This is the second part of a two-parter – looking at the specific players who were expected to make significant contributions in the AL Central in 2011, but failed (and hence have a larger-than-normal share of the blame for keeping their teams out of contention) and are expected to rebound in a big way in 2012 (and hence get a larger-than-normal share of the credit for getting their teams into the race).
Thanks to weak legs, Joe Mauer – previously the best offensive catcher in the game – didn’t play enough in 2011 and wasn’t terribly effective when he did. Mauer’s 2012 projections don’t indicate a return to his 2009 peak, but they do predict offensive production much closer to Mauer’s career averages. Combined with an extra 40 or 50 starts, that should be good for an extra 3.5 wins even if we ignore the fact that more time from Mauer takes at-bats away from some of the worst hitting backups in the majors.
As little as Mauer was able to contribute last year, Morneau contributed far less – posting a .274 wOBA in 69 games before being shut down due to those lingering after-effects of his concussion. It’s anyone’s guess how many games Morneau will be able to play in 2012, but his median projection (which would call for about 120 games with a wOBA a bit under his career average) would still add 3 wins over what he provided last season.
Matt Capps is not a great closer, but nor is he the kind of paraffin-thrower the Twins got last year with -1.12 wins by WPA. He’ll get to pitch in high-leverage situations, and he’s unlikely to pitch quite as badly – even if his projections still call for an ERA in the 3.8-3.9 range. A normal, if still relatively unimpressive, season from Capps should add 2 wins relative to 2011.
Ever-inconsistent Liriano was amazing in 2010, but awful in 2011 as he struggled with nagging injuries and the strike zone. He’s not likely to repeat that 5.09 ERA next year or any other year, even if he looks to be a long-shot to contend for a Cy Young award. A drop in ERA to a mere 4.00 should add 2 wins for the Twinks nonetheless.
All Together: 10.5 win bump. Though that would help to bridge the gap between Minnesota and real contenders, reasonable expectations for the Twins key veterans don’t indicate a return to genuine stardom. Unfortunately for fans in the Twin Cities, the gutting of the roster that has been taking place since the middle of the 2010 season may not have left Minnesota with a potential contender even if these bounce-back projections come true.
Chicago White Sox:
Dunn was signed to be a top-tier DH and he wound up one of the worst regular hitters in recent memory, with a .266 wOBA and a WAR total 2.9 wins below replacement level. Projections are less than optimistic for a full recovery from Dunn, with the median expectation making him a significantly below average (but above replacement level) designated hitter. Still, a merely mediocre Dunn – though he would be massively overpaid and still a huge disappointment – would add FOUR wins over what the White Sox suffered through last year.
As the White Sox high expectations crumbled, Dunn and Rios seemed to be engaged in a season-long duel for the right to get the blame. In all fairness, they are both to blame. Rios finished with the same .266 wOBA as Dunn, but only 0.7 wins below replacement due to the scarcity of center fielders that can mash. While his projections don’t call for a return to the 3.7 WAR of 2010, a slightly-below-average Rios will still improve the team by 2.5 wins.
Lets make one thing clear: Matt Thornton is a good reliever, he was good before 2011, he was good in 2011 and he will be good in 2012. The problem is that in 2011 he was great when it didn’t count and terrible when it did, leading to the loss of the closer role early in 2011 (though new manager Robin Ventura has him listed as closer for 2012 after Sergio Santos was dealt away) and -1.67 wins by WPA despite an ERA of 3.32 with good peripherals. If Thornton bounces back to his WPA totals from 2009-2010 – and I see no reason to expect him to continue to pitch so badly in the clutch – that will add 4.5 wins for the Sox over 2011.
Peavy represents the third of the White Sox big investments that have not paid dividends. After coming over from San Diego (while on the DL) in 2008, former ace Peavy has thrown a couple of half seasons with ERAs of 4.63 and 4.92. His peripherals have been good, including hits and homers allowed (strangely) but the end result has not. If Peavy is healthy enough to pitch a full season in the South Side and able to give an ERA to match his FIPs from the past two years the impact will be large. Projections don’t show any expectation that Peavy will make more than 20 starts or so (but they didn’t think Brad Penny could stay healthy either, it’s all based on past evidence) but the expected results in those 20 starts would still mean an improvement of at least 2 wins over last year, potentially as much as 4 if he could actually make 35 starts.
All Together: 12.5 wins added.
Add that to their win total from last year and you get 91.5. The White Sox have tried, but failed, to gut the roster to the level where they cannot compete if the guys on this list move closer to earning their massive salaries. Too bad for us. They could, of course, implode again, but I consider the White Sox to be legitimate competition until proven otherwise. The Indians, with an extra 9 wins from Sizemore, Choo and Jimenez, would be sitting at 89 – but the Indians were lucky to win 80 games in 2011. The White Sox – though they also outperformed their Pythagorean Record in 2011 (and so were lucky with wins based on runs scored and allowed) – were unlucky in the clutch on both sides of the plate, scoring fewer runs than their OPS would predict and allowing more.
In my opinion, the national and local media are right to consider the Tigers to be the team to beat in the AL Central but not to consider the division race a foregone conclusion. Many teams that were uncompetitive last year have, at the least, legitimate cause to expect a return to the neighborhood of .500 or above. The Indians and Royals will need a lot of extra production from unexpected quarters, even if their big threes perform up to expectations for a change. The same could be said for the Twins, but after losing so many talented players over the past 2 years the guys they need to step up (in a big way) are real long-shots to do that. The White Sox, on the other hand, seem to have been written off by everyone everywhere – including their own management and ownership – but they should consider themselves a genuinely dangerous team.