1. Cliff Pennington will be a top-five AL SS.
Pennington was a line drive machine last season, finishing sixth among all qualified hitters in both leagues with a 24.8 percent rate. The season before, Pennington still checked in at a solid 21.5 percent, which would suggest ‘11 wasn’t a total aberration. Thus, coinciding with his excellent plate discipline in the minors (nearly 1:1 K/BB rate), Pennington would seem to have a solid chance to improve quite a bit on his .302 wOBA in ‘11, especially if he can start using his non-line drive powers for good (as in, more grounders).
2. Anibal Sanchez will be the best roto starter in Miami (and best outright).
I’ve heard rumblings that the new park could be Petco East, but even before that I loved Sanchez’ potential. Last season, Sanchez induced almost 45 percent ground balls while fanning more than a hitter per inning (24.3 percent overall). However, it only resulted in an 8-9 campaign and a good, but not necessarily shiny 3.67 ERA. The durability is already there (two straight seasons of ~195 IP), so if he can normalize his HR rate a bit towards his career marks, there should be no reason he doesn’t win 15-plus games.
3. Scott Baker will be a top 10-15 starter in the American League.
My affinity for Baker is already well-documented, but I’m also not high on the AL Central as a whole this year — expect Chicago and Cleveland to take steps back — and even when he faces a loaded Detroit lineup, he’ll either be doing it in his extremely accommodating home digs (2.34 career ERA at Target Field, 45.0 percent career FB rate), or at an also-helpful Comerica Park (88/108 park factor via StatCorner). Durability will be key here.
4. Tyler Flowers will assume the starting catcher duties in Chicago, and be a viable fantasy catcher down the stretch.
A.J. Pierzysnki holds 10-5 rights in Chicago, but I foresee a rebuilding year on the south side, and think that A.J. will waive those rights to go to a contender at some point this summer (how about another veteran catcher to block Devin Mesoraco, Mr. Baker?). I don’t know that Flowers, at his size, can stick behind the plate, but I think he could be good for 10 or so home runs, a palpable batting average, and plenty of opportunity.
Adams is already the superior pitcher, but I just didn’t see quite enough from Nathan last season to feel like I’m completely confident he’ll return to his old 10-12 K/9 ways, which I think Adams can provide. Certainly Nathan doesn’t have to get back to those to be an effective late-inning hurler, but to close on arguably the best team in the junior circuit, he’ll probably have to come close. Maybe it’s just society, but more likely it’s just the fact that Nathan is entering his age-37 season, and that arm surgery didn’t do him any favors. Adams was downright scintillating last season (with an ungodly 0.79 WHIP), and might reverse course on not signing an extension in Texas if the club is willing to give him a longer commitment with the closer’s role attached.
6. Jason Kubel will pound 30 home runs, and still not be much more than a 1.5-2.0 win player.
Chase Field was built for Kubel, who has sputtered in two seasons after the Twins moved to Target Field, which was one of the league’s worst run environments the past couple seasons. Take a look at these extra base hit park factors for Chase for lefties: 115-172-114 (2B-3B-HR respectively). Target Field, on the other hand, is a 91 for home runs (nine percent suppression below average). Provided Kubel can stay healthy, and fend of Gerardo Parra in left, there’s a good chance Kubel could return to the player he was back in 2009. That’s a player who had a 907 OPS, but was still only worth 2.7 wins because he was able to be shielded in the DH role for 82 of the 146 games in which he appeared.
7. The Cincinnati Reds will win the NL Central by 10-plus games.
For a fantasy spin on this one — it is RotoGraphs after all — I really think Jay Bruce takes the next step and becomes a superstar, and that Zack Cosart is a revelation at shortstop for the club. Mat Latos, despite moving to a much less accommodating park, will still be an awesome pick by virtue of his strikeout potential, and I’m expecting continued growth out of Homer Bailey in ‘12 as well (love that 3.2 K/BB rate). On the team side, I don’t trust the Brewers to be as good as last year — for obvious reasons — and I think the Cardinals will still be very good, but just not quite good enough to know off this rising group in Cincy.
8. The Cleveland Indians will regress considerably in 2012.
Let’s face it, Asdrubal Cabrera was a mirage in the second half, and the rest of the infield is in its first full year, or is ground ball machine Casey Kotchman, who is one year removed from the historically-bad Seattle Mariners giving up on him. Think about that for a second. The outfield is a mess, where only Shin-Soo Choo is really any good, and even he’s coming off a down season. The pitching staff is way too contact dependent for how defensively defunct this club is, and the bullpen is one Chris Perez implosion (check his K rates) away from being completely in flux. They were outscored by nearly 60 runs last year, and still almost finished .500. I’d bet they win closer to 70 than 90 this year.
9. The Colorado Rockies will finish in fourth place in the NL West.
They got older, but they didn’t get better. Michael Cuddyer can’t field, can’t hit righties, and is headed into his mid-30s, and still got more money than a superior hitter in Josh Willingham, and was signed in favor of Seth Smith, a comparable player with reverse splits. Jeremy Guthrie, at least to me, has always profiled as the kind of guy that was always worth more to the Orioles than he was to anyone else; he doesn’t strike anyone out, doesn’t really stand out as a ground ball or fly ball pitcher, and has a career FIP of 4.68. To me, this offseason was about spending money just to do it, and the Rockies failed miserably.
10. The Washington Nationals will win the NL East, and at least one playoff game.
What can I say? I love the rotation, love the back of the ‘pen, and can really envision the offense rounding out into a more-than-capable group. This is the one I’d feel least confident about, but each time I study it, I love it a bit more. Go find a centerfielder!
Bonus – Huston Street will be the best closer in the NL West. Those rates in that ballpark? YES PLEASE.