Friday, March 11, 2011

Great Pasty White Flags

Look, 2011 is probably going to be painful. While Travis Snider could transform into Carlos Delgado, Brandon Morrow could finish top ten in Cy Young balloting, all while Opening Day third baseman Brett Lawrie wins ROY, chances are that for everything that goes right, something is equally probable to go south. A rotation keystone goes down with TJ or pitches his way to a 6.50 ERA and a shot to earn back his salary on the Strip; one prospect or another stalls out completely; a hitter has an exasperating year. It's simply rare that everything breaks right, particularly on such a raw team.

If you've played fantasy baseball before, you've probably seen (or been) that guy who loads up on all the hyped prospects on draft day, only to find himself in 10th place in mid-July with a roster stuffed with players bearing the painful red-lettered "NA" in the left-hand column. For every Jason Heyward there's an Alex Gordon, as prospects are everything that the word implies: untapped possibilities. There's a reason that as a ten-year-old Marty Janzen fanboy I came to loathe the word "potential." To say that someone has potential is  somewhat damning because it means, by its very nature, that success has not been fully achieved. Albert Pujols doesn't have potential, he has mad skillz.

None of which is to say that one should approach roster-building with the Houston Astros' non-strategy of papering over problems with middling, established players. The virtuous Geoff Blum doesn't have any great potential either; it's fairly easy to establish roughly how much he'll suck each year (80 OPS+, give or take). You can't win the World Series with replacement players - not even if you're the 2002 Angels - and it's a lot easier to grow a first round stud or acquire him in his minor league days than it is to add a mid-career Griffey.

On one level, as a patron of simulation baseball, I love Anthopoulis' approach: it's the sim league strategy of clearing contract space, stockpiling draft picks and picking up bargain-basement guys, and then sitting back and waiting for your superior farm system to develop into a world-beating roster. In Out of the Park Baseball, it almost always works (well, depending on the competition), but real baseball is not so clean-cut. Remember the 2002 Cubs? Thanks to wunderkind Mark Prior's second overall selection the previous June, BA loved them. Nine years later, Carlos Zambrano is a great, if tempestuous, pitcher, and Juan Cruz is still doing his thing in the back of somebody's pen, but Prior hasn't pitched a meaningful inning since Saddam was still in power. And Hee Sop Choi? Bobby Hill?

I know others have done the assassination of prospect porn far more convincingly than I can muster in a few short and statistically impoverished lines. My point isn't to undermine the notion that a great roster can be built out of first round picks and value trades - there's a lot to love about the youth and depth of the Jays' system. But can we stop pretending that this is a roster that can compete in the AL East?

When the Orioles signed Vladimir Guerrero, Keith Law absolutely tore into them. What he saw was a permanently mediocre team with a history of blocking their prospects in a failed attempt to compete with the big boys. Tejada signs, the O's finish in 4th place. Tejada leaves, the O's finish in 4th place. Tejada comes back, the O's finish in 5th place. And no doubt, there's something to be said for showcasing Nolan Reimold - Vlad isn't going to bring the Orioles the wildcard.

But he does make them better this year. Derrek Lee, though very mediocre last year and also past his prime, has historically been a very good first baseman. Even if the Orioles give up both of those guys in July, as they probably should, that's still (very roughly) 500 ABs from one 133 OPS+ player - at bats that went to the unforgettable Ty Wigginton in 2010 (remember Geoff Blum? If he was a corner infielder instead of a middle infielder, he'd be Ty Wigginton). They also added guys like Hardy, Reynolds, Duchscherer and Gregg. Whatever flaws all those guys may or may not possess, without going into any great detail, I think it's fair to say that they all should be better than the guys they are replacing. With those moves and others, the O's certainly have the potential (yes, that word again) to be much improved in 2011.
The 85-win Blue Jays have gotten younger, but they've also gotten worse. You can't simply shrug off a Shaun Marcum and Vernon Wells and expect not to suffer consequences. Perhaps Juan Rivera could have a great year and replicate Wells' production - or he might hit .250 with marginal power like he did last year. Perhaps Kyle Drabek will step up and give us the 3.90 ERA that so many project - or maybe he'll have to deal with exposure or mechanical flaws and, like so many pitchers before him, ride the shuttle between Vegas and Toronto. Without a major league track record, we simply can't know these things.

JP Arencibia hit .300 with 32 homers in Vegas in 2010, but don't forget that he put up a .728 line in his first go-round in even more PAs in 2009. If the adjustment from AA was a setback, might we not see an adjustment year in the majors? Consider how long it took Adam Lind to find a foothold after years of tearing his way through the system.

Captain Double-A has done his part to build a world-beating roster, but he's done it with an eye to the future. So let me call it now: Toronto Blue Jays, your last-place team in the 2011 American League East.

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