball in his life and started watching the game two years ago to have the unmitigated arrogance to think his ability to read a stat sheet has injected him with some form of expertise.

Following the initial ganging up on Moore based on past maneuvers and current perceptions, the judgment of his trade has been mostly split with even people who are immersed in prospects such as Jim Callis saying that he doesn’t think it’s a terrible deal.

As I said in my prior posting concerning this trade, I think it’s an understandable decision for both the Rays and Royals.

The Jeff Francoeur factor

I’m missing the connection where it was said that the presence of Jeff Francoeur was the “reason” the Royals felt comfortable trading Myers.

If the goal is to create a firestorm, the easiest way to do it is inserting Francoeur into any conversation whether he belongs there or not. This trade had nothing to do with Francoeur vs Myers. It had to do with the Royals using a prime asset for the future to get themselves better in the present. You can disagree with the logic, but not by using Francoeur to bolster your case because not even the Royals think that Francoeur is the long-term solution in right field. In fact, they might be working on a deal to find someone to replace him as we speak. Then what’s the reaction going to be?

Was Myers the long-term solution in right field? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It’s pointless to compare him to other players based on numbers, him winning minor league player of the year, other attributes used to provide “reasons” why he shouldn’t have been traded. The number of factors that go into a prospect making it or not making it and when he does it are so vast and variable that the word “prospect” is rife with questions on its face. It comes down to projection, analysis, opportunity, and performance.

I don’t know what Myers is and nor do you. It’s easy to attach oneself to buzzwords and think you know, but the Royals have had Myers since he was drafted and clearly felt that he was expendable in comparison to other players they might have been able to slip into the deal in his place  such as Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas and still gotten Shields or a Shields-type.

Truth be told, I would not have made this trade if I were the Royals. But I’m not in Moore’s position and the opinion “I wouldn’t have done it” doesn’t make it wrong.

Andrew Friedman lust

It’s interesting that in the above-linked Baseball America Q&A, Callis says that the trade moves the Rays from middle of the pack in terms of a farm system from “middle of the pack” to “upper quartile.”

The “brilliant” GM of the Rays who stockpiles prospects and uses cutting edge, secretive techniques to find players only had a middle of the pack farm system? And Jazayerli writes in the Grantland piece of Moore, “After the 2010 season, the Royals had fashioned the greatest farm system in baseball, the greatest anyone had seen in years.”

But Moore is an imbecile who deserves to be fired?

How does this work? If someone agrees with you or has success based on a myriad of undefinable, unpredictable aspects, they’re a “genius.” If they don’t they’re subject to relentless attacks not just on their credibility but on their professionalism and integrity?

Any GM is only one bad deal away from being put on notice; one bad season—regardless of prior success—of being fired. Considering the pressures and scrutiny they have to endure now in comparison to 20 years ago, I don’t know why anyone would want the job as a GM in the first place.

As for Friedman, fans and media members with about 25 of the other 29 teams are musing as to what their team would look like if he were their GM. Again, like Myers, we don’t know. Friedman has a freedom with the Rays to do what he wants because he works hand-in-hand with his ownership and has that success rate to fall back on. But he also has freedom because the Rays don’t have any money; have a limited fanbase; and in spite of recent years, an excuse for failure circling back to the lack of money.

Would Friedman be able to do the things he does—trading top-tier arms like Shields or Matt Garza—if he were running the Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Red Sox or whoever? No. He wouldn’t. Because those are different markets, with different needs, different constraints, and different expectations than the ones confronting him now with the Rays. Much like taking a player out of a situation that he can handle like Josh Hamilton in Texas and putting him in New York, Boston or Philly can have severe consequences to him as a person and a player, it’s the same thing with front office people, managers, and coaches.

Friedman is who he is and does what he does because of a situation with the Rays that is unlike most others.

Much like Myers, there’s no quantifying it because we don’t know.

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The Rays-Royals Trade Part I—The Truth

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The Rays traded RHP James Shields, RHP Wade Davis and a player to be named later to the Royals for OF Wil Myers, RHP Jake Odorizzi, LHP Mike Montgomery and 3B Patrick Leonard.

Let’s look at the trade from the standpoint of the Rays, the Royals and the players involved.

For the Rays

Trading away name players—specifically pitchers—for packages of minor leaguers has become the template for the Rays under their current regime. They did it with Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, and Edwin Jackson. As much as their GM Andrew Friedman is worshipped for his guts and willingness to make a deal a day too early rather than a day too late, the get-back on those trades has been retrospectively mediocre. In those trades, they got a lot of stuff, the most notable up to now is Matthew Joyce, whom they received for Jackson. Apart from that, they’ve yet to show a big bang from any of those deals and mostly got salary relief.

Friedman stockpiles. There’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s not turn him into Branch Rickey and prepare his bust for the Hall of Fame just yet.

In this trade, the Rays cleared Shields’s $9 million for 2013. He has a club option for $12 million in 2014 with a $1 million buyout. They also got rid of Davis and his $7.6 million guarantee through 2014. (He has club options through 2017.) They received Myers, one of baseball’s top hitting prospects who, ironically, looks like a clone of Evan Longoria at the plate; they received Ororizzi, Montgomery and Leonard. Of those last three, Odorizzi is the only one close to big league ready.

Friedman maximized what he was going to get for Shields and the youngsters will certainly get a chance to play in the big leagues without the pressure and expectations to perform they would’ve been subjected to elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean they’ll become stars.

Considering the Rays’ financial constraints and strategies of bolstering the farm system by trading their veterans, this is a great move for them.

For the Royals

In 2012, the Royals were expected to take the next step (sort of like the Rays did in 2008) and have all their accumulated top draft picks vault them into contention or, at least, respectability. It didn’t work.

At some point a team has to try and win.

The Royals saw what happened when they acquired a scatterarmed and talented lefty, Jonathan Sanchez, before the 2012 season and he was about as bad as a big league pitcher can possibly be before getting hurt. Montgomery’s mechanics are heinous with a stiff front leg and across-his-body delivery; he has a power fastball with zero command and a curveball he’s yet to bridle. The young starting pitchers the Royals had developed have either faltered with inconsistency (Luke Hochevar) or gotten hurt (Danny Duffy).

They also saw a top young prospect Eric Hosmer experience a sophomore slump and exhibit why it’s not as easy as making the gradual progression with massive minor league production translating into big league stardom. The struggles of Hosmer clearly had an affect on how they viewed Myers and when he was going to help them.

With Shields, they get a proven 200+ inning arm that they have for the next two years. With Davis, they’re getting a potential starter who can also give them 200+ innings and he’s signed through 2017. We know what Shields is; Davis was very good as a reliever in 2012 and his overall numbers in two years as a starter have been mediocre. The Royals had a pitcher who’d struggled as a starter, was moved to the bullpen, pitched very well and was shifted back to the rotation. His name was Zack Greinke. Davis doesn’t have Greinke’s stuff, but his bloated ERAs from 2010 and 2011 stemmed more from individual games in which he got blasted. He’s a control pitcher who, if he doesn’t have his location, gets shelled. A pitcher like that can be a useful starter.

These are not rentals and they’re not desperation acquisitions for a GM, Dayton Moore, under fire. We’re already hearing from the armchair experts on social media making references to “cost certainty,” “team control,” and “upside.” They’re words that sound good as a reason to criticize. Most couldn’t tell you whether Myers bats righty or lefty. He’s a name to them. A hot name because he’s put up big numbers, but just a name.

It’s silly to think that the Royals don’t know what they have in their prospects, especially when the same critics make a great show of crediting Moore’s assistant Mike Arbuckle for his shrewd drafting that netted the Phillies Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, and others. But in the interests of furthering the agenda to discredit the trade from the Royals’ standpoint, it suits the argument to suggest Arbuckle doesn’t know how to assess Myers, Odorizzi, Montgomery and Leonard.

Did the Royals make a trade to get better immediately and take the heat off of the GM? Possibly. Or it could be that they’ve seen firsthand the ups and downs of developing and playing their own youngsters, know that there are no guarantees, looked at a winnable AL Central, a weakened AL East and West and extra playoff spots available and decided to go for it.

2013 is Moore’s seventh year on the job. It does him no good to leave all these youngsters for his successor to look “brilliant” similar to the way in which Friedman was assisted by the posse of draft picks the Rays accumulated under Chuck LaMar because they were so terrible for so long. The list of players—B.J. Upton, Jeff Niemann, Davis, Shields, Jake McGee, Carl Crawford and Jeremy Hellickson—were there when Friedman took over as GM. That’s not diminishing the great work Friedman’s done. It’s fact.

Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, and Billy Butler make a solid, young, and controllable foundation to score enough runs to win if they pitch.

And this has nothing to do with Jeff Francoeur. He’s a convenient buzzword designed to invite vitriol and indicate ineptitude.

Now with Shields, Davis, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie, they can pitch.

When Friedman or Billy Beane makes a big trade, it’s “bold,” when Moore does, it’s “desperation.”

I don’t see it that way. The Rays did what they do with a freedom that other clubs don’t have to do it; the Royals made themselves better. It’s not the “heist” that it’s being framed as to credit Friedman while torching Moore. Both clubs get what they needed in the immediate future by making this trade.

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Trading Wil Myers Would Be “Moore” of the Same For the Royals

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Of course I’m referring to Royals GM Dayton Moore who, in his time as their GM and as an assistant with the Braves, has proven himself to be a shrewd drafter and accumulator of young, minor league talent. He has, however, faltered in signing and trading for established big leaguers. Someone with strengths and weaknesses so clearly defined might not be the best choice to run the entire organization. He’s under contract through 2014 and is going to get the opportunity to see things through for better or worse, so the Royals and their fans need to hope that he doesn’t keep doing the same things over and over and expect a different result.

During his tenure, there’s been little bottom line improvement with the Royals’ definable results—i.e. their record—but they have a farm system that is bursting with talent, particularly on offense. Rather than trade away some of that talent, they need to hang onto it and scour the market for pitchers that would be willing to sign with the Royals in a mutually beneficial deal between themselves and the club.

Considering the stagnation of Luke Hochevar (a non-tender candidate); that last season Bruce Chen was their opening day starter; that Danny Duffy needed Tommy John surgery; and that veteran imports Jonathan Sanchez have failed miserably, it’s understandable that they would use their surplus of bats to try and get a legitimate, cost-controlled young starter who could front their rotation. They’ve improved the rotation relatively cheaply and on a short-term basis with Ervin Santana and by keeping Jeremy Guthrie (who people don’t realize how good he’s been). They do need pitching and while it would help them to acquire a frontline starter like James Shields or a young, inexpensive arm such as Jeremy Hellickson, Trevor Bauer, or Jonathon Niese, the Royals would be better served to wait out the falling dominos without doing something drastic like trading Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer, or Billy Butler. Instead of a blockbuster deal of youngsters, perhaps signing a veteran such as Dan Haren who’s looking to revitalize his value and get one last big contract, would be preferable.

The Royals have the makings of a big time offense that’s cheap and productive. Weakening it to repeat the risky maneuvers of the past and hoping that they don’t turn into Sanchez is not the way to go. It would yield a headline and more hot stove stories of the Royals preparing to take the next step, but they’ve been there before multiple times in recent years and have wound up in the same place—70 wins or so. It’s a circular history and they’ve failed to make innocent climb into noticeable improvement, respectability, and finally contention. If any club knows first hand the risks of pitchers, it’s the Royals. The last thing they need to do is double-down on the risk and cost themselves a young bat like Myers or Hosmer before they’ve given them a chance to develop in a Royals uniform. There are pitchers like Haren who wouldn’t cost anything other than money. They think they have a comparable young replacement for Myers/Butler in Bubba Starling and you can find a first baseman, but would being patient hinder them?

If it’s an affordable price, the free agency has better options than trading young bats to get a young arm that might or might not make it and is more likely to repeat the process that has put the Royals in this position where they need pitching because the young pitchers they’ve had haven’t lived up to the hype or gotten hurt. Why do it again?

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American League Central—2012 Present and 2013 Future

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I recently looked at the AL East, how they’re faring now and their prospects for the future. Now let’s look at the AL Central.

Chicago White Sox

There are few baseball executives for whom their statements should be taken at face value, but White Sox GM Ken Williams is one. Because of that, when he says he misspoke about blowing the whole thing up at the conclusion of the 2011 season, then didn’t blow the whole thing up and instead made moves to try and win while getting younger and more flexible, I believe him.

The White Sox success can be chalked up to: manager Robin Ventura’s calm demeanor in stark contrast to the raving lunacy of Ozzie Guillen; Jake Peavy coming back from injury and pitching like a top tier starter; Chris Sale’s development as a starting pitcher; Adam Dunn’s and Alex Rios’s comebacks; and the parity around the American League.

Ventura and Mike Matheny have become a regular “example” that managers don’t need to have managerial experience to be successful. Of course it’s nonsense and taken greatly out of context. Ventura’s done a good job and his cachet as a former All Star player and popular person in Chicago has helped him greatly, but anyone other than Guillen would’ve been taken as a welcome respite from the daily haranguing and controversy that surrounded the former manager’s big mouth and followed him—with disastrous results—to Miami.

As long as Williams is the GM, the White Sox have a chance to be competitive because he has no patience for long rebuilds and makes aggressive maneuvers accordingly.

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers have been inconsistent in every facet. Their defense, while not being as bad as predicted, still isn’t good; the offense is 7th in the AL in runs scored despite having two MVP candidates Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, plus Austin Jackson having a fantastic year; the bullpen has been shaky; and Justin Verlander has been excellent and is still a Cy Young Award candidate, but has taken enough of a step back from his CYA/MVP of 2011 back to humanity to account for the Tigers fighting for a playoff spot.

There’s been talk that manager Jim Leyland, in the final year of his contract, could be in trouble if the Tigers don’t make the playoffs. It’s silly. Leyland can still handle the egos in that clubhouse and the very last thing the Tigers need to do and, tying in with the concept of a manager with zero experience, is to hire someone young just to make a change.

The Tigers dealt away several prospects including Jacob Turner to get Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez, but they’ve held onto Avisail Garcia and Nick Castellanos. The farm system is not barren and as long as they have Fielder, Cabrera, and Verlander, they’ll be competitive. Changing managers for the sake of it makes zero sense.

Kansas City Royals

It’s ludicrous how those who felt the Royals were going to parlay their loaded farm system into a leap to legitimate contention jump off the train as soon as a rebuild doesn’t adhere to the “plan”. Young players sometimes hit speedbumps on the way up. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are still two players around whom to build; Alex Gordon is a solid presence at the plate and in the field; Billy Butler is emerging as an unknown star; and Salvador Perez and several young pitchers got hurt.

The talent is still there. As long as they don’t panic, there’s no reason they can’t contend in 2013.

They do need to show improvement for manager Ned Yost to keep his job past next May/June; and GM Dayton Moore will probably get one more managerial hire if Yost has to be replaced, then the onus will be on him.

Cleveland Indians

2012 went completely wrong with 2013 not looking much better. They got off to a good start and were hovering around contention through mid-season until they collapsed completely and, since being 50-50 on July 27th, have gone 10-36. Manny Acta has a contract for next season, but since the Indians don’t have much money to spend and are openly ready to listen to offers for one of their few marketable players Shin-Soo Choo, there’s no point in sending Acta back out there as a lame duck when they have a managerial prospect in the popular former Indians’ hero Sandy Alomar Jr. on the coaching staff.

Closer Chris Perez ripped the organization from top to bottom recently and will presumably be shipped out of town for his candor. Considering that Perez is a slightly better-than-average closer, it’s not his place to be opening his mouth. The Indians are short on foundational talent. Asdrubal Cabrera is a very good player; Carlos Santana doesn’t appear to be an everyday catcher and his skills are less impressive as a first baseman; and their supposed top two starters, Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson, haven’t pitched well.

The Indians have a long road ahead of them and may have to restart their rebuild.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins were competitive for a decade after a decade of being so terrible that they were a target of contraction. Now instead of being a target, they built Target Field and spent money to try and win in 2010. To that end, they traded away a top prospect Wilson Ramos for a mediocre reliever Matt Capps; they signed Tsuyoshi Nishioka and repeated the Mets’ mistake with Kazuo Matsui, except Nishioka isn’t as talented as Matsui was; and they brought back their old GM Terry Ryan who still hasn’t had the interim label taken from his title.

Ownership has said that they want Ryan to take the job on a permanent basis. We’ll see. If Ryan isn’t fully committed or ownership wants to go in a new direction with an outsider, manager Ron Gardenhire could be in trouble as well.

Offensively, they’ve rebounded from an injury-plagued 2011 with Joe Mauer back to being Joe Mauer; a tremendous year from Josh Willingham; and Justin Morneau finally returning to form after his concussion problems.

They’re still severely short in the pitching department and are running into identical issues as the Mets did when they moved into their new park after contending for several years and building a canyon instead of a ballpark. The Mets moved the fences in and started a full-blown rebuild. The Twins have yet to do that, but they’re going to have to infuse the organization with more talent to get back to competitiveness.

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Surprise Buyers—American League

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Let’s look at some teams that are unexpectedly hovering around contention, what they need and who they should pursue.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles could use a starting pitcher and a bat (or two). One of the bats has to be able to play the outfield competently.

Dan Duquette is looking pretty smart for his under-the-radar off-season maneuvers getting Jason Hammel, Matt Lindstrom and Wei-Yin Chen. He’s not going to gut the system for a big name should one come available, nor should he.

Ryan Dempster is the type of middling pitcher they should pursue. Matt Garza can be had. Cole Hamels isn’t worth the cost for a rental unless they know they’re going to sign him.

Jim Thome has been mentioned as a DH option and he’d provide an offensive boost on the field and would be a stabilizing, quietly strong veteran leader off the field.

Carlos Lee is available from the Astros; if the Cubs are willing to give them Alfonso Soriano for a moderate prospect and pay his salary, the change to a club in the pennant race could really wake up his bat—and he’s been hitting homers lately anyway.

Carlos Quentin is on the block from the Padres.

Chicago White Sox

It was supposed to be a bridge year for the White Sox with a new manager, Robin Ventura and an altered configuration and strategy. But they’ve taken advantage of a mediocre AL Central and are in first place.

They could use a starting pitcher and if they’re still hovering around the top of the division and Wild Card at the deadline, GM Ken Williams is going to go for a big name—that means Hamels or Garza.

For the bullpen they could pursue Huston Street (who I’m not a fan of), Brett Myers, Brandon League or Grant Balfour.

Cleveland Indians

It’s time to forget about Grady Sizemore and to not expect any long term health from Travis Hafner when he returns.

They need a bat that can play centerfield.

Shane Victorino is a pending free agent and the Phillies are soon going to be teetering on holding out for the return of their stars or accepting that this isn’t their season and moving forward for 2013.

Chase Headley would be an upgrade over journeyman Jack Hannahan at third base; he can also play the outfield and first base.

Casey Kotchman has been a disaster at first base. I wouldn’t give up much to get Carlos Lee, but I’d take him.

The Indians’ starting pitching isn’t impressive statistically, but there’s enough there to wait without overspending on an outsider.

They could use a bullpen arm or two and should check with the Padres on Street and the Rockies on bringing Rafael Betancourt back to Cleveland.

Kansas City Royals

What’s with all this talk of the Royals selling? They’re 5 ½ games out of first place.

Ravaged by injuries to their starting rotation, they need arms. They have the prospects to do something major like bringing Zack Greinke back. They have the money to sign him long term.

On the surface, they could use a power bat but they just got Salvador Perez back and there’s reason to believe that they have enough pop if Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer start hitting the ball out of the park.

I wouldn’t go too crazy trying to win now, but I’d explore what’s out there to improve in the short and long terms.

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American League Patience Or Panic?

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Let’s take a look at some teams that, prior to the season, had expectations but have struggled out of the gate. Should they be patient or should they panic?

Boston Red Sox

The Carl Crawford news is getting worse and worse and his contract has been labeled a “disaster” one year into a seven year deal.

Disaster is a bit much since he’s hurt, but the end result is that he’s enduring all sorts of maladies and didn’t play well in 2011.

They acquired Marlon Byrd to replace the injured Jacoby Ellsbury. It’s a morbid race to see which of the injured duo of Ellsbury and Crawford gets back first.

Daniel Bard is starting tonight after his successful return—albeit brief—to the bullpen. It appears as if the team is taking a wait-and-see approach as to what to do with Bard for 2012. I’d expect him to return to the bullpen with Aaron Cook taking his spot in the rotation. The question is when.

The Sunday night rainout and going on the road to play a bad team in the Twins gave the Red Sox and manager Bobby Valentine a much-needed break from the rising viciousness at home.

There’s little they can do at the moment to improve the roster and they have to wait and hope.

Kansas City Royals

The innocent climb is never easy, especially for a team like the Royals that has been mismanaged and plain bad for a long time.

With their high-end young players expected to yield a marked improvement on the field, they won 3 of their first 5 games…then turned around and lost 12 in a row.

The Royals are very talented. That doesn’t always mean they’re going to adhere to a specific timeframe of improvement. They’ve started poorly and now lefty Danny Duffy is missing his Friday start with elbow tightness. Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur have gotten off to slow starts at the plate; they lost Joakim Soria for the season to Tommy John surgery; and catcher Salvador Perez is out until the summer.

There’s no need to panic and make a desperate and stupid trade. They have to play it out and learn from adversity.

Los Angeles Angels

Most teams with the Angels’ collection of stars would make it through and at least hang around .500 if one aspect of their club—offense, defense, bullpen, rotation—were struggling so terribly. But the Angels haven’t hit; their bullpen has been rotten; the starting pitching inconsistent; and the defense shabby.

Overall, they don’t look right.

It’s as if the holdovers from the years of Angels’ stability, cohesion and familiarity are treading cautiously with a newcomer the status of Albert Pujols.

Pujols is pressing and has yet to hit a home run.

They need to relax. This team is too good to play like this the entire season. They’ve got a hot streak coming. Soon.

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Radio Appearance with Breakin’ the Norm

All Star Game, Ballparks, Books, CBA, College Football, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Movies, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Podcasts, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

Here’s my appearance from Tuesday with Les Norman on Breakin’ the Norm on 810 WHB in Kansas City talking about the Royals, Tigers, Cardinals, Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Matheny, Tony LaRussa, Albert Pujols, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and many other things. Check it out.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide is 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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2012 American League Central Predicted Standings

All Star Game, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series
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

* Denotes predicted Wild Card winner

Cleveland Indians

The Indians have all the components to take the next step from their near .500 season in 2011.

There are positives amid the negatives of the old warhorses’ injuries and contract statuses. Grady Sizemore keeps getting hurt, but the Indians couldn’t have expected him to return to form nor expected him to stay healthy. His injury and absence will give them the chance to see what Ezequiel Carrera can do. Travis Hafner is in the final guaranteed year of his contract and some players manage to stay healthy when there’s a large amount of money on the line.

Carlos Santana is a mid-lineup run producer; they have a highly underrated 1-2 starting pitching punch with Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez; and their bullpen is deep.

Detroit Tigers

The entire season will come down to how obstinate Jim Leyland is about the decision to move Miguel Cabrera to third base.

I was about to say “experiment”, but is it really an experiment if we know what’s going to happen?

He can’t play third; the Tigers have pitchers—Doug Fister, Rick Porcello and even Justin Verlander—who need their defense to succeed; and Leyland is adamant in saying that not only is Cabrera going to play third but that he won’t be removed for defense in the late innings in favor of the superior gloves of Don Kelly and Brandon Inge.

Eventually Leyland will probably bow to reality and Cabrera and Prince Fielder will share first base and DH.

I say probably because it depends on whether Leyland is going to be the old-school baseball guy who’ll see weakness in admitting he’s wrong or the one who admits the team’s playoff spot in jeopardy and bows to reality.

The extra Wild Card will save the Tigers.

Kansas City Royals

The Royals are loaded up with young players and have to give them the chance to sink or swim on their own without looking at them for a month and sending them down.

Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas will be in the lineup every day for the Royals for the next decade, but the other youngsters Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, John Giavotella and Danny Duffy have to be given the legitimate chance to play without wondering if they’re going to be sent down immediately if they slump.

The starting pitching is young and improving; the bullpen has been bolstered and is diverse.

Chicago White Sox

Is this a rebuild or not?

Are they going to continue listening to offers for the likes of Gavin Floyd or will they hold their fire?

The decision to hire Robin Ventura as manager was a “he’ll grow with us” maneuver, but the foundation of the team is still in place.

It’s not a rebuild or a stay the course blueprint. They’re just doing things.

When serious structural alterations needed to be made, just doing things translates into 90 losses.

Minnesota Twins

Much was made of Terry Ryan’s return to the GM seat.

But so what?

They made something of a lateral move in letting Michael Cuddyer leave and replacing him with Josh Willingham; they got a solid defender and good on-base bat with Jamey Carroll; and they did the “Twins thing” in signing cheap veterans who can contribute with Jason Marquis and Ryan Doumit.

Their bullpen is loaded with a bunch of bodies and has already lost Joel Zumaya.

Much depends on the health of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and even if both stay on the field, there are still too many holes offensively, defensively and—most importantly—in the rotation and bullpen to ask how much they can be expected to improve from losing nearly 100 games in 2011.

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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