Each year, the baseball season plays out in three acts. The first act is characterized by an abundance of hope around the league. Some teams get off to good starts, some bad, but everyone thinks this might just be their year. The second sees the truly bad teams separate from the pack. Teams go on their annual winning and losing streaks, and by the time the third act comes around pennant chases are in full swing.
It's the second week of the season, and while it may not feel so hopeful in Seattle or Tampa Bay, the season is still young. Players off to good starts are on their way to career years. Players off to bad starts will turn it around soon. The Rangers are the best team in baseball and the Red Sox have nothing to worry about either.
But some players wont turn it around. Some players off to nice starts wont keep it up. Who will be this season's Aaron Hill? What about this season's Brennan Boesch? No team will be without disappointments, so let's take a look at a few them.
After a couple years spent between AAA and the big leagues struggling with his command, former top-prospect Clay Buchholz had an apparent breakout season in 2010, going 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA. These numbers may make Buchholz look like an ace—his background numbers tell us he isn’t there yet. Buchholz struck out just 6.22 batters per nine innings last year, below league average, while also demonstrating bellow average control, walking nearly 3.5 batters per nine. He kept the ball on the ground at a good rate (50.3%), but was probably just a bit lucky on flyballs (5.6% hr/fb). His FIP (3.60) and expected FIP (4.20) are probably better baselines for 2011.
Right fielder Nick Swisher has proven to be one of Brian Cashman’s most prudent acquisitions. Entering his third season in the Bronx, Swisher is a fan favorite and positive clubhouse influence. He had perhaps his best season in 2010 and while Swisher will always be a solid middle of the order bat, he’s unlikely to fully repeat his 2010 performance. The always patient Swisher saw his walk rate tumble from 16%—one of the best in baseball—to just 9.1%—a rather pedestrian figure. Swisher is a .250 hitter who hit .288 last season, and many guessed that his less patient approach led to his higher batting average. But his strikeout rate was as high as ever and his BABIP of .335 is probably unsustainable. The power will be there, the walk rate might rebound, but he’s a .250 hitter. That’s not going to change.
If there’s one guy on this roster that could fail to live up to his hype though, it’s Kyle Drabek. Obviously, there is significant risk with rookie starting pitchers. As much as we focus on the Stephen Strasburg and Francisco Liriano type debuts, most pitchers don’t make a big impact right away. Drabek has yet to make a start in AAA, and after dominating the Florida Coast League in 2009, he hasn’t been quite as good in AA. As good as his stuff is, and most scouts believe he can develop into at least a No. 2 starter, he doesn’t yet miss many bats and he throws too many balls outside of the strike zone. Long term, Drabek could be a very good pitcher, but he could also struggle significantly this year.
The Rays are a very interesting team. Look over their roster, and it's tough to find an individual player that's likely to perform below expectations. Evan Longoria and David Price are elite young players and they'll only get better. James Shields and BJ Upton should rebound from down 2010 seasons and Jeremy Hellickson is the most big league ready prospect this side of Stephen Strasburg. The rest of the team isn't expected to do much anyway. Yet the Rays aren't a very good. They weren't a playoff team heading into the season and their slow start has left them in a hole they can't climb out of. Anyone that thinks the Rays will make a playoff run will be disappointed.
Jeremy Guthrie is probably the most likely player on this roster to really disappoint. Guthrie’s 2007 and 2008 seasons were very solid, but his 2009 season made it abundantly clear what can happen to a pitcher that can’t strike big league batters out. He’s gone from a control pitcher to a guy who simply doesn’t have an out pitch, and while he’s not a terribly big name, people see him as a solid, consistent No. 2 starting pitcher. If he strikes out a batter every two innings, he’s not a No. 2 starter, and he’s probably not a No. 3 either.
Trevor Cahill is on top of the baseball world to the extent that any Oakland A can be on top of the baseball world. The 23-year-old former top prospect is coming off an 18-8, 2.97 ERA season. He recently signed a contract extension with Oakland that guarantees him more than $30 million over the next five seasons. So why is he on this list? Let's start with the good here. Cahill is very young, he has very good stuff, he has good command, and he keeps the ball on the ground. The problem is, he doesn't have a true out pitch. He doesn't miss bats, and while his overall skill set is impressive, it's not yet Cy Young impressive. Expect a solid season, but nothing approaching his 2010.
Another AL West pitcher coming off a breakout season, the Mariners' hopes for a solid 2011 season fall partially on Jason Vargas' shoulders. The 28-year-old lefty had a very solid 2010 campaign, winning nine games with a 3.78 ERA in just under 200 innings. To add to this, Vargas has gotten off to a solid start. Despite his 7.20 ERA, the Mariners No. 2 starter pitched has seven strikeouts and just one walk in 10 innings pitched. The problem is, Jason Vargas just isn't a very good pitcher. His 2010 season was more smoke and mirrors than actual breakout and he doesn't have the stuff to be more than a back of the rotation starting pitcher. He's a flyball pitcher and he doesn't miss bats and that just wont work in the long run.
The Angels and GM Tony Reagins gave Vernon Wells a big vote of confidence last off-season when they traded Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera, two starters from their 2010 team, for the aging, over-priced, former Gold Glover. Wells, who has struggled since signing one of the leagues biggest and worst contracts four years ago, had a solid 2010 season while hitting .273 with 31 homers and 88 RBIs. While Wells still has some power, and is capable of putting up decent offensive numbers, he's not a great hitter. He's impatient at the plate and has never hit for a great batting average. He's also a liability in the outfield at this point in his career. If he were to repeat his 2010 season, I doubt many Angels' fans would see it as a huge disappointment. But should 2011 look more like the preceding few years, especially given the huge financial bet that franchise placed on his success, things could get ugly.
Perhaps the Rangers best pitcher last season, few had more of an impact on the teams surprised World Series run than reliever-turned-starter CJ Wilson. The lefty won 15 games with a 3.35 ERA in 204 innings pitched. There are two main problems, though, when it comes to Wilson. First, the jump in innings pitched last season, from 74 to 204, could adversely effect his health. Teams generally do not like to increase workloads by more than 50% so Wilson's 176% increase in workload has to raise some red flags. Beyond that, Wilson got a bit lucky last season with a BABIP of .266 sustaining a K/BB rate of just 1.83. Wilson's stuff was less efective in the rotation as he struck out far fewer batters and walked more, and the increase in workload could further complicate his 2011 season.
Nick Blackburn is a control artist, and that control has led him to a relatively successful big league career thus far. But despite his past success, it still came as somewhat of a surprise when Blackburn and fellow Twins starter Brian Duensing were given rotation spots over Kevin Slowey this past off-season. The problem is, Blackburn isn't the pitcher he once was. He's gone from control specialist to plain old bad starting pitcher, striking out fewer than four batters per nine innings last season. His control has also faltered a bit of late and no matter how many groundballs he gets, a strikeout to walk rate around one is not going to cut it in the big leagues. If Twins fans expect Blackburn to repeat his 2008 and 2009 success, they are in for a disappointment. His 2010 season, with an ERA well over five, seems more likely.
Austin Jackson is no doubt one of the most exciting players in baseball. The Tigers talented center fielder makes spectacular plays in the outfield, runs the bases well, and has some emerging raw power that could make him a true super star. But he's not there yet. Despite hitting .293 last season and finishing second in rookie of the year voting, the bat has a lot of room for improvement. Jackson led the league in strikeouts with 170 last season and for a guy without much power who doesn't walk, that's a problem. He'll probably steal a good number bases this season and the glove is already among the best in baseball, but until he learns to make consistent contact and walk more often, there's tremendous offensive downside here.
This isn't going to be a popular pick, and in the long run I fully believe the Royals minor league system will be successful. The way Dayton Moore is building that organization could lead to many a playoff appearance a few years down the road, the way the Rays have been successful the past few years. But those that believe the Royals' farm system will help the club win in the near future are going to be disappointment. For one, a team with no playoff hopes isn't going to start the arbitration clock of future super stars earlier than they have to. And despite how talented Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustaskas, Will Myer, John Lamb, Mike Montgomery (etc., etc.) are, they'll take some time to adjust to the big league level. None of those guys have much experience above A-ball. The youth movement should work, but not for a few years.
At just 26 years old, John Danks is already one of the leagues better pitchers. Over the past three seasons, Danks has won 41 games with an ERA of 3.61, making 32 starts in each season. He's young, he's talented, and he's the picture of consistency. So why might he disappoint? John Danks at his best, in 2008, wasn't really a strikeout pitcher. He could strikeout a decent number of batters though and his control was very good for a 23-year-old lefty. He struck out 157 and walked just 59, posting a 3.32 ERA, the best of his career. Last season, though, Danks struck out just 6.8 batters per nine innings and walked over three batters per nine. Whether it's a heavy workload or simply a pitcher heading towards an early decline, Danks' stuff has not been as effective recently. It's something to watch.
The Indians are off to a nice start, when you have as few expectations as this Cleveland team had entering the season, it's tough to pinpoint a disappointing aspect of your club. The Indians have a mediocre, but young and improving rotation and their lineup also has some nice pieces. Their bullpen though, led by Chris Perez, could be a cause for concern going forward. Perez was very effective last season saving 23 games with a 1.71 ERA and has been just about flawless this season. Yet the control problems reamin. Perez's strikeout to walk rate last season was just above two and far bellow what would be considered closer-worthy. Tony Sipp, a hard throwing lefty setup man also had a nice 2010 season, but walked well over five batters per nine. And while Rafael Perez has demonstrated elite skills in the past, inconsistency is an issue. This bullpen has talent, but it's also prone to walking batters and blowing leads. If the pitching staff and lineup keep this up, the bullpen could let them down.