In the race for AL Central supremacy, the fate of the three front runners - the Twins, Tigers, and White Sox - could very likely rest on the shoulders of a handful of players looking to come back strong. Today we'll examine which players fans of those team should expect to come back, and which are likely to disappoint.
Magglio Ordonez: Ordonez was hardly useless last year, posting a solid .804 OPS. But for a guy who has a career OPS of of .884, that's not quite what Tigers fans have come to expect. The primary reason for the decline a big decline in the power department. After raking 55 extra base hits in 2009, he had just 35 last year - just nine of which were home runs. More troubling still, it wasn't the first year of decline - he had an absurd 82 extra base hits in 2008.
For a guy who will be 36 this year, the days of posting MVP numbers are likely behind Magglio, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he should rebound nicely this year and be more like the hitter he was in 2008, than the guy he was in 2009.
First and most importantly, while there was a significant decline in power production, there wasn't much change in Ordonez' ancillary numbers. His strikeout, walks, and line drive rates remain essentially unchanged. The one huge difference was in ground ball rate. Magglio, as is the case with most power hitters, has always been an extreme fly ball hitter. Last year that changed radically as his ground ball rate shot up to 51% from a career rate of 44.2%.
To me, that suggests a mechanical issue, and mechanical issues can be fixed with good coaching. I'd be far more concerned if we were seeing declines in the other numbers, as that would suggest lower bat speed, or declining ability to recognize and react to pitches. We don't see any of that. With a fine spring training under his belt where he mashed six extra base hits along with a pair of homers in just 51 at-bats, I'd expect Magglio to produce just fine in the middle of the Tigers order and provide a lot more run producing power to a lineup I think will surprise a lot of people in 2009.
Dontrelle Willis: After being left by the side of the road for garbage removal, Willis has seemingly risen from the dead to reclaim a spot in the Tigers rotation. The Tigers front office clearly felt strong enough about Willis that they we're willing to trade Nate Robertson to the Marlins. Robertson having plenty of his own issues and his own bloated contract obviously convolutes the impressiveness of Willis' feat, but given where he has been the last couple years, this should be seen as a very good sign.
When most people think of Willis, they tend to remember him as the dominant youngster he was with the Marlins back in the early part of the decade. The weird thing is that despite some gaudy ERA and W/L numbers, he was never really that terribly dominant. His fastball velocity at it's peak only averaged 90.5 mph, he only once topped 7 K/9, only once had a walk rate lower than 2.7 BB/9, and has only once had a ground ball rate over 50%. Of all the things pitchers generally need to do well in order to be successful, Willis hasn't really ever done any of them.
To me that means he was getting by on deception, whether it was the crazy leg kick or the weird 3/4, almost sidearm slot he used to throw with. Either way, hitters figured him out. When they did, it left a lot of people feeling confused, but really, there was never much to be confused by. Willis, was, and always has been, a pretty mediocre pitcher. The problem is that beginning in 2006, his walk rate began to deteriorate. It was somewhat steady at first, but his command fell off a cliff after joining the Tigers and since signing a huge contract with the team, he's made just 14 starts in two seasons, with a combined ERA over 8.00.
Things might be looking up for Willis and the Tigers however. Reports this spring are that Willis is throwing in the high 80's, which is just a bit lower than his career norms, and that he's gotten his command issues under control enough to be useful.
I however, remain highly skeptical. While reports of better command are nice, 12 walks in 19.1 spring innings against just 13 strikeouts doesn't bode well at all. While one should never look into spring training innings much at all, in Willis' case, you almost have to. One thing Willis has done a phenomenal job of however, is keeping the ball on the ground, getting 2 ground ball outs for every fly out this spring.
On a personal level, I want Willis to succeed. I've followed his decline pretty closely since his days with the Marlins and remember what a great ambassador for the game he seemed to be. Willis was the sort of player it was difficult to root against, and that remains true to this day. He's always struck me as a pretty humble guy, and to read some of the quotes from him when he was down was just sad. Unfortunately, I also have to listen to my common sense, and on the whole, I don't expect much from Willis this year and I'm afraid he'll be out of the rotation within a month.
Alex Rios: Earlier, in discussing Magglio Ordonez, I pointed out how I would be concerned to see a player posting declining numbers in their strikeout, walk, and line drive rates. I used that to illustrate why I expected Magglio Ordonez to have a return to normalcy this season. Well, it is for precisely those same reasons that I am more concerned about Rios.
Even after wasting his first two seasons with OPS numbers in the low .700s and a disastrous 2009, Rios has been a career .289/.330/.444 hitter. He posted back-to-back .850+ OPS seasons in 2006 and 2007 and a solid if unspectacular .798 in 2008. So even with three really ugly seasons in his short career, he's been at least a league average offensive player.
That said, all the trend lines for Rios are going the wrong way. His ISO (isolated power) has decline in four straight seasons, and his strikeout and walk rates have trended the wrong way for three straight seasons. His line drive rate, pretty consistently at around 20% for his career nose dived to 16.4% last year.
Those numbers definitely suggest a player who's skill set is diminishing. He simply doesn't seem to be seeing the ball as well, and is no longer able to square it up the way he once was. There is evidence that he may have been able to mask his decline to some extent in 2008 by posting a .337 BABIP, his highest mark ever and 12 points above his career average, though the .798 OPS should've provided some evidence to his lessening skills. Last year however, he was definitely the victim of some bad luck as his BABIP was just .273.
While the trend lines suggest that his decline is real, and his BABIP last year suggests he was unlucky, I personally tend to trust the trend lines more. Even if Rios' BABIP last year was in like with his career average, of .319, which would've added a substantial 36 points to his batting average, 2009 still would've ranked as his worst season since 2005.
I'm confident that Rios will rebound to some extent in 2010, but I'm also confident that his days of being a .800 OPS hitter are likely over. Given the contact commitment the White Sox are on the hook for with him, that could be a very bad thing indeed. Generally speaking Kenny Williams is one of the savviest GMs in baseball, but I think he may have miscalculated this move. Hopefully for the White Sox faithful, I'm wrong.
Jake Peavy: Clearly this is less a conversation about some kind of decline that Peavy had, and more about his return from injury, but there is one possible sign of decline in Peavy too. Most prominently I'm referring to his walk rate. While they're hardly been bad the past couple of years, they aren't what they once were either. From 2004 through 2007, a stretch of four seasons, the WORST walk rate Peavy ever posted was 2.87 BB/9.
While nit-picking on a slightly worse walk rate than normal might be considered reaching, it is worth being aware of. We should also take note of slight decreases in velocity the past couple of seasons. While velocity tends to be over-valued by fans and research shows the difference between fastballs with equal movement and location tend to be almost exactly as effective regardless of the speed with which the pitch is thrown - the exceptions being above 96 mph or below 85 mph - declining velocity does frequently (though hardly always) correlate with declining overall skills.
The good news for Sox fans is that Peavy was dominant in his return last fall. While the strikeout rates were predictably off just a little bit, the walk rate looked good and he kept the ball in the ballpark nicely. He's had some command issues this spring, and while there has been some hand wringing in the media, I'm inclined to believe it's nothing.
I expect big things from Peavy this year, and if he can return to his Cy Young winning form, he could just lead the White Sox to the playoffs.
Carlos Quentin: Much like Peavy, Quentin struggled through an injury plagued 2009 season, but when he's on and when he's healthy he's be a legitimate force in the middle of any lineup. Given the trade of Jim Thome and the off season departure of Jermaine Dye, Quentin will be expected to provide much of the punch in the middle of the Chicago offense.
If Quentin can provide anything like the .965 OPS he did in 2008, it's going to make the White Sox a much tougher team to contend with. Standing in Quentin's way will be an off walk rate, historically poor line drive rates, and increasing fly ball rates.
High fly ball rates and poor line drive rates will pretty much always coincide with below normal BABIP numbers, and Quentin is no exception. If his career BABIP of .255 seems freakishly low, that's because it is. It also means his BABIP of .282 in 2008 suggested he was a bit lucky that year, and a bit unlucky last season. I'm expecting something in the neighborhood of a .860-.880 OPS this year.
J.J. Hardy: Hardy was acquired by the Twins in a trade for Carlos Gomez. It was a good trade in the sense that each team was trading from a position of strength to fill a position of weakness. In the Twins case, they had Denard Span to take over for the offensively challenged Gomez, and the Brewers had top prospect Alcides Escobar ready to take over for declining incumbent Hardy.
Like Rios, who I discussed earlier in this post, Hardy has a lot of negative trend lines that don't bode well for future success. The strikeout rate has risen for three straight years to 20.5% this last year, and his line drive rate has fallen for three straight seasons to an almost impossibly low 13.9% last year. His power also fell off a cliff from a career high ISO of .195 in 2008 to .128 last year. Furthermore a study of his BABIP last year leads one to believe luck wasn't a huge factor last year as his .260 mark wasn't too far off his career .278.
If there was any sign of hope for Hardy last year it was that his walk rate was the best of his career. The Twins won't be relying Hardy to power their offense by any means, and right now it looks like he'll be slotted 7th or 8th in the order. All the same, Hardy was brought in with the intent of shoring up the incredibly weak offense the team received at shortstop and second base last year, and with a 5.1m payroll number, he'll be expected to provide something for the team with the bat.
Thankfully to say, much of Hardy's value is tied up in the fact that he's a plus defender at a defense first position, and that did not take a step backward last season. It'll be interesting to see how the move to the AL effects Hardy - generally that doesn't bode well for the player - if that trend holds true and Hardy isn't able to regain his old offensive form, Bill Smith will have missed once again in a trade.
Everything having been said, I'm not too high on Hardy and I don't expect much of a bounce back season, though he shouldn't be quite as bad as last year. If he can give the Twins an OPS around .750, Twins fans should consider themselves lucky.
Francisco Liriano: After what can only be described as a dismal 2009, many Twins fans seemed ready to give up on Liriano. There was talk of moving him to the bullpen permanently, or trading him for whatever they could get. Thankfully for the Twins, that didn't happen. Instead Liriano headed off off to the Dominican Winter League and dominated. He then came to spring training and picked up where he left off. Between the Dominican League and the Cactus League he gave his teams 68.2 innings of shut-down baseball. In that span he struck out 97, walked 7, and allowed just two home runs.
Obviously those video game type numbers aren't going to carry over to the Majors, but the Twins and their fans have every reason to be excited. Perhaps most importantly, this is one of those situations where the numbers and the reports jive. Scouts have been saying that Liriano has regained more of his velocity, not all of it, but enough to make a difference. More importantly, his slider, once one of baseballs most devastating pitches, is breaking harder and deeper with more consistency than it has since 2006.
Right now Liriano is projected to be the Twins 5th starter but I have a feeling he's going to end up as their ace by the time May comes around. Either way, he should be significantly better than he was in 2009, and I think his downside might be his 2008 second half which was pretty solid in its own right. If Liriano can return to being a #1 or #2 - or even a #3 he's going to make a big difference in the outcome of the Twins 2010 season.