MLB Predictions: K-Rod and the 15 Biggest "Wild Cards" of 2011
Heading into the 2011 MLB season, we all know about the players who are going to be their good old, productive selves. Roy Halladay is going to anchor a star-studed rotation, Albert Pujols is going to continue to hit bombs as a St. Louis Cardinal, at least for one more season, and Joey Votto will continue to show us why his 2010 National League MVP Award was no fluke—and those are just a few of the MLB's consistent greats.
However, a baseball team is composed of 25 players, and they can't all be All-Stars.
A lot of times, it's a team's role players that make them great. I think you needn't look any further than the 2010 San Francisco Giants club, who won the World Series by riding the likes of rookie starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner and August waiver-claim, Cody Ross.
For the sake of this article, we're going to call those types of players "wild cards." Of course, I couldn't go any further without establishing some sort of precedent. What exactly is a "wild card" player. In this article, a wild card player will be the type of guy that, in order of his respective team to have success, absolutely must have a good season.
Without this player, a hole is created on the team's roster that, over the course of a 162 game season, will become a cause for concern. What are the criteria for being labeled a "wild card?" Basically, there are none. All players were eligible, and I only used a few, basic evaluators.
For example, players in similar situations were considered, but those with contenders were held to a higher regard. A majority of the players on this list are coming off of down or injured seasons, and teams that are relying heavily on said players are pushed further up the list.
So, without any further ado, here are the 15 biggest "wild cards" heading into the 2011 season.
15.) John Buck
John Buck is going to be sort of an exception on this list, seeing as he had a pretty good 2010 season with the Toronto Blue Jays. With that in mind, however, the Florida Marlins are counting on him to have a similar season, and that just may not be in the cards for the 30-year-old catcher.
When the World Series ended, it was no surprise that the Marlins would be in the market for a catcher. Over the course of the 2010 season, their starting catcher was John Baker and his numbers were pedestrian, at best. When he went down with an injury, replacements such as Ronny Paulino and Brad Hayes had their struggles as well. Adding a catcher was key.
Following a season where he posted a slash line of .281 / .314 / .489, with 20 home runs from behind the plate, the Marlins made a surprising, early commitment to Buck when they signed the catcher to a three year, $18 million deal early in the offseason.
Not too long after that, they moved interim slugger, Dan Uggla, to the Atlanta Braves.
With the feeling that they had added some cheaper, extra pop to the lineup the Marlins felt that Uggla, who was quickly becoming expensive, was expendable. They added a promising bullpen arm in right handed reliever Mike Dunn and replaced Uggla in the lineup with veteran utility-man, Omar Infante.
However, could Buck's 2010 season be a fluke?
A quick glance at his career numbers aren't promising. He is the owner of a career slash line of .243 / .301 / .421, and prior to his 2010 season he hadn't come close to hitting 20 home runs since 2007, when he slugged 18 with the Kansas City Royals.
In the long run, the Buck signing could prove to be beneficial. At first glance, the Marlins appear to have improved their bullpen and catching depth, and replaced Uggla with an adequate defender in the field. However, if Buck struggles and Uggla's power in the lineup can't be replaced, the Marlins as a whole could struggle in 2011.
14.) Craig Kimbrel
Though Billy Wagner is still officially on the team's 40-man roster, the Atlanta Braves are well aware of the fact that the veteran closer will not be in camp and is retiring following the 2010 season. Wagner, 39, decided to ride off into the sunset following a great campaign; one that saw him post a record of 7-2, with an ERA of 1.43 and 37 saves. At a glance, you'd think that the Braves would have to look on the open market to replace that level of production.
But not so fast.
Late in the season, the Braves promoted promising right handed reliever Craig Kimbrel to the major leagues, and he pitched so well that manager Bobby Cox had no choice but to use him as Wagner's set-up man.
In 21 games, the young right-hander pitched to a record of 4-0, with an ERA of just 0.44. Though it's a small sample size, it's worth noting that the man punched out a ridiculous 17.24 hitters per nine innings.
Though new skipper Freddi Gonzalez has yet to commit to Kimbrel as his closer, saying that he could share the duties with promising left-hander Jonny Venters, it's apparent that at first glance, it's Kimbrel's job to lose. If he can come close to pitching as effectively as he did at the end of the 2010 season in 2011, it will go a long way in replacing Wagner, and more importantly, cement him as the Braves' closer of the future.
They'll need him to be "as advertised" if they want to challenge the Philadelphia Phillies.
13.) Jake Peavy
Though it seems like an odd thing to say, considering the results from the last few seasons, the AL Central has become one of the tougher divisions in baseball for those who are in it.
Though the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals aren't likely to make much noise this season, the Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox are likely to battle it out for the title all season long.
If the White Sox want to have a real chance, they'll need the so far-disappointing Jake Peavy to be the ace that they expected when they shipped four top prospects to the San Diego Padres for him at the 2009 trade deadline.
After making just three starts for the White Sox in 2009, he came into the 2010 season hoping for something more. Well, he did pitch in a few more games, but nonetheless, was disappointing. In 17 games for the south-siders, posting a record of 7-6, with a 4.63 ERA. Not what they were expecting, that's for sure.
After undergoing surgery to reattach a muscle in his right arm, Peavy hopes to join the White Sox by Opening Day and finally be the ace that they expected. If they want to contend in the AL Central, they may need him. After all, the Twins and Tigers aren't going to roll over and play dead, and if they want to win the Central crown, they'll need the pitching to back up their newly found offense.
12.) Domonic Brown
Despite adding Cliff Lee to their starting rotation, the Philadelphia Phillies lost a good bit of offense when one of the league's top outfielders, Jayson Werth, signed a seven year, $126 million deal with the Washington Nationals.
Entering free agency for the first time as an All-Star caliber player, Werth cashed in on a .296 / .388 / .532 line, to go along with 27 home runs. How in the world are the Phillies going to replace that production?
In the long run, it's all going to boil down to what Domonic Brown does in the major leagues, but the pressure on him isn't as great as you think. Werth shined for the Phillies in a year where injuries plagued their offense. Heading into Spring Training, the Phillies managed to replace some of Werth's lost production just by putting healthy bodies on the field, including perennial All-Stars, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins.
Now, the pressure on Brown, who had his share of struggles in the major leagues, isn't as great. After Shane Victorino hit the DL with an oblique injury late in the season, the Phillies gave Brown the nod to take his spot on the roster. He hit a couple of impressive home runs, but struggled all the same.
He posted a slash line of .210 / .257 / .355, with two home runs.
The Phillies know that it takes time to adjust to major league pitching, so they aren't all too worried. After all, the young outfielder completely destroyed minor league pitching in 2010, after posting a slash line of .332 / .391 / .582, with 20 home runs and 17 stolen bases. Even after the outfielder's struggles in winter ball, the Phillies are more than convinced that his struggles were just that. He just needs some time to adjust .
With manager Charlie Manuel having announced that Brown will be given a majority of the looks in right field in Spring Training, it seems like it's his job to lose. The Phillies hope he'll be able to provide the same jolt that other promising rookies like Buster Posey and Jason Heyward did for their respective teams in 2010.
11.) Brandon Webb
Make no joke about it—the Texas Rangers losing Cliff Lee was a huge blow to their rotation.
Even with stellar years from the likes of CJ Wilson and Colby Lewis, the Rangers spent most of their offseason trying to upgrade their rotation. After deciding not to move former starter, and current closer, Neftali Feliz back to the rotation, the Rangers took a chance on a former Cy Young who's been struggling with injuries.
Despite not having stepped on a mound since early in the 2009 season, the Rangers felt as though Brandon Webb was a nice fit for their ball club. Rehabbing from several arm injuries, Webb is looking to bounce back in a big way, having signed a one year, $3 million deal, stocked with incentives.
Webb, 31, is still one of the game's elite pitchers when he's healthy. In his last full season in 2008, he posted a record of 22-7 with an ERA of 3.30. The Rangers, however, will just hope that he's healthy. He'll be a great addition to Wilson and Lewis, along with other guys like Tommy Hunter. If all he can do is stay healthy the whole season and pitch like a number three starter, they'll take it.
10.) Josh Beckett
Arguably, no team in baseball made more noise this offseason than the Boston Red Sox. They traded a couple of top prospects to the San Diego Padres to add slugging first baseman, Adrian Gonzalez. They signed the top outfielder on the market, Carl Crawford, to a hefty contract. They completely revamped their bullpen by adding quality arms like Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler.
With that in mind, however, their greatest "wild card" will come from within.
Over the last couple of seasons, the Red Sox have watch a couple of farm raised arms develop into top major league starting pitchers. With Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz having come into their own, the Red Sox will be relying on a couple of wily veterans to round out their rotation. While you can make a similar case for John Lackey, the Red Sox biggest "wild card" is Josh Beckett.
To some, the results of Beckett's 2010 season were a harbinger of his impending doom. He posted a record of 6-6, with an ERA that somehow surpassed five, at 5.78. Talking to some stat junkies, his results are a culmination of a steady decline in his "stuff." However, speaking with Red Sox Nation, there is still hope for Beckett's resurgence.
Personally, I lie somewhere between the two extremes. With Lester and Buchholz manning the front of the rotation, the Red Sox really need Beckett to stay healthy, first and foremost. His best seasons are probably behind him, but he doesn't have to be a number one any longer. What the Red Sox really need are Beckett and Lackey to be quality three and four type arms.
If Beckett can stay healthy and pitch well, the Red Sox could go a long way.
9.) Carlos Zambrano
Over the last couple of seasons, has there been a melting pot of emotions quite like Carlos Zambrano? During a 2007 season that saw him emerge as one of the National League's top starters, the Cubs inked Zambrano to a hefty five year, $91 million contract. Now three years in, they're probably wishing they had that one back.
Nonetheless, when he was on the field in 2010, he was pretty good for the Cubs. He posted a record of 11-6 to go with an ERA of 3.33 and strikeout and walk rates that were within the norm for his career. After scuffling with then teammate Derrek Lee, however, the Cubs were forced to send the rage-a-holic to the Restricted List.
When he came off of the Restricted List, however, he was money. With his emotions in check and the distractions behind him, Zambrano tapped into that reservoir of potential after the All-Star break and dialed up an incredible stretch run for the Cubs. He posted a record of 8-0 with an ERA of just 1.58.
If the Cubs want to contend with the likes of the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers in 2011, they'll need to be able to rely on a focused Zambrano all season long.
8.) Johan Santana
The New York Mets are in quite a sticky situation, and in the long run it's hard to predict just how good or bad they actually are. If there are two guarantees heading into the 2011 season, it's this: they're the subject of a nasty lawsuit and ace Johan Santana is going to be opening the season on the Disabled List as he recovers from offseason surgery.
Before hitting the Disabled List late in the season, Santana was en route to another, well, Santana-like season. Even as the Mets offense scuffled, he posted a record of 11-9, with an ERA of just 2.98. Entering a season where he's set to make $22.5 million, the Mets are feeling his loss already, with a rotation that looks notably weaker without his name penciled in on the depth chart.
However, maybe things aren't all gloom for the Mets. They are going into Spring Training with a new general manager who has his eye set on rebuilding the club and a manager that wants what's best for his new team. There won't be any guaranteed positions to the likes of Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo, and fans can look forward to repeat performances out of guys like Angel Pagan and RA Dickey.
If the Mets can hang in the playoff race long enough, Santana may just be the boost they need to shock the baseball world.
7.) Vernon Wells
When the offseason began, many people around baseball expected the Los Angeles Angels to be the biggest players. After a year where they lost first baseman Kendry Morales to a nasty, freak injury and eventually their division crown to the rival Texas Rangers, General Manager Tony Reagins was expected to completely retool moving forward.
In fact they were the favorites, before the offseason began, to land three of the offseason's top prizes—Carl Crawford, Adrian Beltre and Rafael Soriano.
In case you're keeping score, they acquired, "none of the above."
Instead, Reagins made one of the offseason's worst deals, sending a couple of power threats in Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli to the Toronto Blue Jays for the notoriously overpaid, Vernon Wells. Now, as the offseason's lone acquisition outside of set-up man Scott Downs, there is an incredible amount of pressure on Wells to excel.
To be fair, Wells is never going to live up to the seven year, $126 million contract he signed with the Blue Jays. It just isn't likely. However, he did have a quietly good season in 2010. He posted a slash line of .273 / .331 / .515, with 31 home runs, while playing average defense. Handling left field for the Angels should improve that area as well.
However, he's moving into a ballpark that he has struggled in over the course of his career. 2010 seemed to be the epitome of that fact—In 22 at-bats, he posted a slash line of .182 / .308 / .273. If the Angels are counting on the likes of Wells to up-end the Rangers, they could be in for a long, long season.
6.) Ryan Ludwick
When the Boston Red Sox acquired Adrian Gonzalez earlier in the offseason, they did more than just add to their own team—they managed to create a glaring hole in the middle of the San Diego Padres offense.
While promising first basemen like Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Blanks will be able to contribute at the major league level in the future, right now the Padres offense is looking noticeably thin.
As part of a three team deal with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians, the Padres acquired Ludwick at the trade deadline while sending promising pitching prospects Nick Greenwood and Corey Kluber to the Cardinals and Indians, respectively.
Hoping to add a bit of power to their lineup to protect Gonzalez and make a late playoff push, the Padres were extremely disappointed with Ludwick. After joining the Padres, he posted an anemic slash line of .211 / .301 / .330, with just six home runs. He was so bad for the Padres that they considered non-tendering him before the deadline.
However, with a contract in hand, it's time for Ludwick to put up or shut up. He'll be the main power threat in a weak Padres lineup, power-wise, and they may go as far offensively as he can take them. While the Padres can't expect his line to mirror his 2008 season, at this point, they'll just take an improvement.
5.) Francisco Rodriguez
As the namesake of this article, Francisco Rodriguez is as much of a "wild card" if there ever was one.
After setting the major league record for saves in a single season in 2008 with the Los Angeles Angels, people expected "K-Rod" to cash in on the free agent market, and cash in he did.
He signed a three year, $37 million deal with the New York Mets and set out on a crusade to become the most dominant closer in the National League East. That being said, his first season with the Mets was a bit of a disappointment.
All things considered, performance wise, Rodriguez was pretty good for the Mets in 2010. In fact, he was really good. While striking out more than ten batters per nine innings, he converted 26 saves and posted an ERA of just 2.20, with a FIP that suggested his personal performance wasn't all too far behind (2.63).
However, it was his off-the-field saga that makes him a "wild card" heading into the 2011 season. First, in May, Rodriguez was spotted in a heated exchange with bullpen coach Randy Niemann, though that confrontation was allegedly resolved. Later in the season, following a game that the team lost, Rodriguez assaulted his girlfriend's father. The Mets placed him on the Restricted List until his legal situation was settled.
Things just got worse for the Mets closer from there. Later, it was revealed that in the altercation, Rodriguez had torn a ligament in his thumb. The Mets placed him on the Restricted List once again, threatening not to take him off until he was physically able to perform. Over the remainder of the season, he was arrested yet again for not obeying the terms of his girlfriend's restraining order.
One thing is certain—if the Mets are going to make any sort of noise in 2011, they'll need a healthy, focused, "Frankie" playing at the top of his game.
4.) Pablo Sandoval
It's pretty obvious that in hindsight, if the San Francisco Giants had to change one thing about their 2010 season, there wouldn't be anything to change. The ultimate goal is to win the World Series, and they accomplished that. However, had they faltered one player that would have shouldered a lot of blame would be third baseman Pablo Sandoval.
Following a season where he posted a slash line of .330 / .387 / .556, with 25 home runs, there were very high expectations for the young third baseman.
After his second straight season with a batting average over .300, things were looking promising for the "Kung-Fu Panda." However, looking back, it's easy to say that Sandoval was easily one of the biggest disappointments in baseball in 2010.
After showing up to Spring Training noticeably out of shape and forcing people to question his work ethic, Sandoval posted a slash line of just .268 / .323 / .409, with 13 home runs. Eventually, his weight and overall performance cost him his starting job.
Now, with a healthy Mark DeRosa in camp, Sandoval is going to have to earn his job back. He arrived in Spring Training following a grueling offseason regimen that helped him shed some pounds, but still, there are many question marks surrounding the third baseman. Can he have another great season? Will he be able to keep the weight off?
The Giants certainly hope so.
3.) Jonathan Broxton
Coming in at third on this list is another big man with several question marks heading into the 2011 season, Los Angeles Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton.
I'm not sure that there is a guy who looks more intimidating on the mound than Broxton. According to FanGraphs, he stands at 6'4" and 300 lbs, and throws consistently close to 100mph. That intimidation factor has turned into a ton of strikeouts over the years. However, Broxton found himself in a bit of an odd situation in 2010.
When everything was said and done, he posted a record of 5-6, converted 22 saves and blew seven, posted an ERA of 4.04 and by the end of the season, lost his job as the team's closer to set-up man, Hong-Chih Kuo. At the same time, Dodgers fans couldn't help but ask, "What is going on?"
One thing that became apparent of Broxton, he simply couldn't find the strike zone.
His walk-rate took a steady climb, and as a result, his WHIP sky-rocketed all the way to 1.48. With the opposition hitting close to .270 off of him, the Dodgers had no choice but to turn the ball over to Kuo.
Another thing that remains apparent, a dominant closer goes a long way into rounding a team into shape. If the Dodgers are going to compete with the likes of the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies, they'll need both Kuo and Broxton at full strength all season long.
2.) Ubaldo Jimenez
A few people are going to be surprised seeing a guy like Ubaldo Jimenez of the Colorado Rockies so high on a list like this, but don't get all bent out of shape. You may be asking yourself, "What more can the guy do?"
In a breakout season for the Rockies, the young right-hander threw a no-hitter of the most improbable fashion and posted a record of 19-8 with an ERA of 2.88. What makes him a "wild card?"
Though they aren't terrible, Jimenez's season splits are a bit worrisome, in my mind. After starting the season on fire, posting a record of 15-1 with an ERA of 2.20 and a no-hitter before the All Star break, it seemed like Jimenez winning 20-games was as close to a sure thing as you can get.
Following the All Star break, however, he struggled. He posted a record of 4-7 with an ERA of 3.80.
Looking at the Rockies starting rotation, they're going to need a bit more consistency out of Jimenez if they want to keep in contention with the San Francisco Giants, and even the Los Angeles Dodgers who are boasting a surprisingly deep starting rotation.
1.) AJ Burnett
If there is one player in all of baseball that needs to perform better for the sake of his team, however, it's AJ Burnett of the New York Yankees. We've heard his story often enough. After signing his five year, $82.5 million deal with the Yankees before the 2009 season, Burnett has been a collective disappointment.
In 2010, he had his worst season in New York to date. Burnett posted a record of 10-15 with an ERA of 5.26. With an offense any less prolific than that of the Yankees, Burnett's numbers may have looked even worse than that.
Regardless of what he did in 2010, the Yankees were going to look to upgrade their starting rotation in the offseason. Their man target? Cliff Lee.
After Lee spurned the Yankees to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies, the Bronx Bombers knew they were in trouble. At one point in the offseason, they considered bringing Carl Pavano back to New York, and he may have been even worse than Burnett in his stint there—the evidence is inconclusive, since he hardly ever played!
All jokes aside, and making a long story short, the Yankees were forced to settle with an unlikely crop of free agents. They signed former aces like Mark Prior, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia to minor league deals. With CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes the only other starters guaranteed spots in the rotation, the Yankees are in for an interesting spring.
The fourth and fifth spots in the rotation are wide open, with names like Prior, Colon, Garcia, Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre the combatants. This makes the need for Burnett to bounce back even more important. If the Yankees can't rely on Burnett to take the hill every fifth day, they could be in some serious trouble and end up looking at a stacked Boston Red Sox team.