Fantasy Story Lines

Each team in baseball opens the year with half a dozen or more storylines that will determine how its season will play out. But some go beyond Player X staying injury-free or Player Y reaching the next tier. So, here are some of the big-picture items to look at as the 2011 season unfolds.

Can Cardinals survive their defense?

In 2010, the Cardinals were in the lower third of team defense, as ranked by UZR/150. In the offseason they dealt one of their top defensive players (Brendan Ryan) and signed a 35-year-old first baseman (Lance Berkman) coming off knee surgery to be their right fielder. The Cardinals have some pretty good defensive players, including Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols. But the rest of their defense could cause their pitching staff nightmares.

Berkman hasn’t played the outfield since 2007, when in 31 games as a right-fielder he posted a -48.4 UZR/150. Colby Rasmus looked like a plus performer in center field when he came up in 2009, but last year both UZR and the fans thought he regressed significantly. He had a -9.1 UZR/150 and the Fans Scouting Report thought his speed was the same but dropped him in every other category, especially his arm accuracy. Matt Holliday has always posted strong UZR numbers, thanks mostly to his range. But the fans thought his hands dropped off considerably last year.

With mostly a ground ball staff, St. Louis is in a better position than most to survive questionable outfield defense. But the bad news is that the infield has its own problems. Ryan had a 12.1 UZR/150 in 131 games at SS last year. But with his trade to Seattle, the Cardinals now have Ryan Theriot at short. Theriot played mostly 2B last year, where he was slightly below average. In 31 games at SS he had a -18.1 UZR/150. It’s questionable to assume he has the range or arm for SS. Skip Schumaker was moved to 2B by Tony LaRussa in 2009 to get his bat in the lineup. Not surprisingly, he had a -8.5 UZR/150 in ’09 and followed that up with a -17.2 mark last year. Neither David Freese nor Allen Craig is known for their glove work over at 3B.

The good news is that the Cardinals do have Nick Punto on the roster, who is a solid defender no matter where he plays in the infield. If LaRussa plays him at SS and moves Theriot back to 2B, the infield defense could improve immensely. But as it stands now, the defense could hurt the Cardinals chances to make it to the playoffs in 2011.

How will Vernon Wells fit in with the Angels?

After failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006, Angels owner Arte Moreno promised to spend money in the off-season to improve the club. Many thought Carl Crawford would wind up in Anaheim and some thought he would be joined there by Adrian Beltre. Those were two of the best hitters on the free agent market.

But the Angels missed out on both of those players and resorted to the trade market, where they dealt for Wells and the remaining $86 million on his contract for the next four seasons. Wells is not a bad player- he had a 4.0 WAR last year- but his contract looms over everything.

Part of Wells’ value is his ability to play CF but the Angels may move him to a corner slot and have one of the top defensive outfields in baseball. But will Wells hit enough for a corner outfielder? And will he continue his recent odd/even stretch, where he plays well in even-numbered years and struggles in odd ones? In 2009 he had an 86 wRC+ and in 2007 it was 82.

Finally, what kind of numbers will Mike Napoli, one of the two guys traded for Wells, post in Texas? Napoli struggled for playing time because manager Mike Scioscia thought he was poor on defense. Last year, with his most extensive playing time, Napoli hit 26 HR in 453 ABs. The trade will look even worse if Napoli becomes a consistent 30-HR threat with regular playing time.

Will young catchers live up to expectations?

Most managers prefer to have a strong defensive backstop. But we have a crop of catchers under 30 who can more than hold their own at the plate, too. Giants catcher Buster Posey won the Rookie of the Year Award last year, and he was only the second-best rookie backstop until Carlos Santana went down with an injured left knee.

Can Posey build upon his standout 2010 season? Can Santana get back to his pre-injury (.868 OPS) form? Can Matt Wieters justify the hype that has surrounded him since 2009? Will Chris Iannetta finally get the full-time job and put up a 30-HR season? Can Joe Mauer and Brian McCann sustain their great numbers? Will Miguel Montero, Geovany Soto and Kurt Suzuki return to their 2009 production? Will highly-touted guys like Devin Mesoraco, Jesus Montero and Wil Myers get to show their skills behind the plate?

What will the Tigers get from their outfield?

Most teams have one of their big bats in the outfield. The Tigers’ two-biggest bats belong to 1B Miguel Cabrera and C/DH Victor Martinez. Most teams have at least one outfielder who they can safely predict what they will receive production-wise from in the upcoming season. Detroit has question marks at all three spots.

Can Austin Jackson again approach a .396 BABIP? Can he put up acceptable offensive numbers without that high mark? Can Magglio Ordonez bounce back from ankle surgery at age 37 to post the .313/.382/.485 line that he did in the first half of 2010? Will Ryan Raburn post an .891 OPS like he did in 2009 or is the .814 mark he notched last year closer to his true talent level? While no one expects Brennan Boesch to match his first half numbers from 2010 (.990 OPS), how much better is he than he showed after the All-Star break, when he had a .163/.237/.222 line in 245 PA?

How good will the Red Sox offense be?

Last year Boston finished second in the American League with 818 runs scored, despite missing Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis for large chunks of the season. In the offseason, the Red Sox picked up Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to bolster the attack. While Boston lost Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre from the 2010 squad, the new acquisitions and a return to health from others could push the Red Sox to a 900-run squad. Last year the Yankees led the AL with 859 runs scored.

Will youngsters revive long-time losers?

In the last 16 years, the Royals have finished over .500 one time, in 2003 when they went 83-79. The next season they lost 104 games. The Pirates have not had a winning season since 1992. But both teams are filled with young players and prospects who promise a brighter future.

Billy Butler and Alex Gordon were supposed to lead the Royals back to winning baseball. While Butler has established himself as a solid major league player, Gordon has struggled in his time in the majors. But the Royals are loaded with prospects who could start producing in 2011. Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers are rated as the 5th, 6th and 7th-best hitting prospects in the game by John Sickels. Brett Eibner and Christian Colon also made the top 50 list.

And it’s not just hitting where the Royals impress. Danny Duffy, Mike Montgomery and John Lamb are all in the top 20 of Sickels’ pitching list, which also includes Jake Odorizzi, Jeremy Jeffress and Chris Dwyer in the top 50.

Most of the Pirates’ young talent is already in the majors. Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, James McDonald, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker were all 25 and under last year and are counted to play big roles this season. The Pirates also feature Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie as top 50 pitchers in the minors.

Will Buck Showalter continue to turn things around in Baltimore?

The year before Showalter took over the Yankees, they went 71-91. In his second season at the helm in the Bronx, they went 88-74, and the following year (the strike-shortened 1994 season) the Yankees had the best record in the American League with a 70-43 (.619) record.

In his second season after taking over the expansion Diamondbacks, Showalter won 100 games and had the second-best record in the National League. The year before he took over the Texas Rangers they were 72-90. In his second season on the bench, Texas was 89-73.

The Orioles were 32-73 (.305) when Showalter took over last year. They finished 34-23 (.596) under his guidance. Every team Showalter has managed has improved during his tenure. But Showalter seems to wear out his welcome. All three teams of his previous teams advanced to the World Series after Showalter left. The Orioles have not finished above .500 since 1997. Can Showalter work his magic in the rugged AL East?

Will the Padres top 100 home runs?

In the last four years, the Padres have had just six 20-HR seasons and four of those came from Adrian Gonzalez. With their slugging first baseman now in Boston, who will pick up the slack in San Diego? In 2010, Gonzalez had 31 HR and the next most was the 13 by Will Venable. San Diego had 132 HRs last year but at least 69 of those were hit by players who will not return in 2011. The Padres did add Brad Hawpe and Ryan Ludwick to their roster, who combined to hit 62 HR in 2008. But last year those two totaled just 26. The best power hope might be Kyle Blanks, who hit 22 HR in 2009, but who suffered an elbow injury that wiped out most of 2010. Blanks, however, will battle Hawpe and Ludwick for playing time.

An injury-plagued New York Mets team in 2009 hit just 95 HR, the lowest total in the National League the past two years. Without Gonzalez, a healthy Padres team may struggle to reach triple digits in homers, especially given their pitcher-friendly ballpark.

Can the Saber Mets turn things around?

Omar Minaya brought the Mets back to relevance and 274 wins in a three-year span by utilizing his version of checkbook diplomacy. But injuries and poor personnel decisions the past two seasons led to Minaya’s firing and his replacement by Sandy Alderson, who reunited with old friends Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi to form a sabermetric dream team.

Instead of their annual splash signing big-ticket free agents, Alderson and company have the Mets doing the equivalent of dumpster diving, trading for and signing low-cost players. No player added to the roster this year is guaranteed more than $1.5 million in 2011, although Chris Capuano and Chris Young can both earn a lot more than that through incentives.

But while the moves have been for relatively few dollars, each has the potential to improve the team from a year ago. With the team an afterthought in the NL East, can Alderson’s low-budget moves make a contender out of the under-achieving Mets and re-invigorate fan interest in the team from Queens?

Who has the best rotation?

When the Phillies signed Cliff Lee, many fans nominated their rotation of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Lee and Roy Oswalt as the best in recent history. And while the potential for that foursome is indeed impressive, several teams in 2011 boast rotations that will challenge Philadelphia’s top four men.
The defending World Series champion Giants should be included in any discussion about top staffs. Two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Linceum headlines a rotation featuring Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner. The Phillies’ group might be better but the Giants’ is definitely cheaper. The top four Philadelphia hurlers will pull down $56.5 million in 2011 while the San Francisco foursome makes under $26 million.

The Brewers picked up a couple of starters in the offseason that have turned their rotation from a question mark into a strength. Zack Greinke now headlines things in Milwaukee, where he is joined by fellow newcomer Shaun Marcum and holdovers Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf. While Wolf seems to be a big step down from the other three Brewers, he did get his walk rate under control in the second half and finished with a 2.67 ERA with a 2.5 K/BB ratio in his final 13 starts, numbers more in line with what he did in 2009.

The Angels (Dan Haren, Joel Pineiro, Ervin Santana, Jered Weaver) and Red Sox (Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jon Lester) both have potentially strong rotations. The A’s had the best ERA in the American League last year and their top four starters (Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez) return from a year ago. While the Rays lost Matt Garza in the off-season, Jeremy Hellickson joins a young and talented rotation fronted by David Price which could be in the mix as well.

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