American League Two-a-Days: Toronto Blue Jays

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Toronto Blue Jays

2013 record: 74-88
2013 runs scored: 712
2013 runs against: 756
2013 pythag. record: 77-85

Toronto moved “all-in” in 2013, acquiring SS Jose Reyes and pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle from the Miami Marlins, before turning around and acquiring R.A. Dickey from the Mets.  It didn’t exactly work out for the Jays, who finished last in the AL East in 2014.  For an encore, Toronto is more or less the same team in 2014 that they were supposed to be in 2013.  Johnson has moved on, but the rest of the Blue Jays are back to give it another go, and there should be a lot of positive regression to help this team.

Toronto could have made a move or two to improve on last year’s team, but mostly stood pat in the offseason.  As such, they are a fringe contender for the AL East crown, and a mild contender for an AL Wild Spot in 2014.

Who is having a good spring?

Outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista, with the former having a team leading 13 hits and the latter leading the team with 3 spring homers.  1B/DH types Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind have combined for 36 total bases this spring.  Top pitching prospect Drew Hutchinson is having a sensational spring, striking out 16 while walking run.  He is in the mix for a spot in the rotation.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Blue Jays

This can’t go as badly as last year did for the Jays.  The rotation figures to be a strength, with RHP Brandon Morrow joining Buerhle and Dickey as a nice front three.  The key is for this group to stay healthy and in rotation, as depth is limited.  The Blue Jays ran out a fantastic bullpen a year ago and figure to produce something similar in 2014.

All of those players who are hitting in the spring make up the middle of the lineup for the Jays, and every one of them hit last season.  Toronto’s lineup offers a variety of power and patience.  They will work a lot of walks, drive the ball for extra base hits, and they are a strong baserunning team.

The starting lineup is fairly versatile and gives manager John Gibbons a lot of flexibility to get the best players in the lineup.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Blue Jays

The trades with the Mets and Marlins drained the organization of it’s depth and the Blue Jays have had a real issue keeping the players on the 25-man roster healthy for a full season, ranking at the top of the league in DL days the last two seasons.  At some point, Toronto is going to have to lean on injury prone pitchers like Kyle Drabek and Morrow to win games.   They’ll have to rely on injury prone SS Jose Reyes to give them a full season.

Beyond Reyes, the infield is an area of weakness.  Brett Lawrie had a fantastic rookie year in 2011, but hasn’t managed to improve since then.  He plays 2nd and 3rd if necessary.  The options to play second are Ryan Goins, and Maicer Izturis, the latter is on the second of a three year contract.  The Jays may need to upgrade at second base, and should consider working out a deal with the Royals for Johnny Giavotella, who is crushing the ball in spring training, but will be passed on the organizational depth chart by Christian Colon shortly.

Defensively, the Blue Jays are a bad team.  This will not help very much with the high rates of contact allowed by Buerhle and Dickey, even though both field their own positions fantastically.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Blue Jays is 37.5, 9th in the American League.  Their 23.2 Batters WAR projection is 5th in the AL. Their 14.3 Pitchers WAR projection is 9th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Blue Jays to win 82 games, an 8 win improvement over last season.  Jose Bautista is the Blue Jay with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 4.4.  R.A. Dickey is the pitcher with the best average projection at 2.6 WAR.

The Blue Jays vs the rest of the AL East

The AL East is baseball’s strongest division in 2014.  The Rays and Red Sox are top seven teams, in the elite class of baseball teams, and the Yankees and Blue Jays are anticipated to be top-half teams.  The Orioles are probably the best team expected to finish in fifth this season.  The Blue Jays are a longshot contender, because the Red Sox and the Rays are the class of the AL East this year.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays didn’t quite get it correct last season, but might get some better fortune this year on the way to an 84-78 record, and a third place finish in the AL East.  This is right on the fringe of being able to run with Boston the most of the year.  That’s going to be a tall task.  But they’ll be in the ballpark of teams like Kansas City, Cleveland, Seattle, Texas, Oakland and the Angels for the second wild card.  When they dealt for all those established veterans a year ago, they didn’t do so with the idea that they might be able to scrap together a single playoff game in two seasons, but that’s one of the better case scenarios for a team that won only 74 games a year ago.

American League Two-a-Days: Baltimore Orioles

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Baltimore Orioles

2013 record: 85-77
2013 runs scored: 745
2013 runs against: 709
2013 pythag. record: 85-77

Baltimore blew through pessimistic preseason projections last season driven mostly by being one of the top slugging teams in the AL.  They improved across the board, reaching the 85 win plateau.  They did not repeat their playoff season from 2012, although the improved competition in the AL was as much a factor in the Orioles getting trapped under teams like Kansas City, Texas, and Tampa.

The offseason push came very late for Baltimore, who will forfeit their first and second round draft picks after signing RHP Ubaldo Jimenez and DH Nelson Cruz.

Who is having a good spring?

SS JJ Hardy might be the best player on a team with many good ones.  He’s hitting .400/.455/.600 this spring.  OFs Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz are crushing the ball.  ‘Crushing’ is a relative term though, at least when Chris Davis hits .474/.545/.895.  On the pitching side, Baltimore has gotten quality innings from right hander Bud Norris and left hander Wei-Yin Chen.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Orioles

Baltimore has a fighting chance with an improved rotation.  They didn’t have either Norris or Jimenez on opening day last year.  The Oriole rotation is actually pretty good, although some serious regression is expected from Chris Tillman.  However: Jimenez, Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Chen, Norris is a pretty decent rotation.  Right-handed prospects Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy give the Orioles some rotation depth.

Baltimore is a very good, if a bit overrated, defensive unit.  They acquired one of the AL’s better defensive outfielders, David Lough in a trade with Kansas City this offseason.

Baltimore’s productive lineup was pretty young last season, averaging just 27.7 years of age.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Orioles

The young lineup for Baltimore produced a ton of extra base hits, but had a major weakness in getting on base.  Most of the right handed power in the lineup is swing-happy.  The acquisitions, Lough and Cruz, will not change that.  As is, Baltimore’s going to have a real issue with getting on base in 2014.  Possibly more serious is the full lineup power regression that the projection systems are predicting.  Fangraphs projects the Orioles to slug .427 as a team this season.  Last year they slugged .432.

When you factor in some defensive regression, the Orioles starting 9 slips to below average in 2014.  It’s still pretty talented overall.  But Manny Machado (coming off knee surgery) hasn’t played yet in live competition, and is not expected to be ready for the start of the season.  That will eat into a lot of the expectations for the O’s offense.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Orioles is 35.5, 11th in the American League.  Their 21.9 Batters WAR projection is 10th in the AL. Their 13.7 Pitchers WAR projection is 11th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Orioles to win 79 games, a 6 win decline over last season.  Chris Davis is the Oriole with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 3.6.  Ubaldo Jimenez is the pitcher with the best average projection at 3.0 WAR.

The Orioles vs the rest of the AL East

The AL East is baseball’s strongest division in 2014.  The Rays and Red Sox are top seven teams, in the elite class of baseball teams, and the Yankees and Blue Jays are anticipated to be top-half teams.  The Orioles are probably the best team expected to finish in fifth this season.  The Blue Jays are a longshot contender, but the Red Sox and the Rays are the class of the AL East this year.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles are not a bad team, but they will play the toughest schedule in major league baseball, and will have an uphill climb to finish above .500.  Baltimore should come in right around 80-82 after adjusting for the schedule.  It’s certainly not the worst in the AL, and in the right division in the NL, it could be a division contender.  In the AL East, this roster contending is pretty unrealistic.

This lineup will not be young forever, and Baltimore is going to have to make some tough decisions after the year.  In the mean time, fans should be able to enjoy another competitive team, although one that is probably too flawed and lacking in star power to make any serious noise in the American League.

American League Two-a-Days: Texas Rangers

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Texas Rangers

2013 record: 91-72 (lost play-in game to TBR)
2013 runs scored: 730
2013 runs against: 636
2013 pythag. record: 92-71

The Rangers overcame multiple pitching injuries and were excellent at preventing runs in 2013, led by Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus on defense.  The offense had a very inconsistent year, but produced at an above average level overall.  But the real story of the Rangers’ 2013 season was the September crash.

The Rangers as currently constructed have run out of gas each of the last three seasons, but progressively earlier.  They’ve looked like one of the best teams in baseball at different points in each of the last three years.  But they were an out away from the Championship in 2011, and couldn’t close.  They made it to the playoffs in 2012, but a disastrous last week of the season cost them the AL West title, a designation that they were 96% certain to achieve at the start of the week.

Last year, the fade began at the beginning of September.  The Rangers couldn’t right the ship until the final week of the season, but by then they had no lead in the AL Wild Card race, and had fallen far out of the AL West race, a race they led on September 1.  They had an unbelievably strong record against David Price of the Rays, the man they faced in the 163rd game, and the Rays still beat them decisively.

The question now is: are the Rangers still a good team?  They’ve aged since they peaked as an organization around the 2010 season.  They’ve done a great job of developing and signing their young talent in order to sustain their success.  Despite that, it’s an older team, and a lot of the big moves the Rangers have made (like trading Ian Kinsler to Detroit for 1B Prince Fielder) is about managing a roster that hasn’t been living up to the expectations they have set for themselves in recent seasons.

Who is having a good spring?

The Rangers are not having a good spring as a team, but Jurickson Profar is showing signs of the breakout season many are anticipating with a .300/.364/.525 line.  Yu Darvish looks like himself, and RHP Joakim Soria has yet to allow a run this spring.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Rangers

The organization continues to produce a lot of talent.  Profar could improve on Kinsler at second base, Fielder will probably improve on Mitch Moreland at first base, and Alex Rios will play right field for a full season over Nelson Cruz, who left in free agency.  The Rangers’ bullpen was excellent a year ago and should remain a strength.

The offense is likely to improve from last season as a group.  Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder join Adrian Beltre to give the Rangers a much more legitimate middle of the order than what they had been running out there the last two seasons.  Andrus and Profar are perfectly capable of holding down the top of the order.  Trying to build an offense when Ian Kinsler is the second best player on it is now Detroit’s problem.  A.J. Pierzynski batting fifth for a team with legitimate playoff aspirations is a thing of the past.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Rangers

The catcher acquired to replace Pierzynski, J.P. Arencibia, is actually worse offensively than Pierzynski is.  The Rangers project to be a good offensive team, but they’re still going to run out a bottom of the lineup that will be an out machine: Arencibia, Leodis Martin, and a Moreland/Michael Choice platoon maybe?

The pitching rotation is going to be problematic, unless the Rangers can sustain the great defense they enjoyed last season.  Darvish and Holland are a good top of the rotation, except that Holland is going to miss a couple of months, and some scouts are a bit skeptical about Darvish’s health with his velocity down a tick this spring.  Matt Harrison, who made two starts last season, is still not healthy.  Matt Garza left in free agency, so young prospect Martin Perez is bumped up to the second spot in the rotation — he’s best suited to be a no. 4 starter.  Then the back end of the rotation looks like Joe Saunders/Alexi Ogando/Tanner Scheppers/Colby Lewis for three spots.  Lewis is back as a non-roster invite, Ogando was the team’s swingman last year, Saunders was second in the AL in hits allowed for the Mariners, and Lewis missed the season with Tommy John.  Scheppers has been the most effective of the group this spring, but he was a relief ace last year, and hasn’t been stretched out quite yet this spring.  This is a desperate situation until Holland returns.

Scheppers to the rotation also means he can’t inherit Joe Nathan’s role as the closer after Nathan signed with Detroit in the offseason.  It could be Neftali Feliz who regains the role, after missing most of last season before returning to the bullpen in September.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Rangers is 41.2, 3rd in the American League.  Their 23.0 Batters WAR projection is 7th in the AL. Their 18.1 Pitchers WAR projection is 4th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Rangers to win 85 games, a 6 win decline over last season.  Yu Darvish is the Ranger with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 5.3.  Adrian Beltre is the position player with the best average projection at 4.8 WAR.

The Rangers vs the rest of the AL West

The AL West is a below average division, and the weakest of the AL divisions in 2014.  This despite having four above average teams and an “improved” Astros team.  This is the case because no teams in the AL West are a lock to win 90 games.  According to Cool Standings, the division winner is projected to win 86 games.  It’s a true four team race in 2014.  The Astros will not participate.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Texas Ragers

The projections are actually a fan of the Rangers’ pitching, but I’m a bit more skeptical of those chances.  The Rangers’ rotation is projected to produce 13.9 wins by Fangraphs, but it produced 11 WAR last year as a unit, and that’s with 6 wins from Darvish and 33 starts from Holland.  The rotation is in much worse shape this season.  If they can get 9 wins out of it, they should feel good about that, given where they are right now.  But that’s five wins in the projections the Rangers will have to make up somewhere.

Manager Ron Washington isn’t going to help much.  The defense will help a little bit in addition to the conservative projections, but the whole operation is problematic, and those 3-4 wins are going to have to come from either deep within the organization, or outside it.  I’m going to predict 82-80 based on the opening day roster, and whether they blow past that depends on whether impatient ownership forces GM Jon Daniels hand again and forces him to trade for pitching help (as happened last year with Garza).

American League Two-a-Days: Los Angeles Angels of Southern California but Specifically Anaheim

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Los Angeles Angels

2013 record: 78-84
2013 runs scored: 733
2013 runs against: 737
2013 pythag. record: 81-81

Pitching ended the Angels season prematurely in 2013, as the rotation got bombed in spring training and never quite got settled, not that the bullpen was much help.  But it’s easy to forget how loaded the Angels lineup is.  The 2013 Angels were both a horrible disappointment, and one of the best offensive teams in baseball.

No team has a better batter WAR projection than the 2014 Angels.  One of the key themes among the best teams in the AL is that they don’t have 5+ WAR stars on their roster, with the Tigers are the main exception.  This is not an issue with the Angels (or the Mariners).  The Angels have the best player in baseball: 22 year old Mike Trout.  And if they can get a full season of Jered Weaver, the Angels can make the postseason.

Who is having a good spring?

C Chris Iannetta has the best batting line for any of the Angels this spring at .385/.556/.769.  2B Howie Kendrick and SS Grant Green are off to nice starts.  And Mike Trout’s unimpressive 1.000 spring OPS just raises questions if he can do it in the playoffs.  On the pitching side, they’ve gotten quality innings from left-handed starters Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs, and C.J. Wilson.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Angels

They can really hit.  They were able to upgrade the rotation without cashing in the final two years of 2B Howie Kendrick’s deal.  They were able to upgrade it without trading SS Erick Aybar.  They acquired Grant Green, another MIF, for Alberto Callaspo at the deadline last year.  And with Iannetta and Hank Conger behind the plate, it gives them multiple options with a bat to play catcher.  The Centerfielder is Trout, so the Angels can hit throughout the lineup.

There’s going to be a rebound season coming for 1B Albert Pujols and OF Josh Hamilton.  Those are long, expensive contracts, but both guys can still help a team win.

The Angels also play good defense.  They got away from this in the more recent Mike Scoscia years, but this team can go get the ball with the best of them.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Angels

The Angels treated the rotation as the one group they most needed to upgrade this offseason, which means last year’s awful bullpen is still a work in progress.  The Angels’ pitching is good enough to compete in the AL West right now given their lineup, but they’d be a severe underdog against the Rays, Red Sox, or Tigers, and a slight underdog to the Royals in any five or seven game series.  They need to add arms and if they’re in it at the deadline, will have to find a way to.

The Angels built a great farm system over the years, but it’s been depleted to the point where it’s only contributions are a college outfielder or power bat every couple years.  GM Jerry DiPoto has made it a point to trade for young middle of the diamond players, because his system is not producing them anymore and Aybar/Kendrick are set to hit free agency at the same time after 2015.

Arms are expensive when you don’t develop them and need them to compete, and the Angels tied up most of their future salary in Pujols and Hamilton.  Whatever is left is going to Mike Trout.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Angels is 38.7, 6th in the American League.  Their 25.9 Batters WAR projection is best in the AL. Their 12.8 Pitchers WAR projection is 12th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Angels to win 86 games, a 8 win improvement over last season.  Mike Trout is the Angel with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 8.0.  Jered Weaver is the pitcher with the best average projection at 3.1 WAR.

The Angels vs the rest of the AL West

The AL West is a below average division, and the weakest of the AL divisions in 2014.  This despite having four above average teams and an “improved” Astros team.  This is the case because no teams in the AL West are a lock to win 90 games.  According to Cool Standings, the division winner is projected to win 86 games.  It’s a true four team race in 2014.  The Astros will not participate.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Los Angeles Angels

Of all the teams in the AL West, I like the Angels chances the most.  The competition is more numerous than it is fierce.  And so while no team in that division has a good shot of winning it, the Angels have the best chance.  They’ll make the 90 win plateau this year, barely, at 91-71.

That will be mostly Trout driven, with help from Aybar, Kendrick, Pujols, and Hamilton.  The pitching will make a contribution, but it is only good enough to not drag them down.  And if Trout spends any time at all on the DL, this is a bad team.  But given his health and presence in the lineup, he can bring the Angels to the postseason in 2014.

American League Two-a-Days: Boston Red Sox

LiveBall Sports Previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Boston Red Sox

2013 record: 97-65
2013 runs scored: 853
2013 runs against: 656
2013 pythag. record: 100-62

The Red Sox spent all of last season in baseball’s elite class, populated by the Tigers, A’s, Cardinals, and eventually the Dodgers as well.  When the other teams faded in the postseason, Boston stood alone as World Series Champs.

There were losses to free agency, but Boston is more or less the pre-season favorite to repeat.

Who is having a good spring?

C AJ Pierzynski, coming over from Texas in free agency replacing Jarrod Saltalamacchia, is hitting .429 this spring.  His job is to hold the seat warm for Christian Vazquez, hitting .444.  On-base specialist and perennial bubble player Daniel Nava is flexing his muscles with a .684 spring SLG.  Mike Carp is slugging over .750 and working at a new position (third base) this spring.  Of the Boston pitchers, left handers Felix Doubront and Jon Lester have yet to allow a run in nine combined spring innings.  Right-handed journeyman reliever Francisco Cordero is pitching well enough to make the club.  He is a non-roster invite.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Red Sox

Boston is the most loaded organization in all of professional sports from top to bottom.  The major league teams win, the minor league teams win, and the organization wins on the books; the franchise has never been more profitable.  They are breaking in a new shortstop, top prospect Xander Bogaerts, as last year’s SS, Stephen Drew, remains unsigned.  Some of the top competition, the Yankees and the Orioles, are in decline cycles.

The pitching gets stronger every year with minimal investment.  Ryan Dempster opted for retirement instead of a spot on the Red Sox this year.  He had lost his rotation spot at the end of last season.  This opens the fifth starter role up for either veteran LHP Chris Capuano, RHP Allen Webster a prospect, or RHP Brandon Workman, who did great work out of the bullpen as a rookie.  That’s a lot of options for a strong rotation this year.  The arms coming out of the bullpen are just as impressive.

Boston will once again run out a deep lineup one through nine.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Red Sox

The Red Sox had the best top of the lineup in the AL a year ago with Ellsbury and Shane Victorino at the top, but Ellsbury is a Yankee and Victorino is a year older.  Dustin Pedroia has significant home/road splits — he’s basically been a bottom of the order hitter on the road in his career.  Big Papi is a year older and has always struggled vs. lefties.   As deep as this lineup is, it was better at the top a year ago.

There could be some growing pains with Bogaerts at SS.  He is just 21, and the options behind him if he struggles are unappetizing.  That means Boston will let him work through his struggles if they come.  Same deal in CF with Jackie Bradley Jr. taking over for Ellsbury, although his leash won’t be quite as long.  The 3B job that Bogaerts came up and filled in the playoffs remains an issue.

Papi is in a contract year, so prepare for a full year of talk about his future and Ortiz not exactly doing his part to quiet the commentary.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Red Sox is 45.1, 2nd in the American League.  Their 23.7 Batters WAR projection is 4th in the AL. Their 21.4 Pitchers WAR projection is 2nd in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Red Sox to win 89 games, a 8 win decline over last season.  Dustin Pedroia is the Red Sox with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 4.3.  Jon Lester is the pitcher with the best average projection at 3.9 WAR.

The Yankees vs the rest of the AL East

The AL East is baseball’s strongest division in 2014.  The Rays and Red Sox are top seven teams, in the elite class of baseball teams, and the Yankees and Blue Jays are anticipated to be top-half teams.  The Orioles are probably the best team expected to finish in fifth this season.  The Blue Jays are a longshot contender, but the Red Sox and the Rays are the class of the AL East this year.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox will get all they can handle from the Rays this year, and might not have enough to hold off Tampa from grabbing the division.  But they are stronger throughout the pitching staff, and at least have the ability to develop a better lineup through guys like Bradley and Bogaerts.

Boston, like Tampa, is a smart organization, and I trust them to get the most out of this roster.  I’ll take them for 93-69, and another trip to the ALCS.

American League Two-a-Days: Kansas City Royals

LiveBall Sports Previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Kansas City Royals

2013 record: 86-76
2013 runs scored: 648
2013 runs against: 601
2013 pythag. record: 87-75

No American League team gave up fewer runs in 2013 than the Kansas City Royals.  Not coincidentally, there has not been a better defensive unit since 2005 than this past Royals’ team.  Most of the projections for the 2014 Royals center around pitching-based arguments.  Can you win games with a pitch to contact rotation and a strong bullpen?  This really does miss the point of the 2014 Royals: how much like the 2013 Royals can they be without falling into a trap of not participating in the modern game of baseball.

From a power-arms and power-bats perspective, the Royals have not quite arrived yet.  2014 is expected to be an improvement on 2013 in this regard, but the bottom of the lineup is still weak, the middle of the rotation still weak.  Problem is, looking at baseball through a narrow prism doesn’t explain why the Royals would wander aimlessly for two decades since the strike, and then turn around and win 86 games last year.  And if you mis-apply the reasoning for that on “veteran pitching” (the Royals led the AL in team ERA last year), you’ll miss on your projection from the team this year.

Who is having a good spring?

3B Mike Moustakas is the only player with four spring homers and sports a 1.658 OPS in 31 PAs.  SS Pedro Ciraco may be on the outside looking on this roster at the moment, but his spring line will have other organizations paying attention.  C Sal Perez is crushing the ball, as are OFs Alex Gordon and Justin Maxwell.  The top three guys in the rotation: RHPs James Shields and Yordano Ventura, and LHP Jason Vargas, have looked great.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Royals

The Royals have not put this much established talent on a roster since the 80′s.  James Shields and Greg Holland lead the pitching staff, while OF Alex Gordon, DH Billy Butler, C Sal Perez, and 1B Eric Hosmer are the top players on the roster.  The Royals picked up RF Nori Aoki and 2B Omar Infante in the offseason.  That’s a strong core to build a roster on.

Defensively, the Royals are the best in the business.  It starts behind the plate with Perez, but SS Alcides Escobar, CF Lorenzo Cain, and Gordon are also better at their positions than any in the AL.  Moustakas is an excellent defensive third baseman, and the Royals made a defensive upgrade at second with Infante.

Last year, the Royals had three pitchers throw 200+ innings.  The common refrain is that the Royals’ success here simply isn’t sustainable. But James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, and Ervin Santana combined for just 8.1 rWAR a season ago.  In fact, with none of those players contributing, the Royals could have easily still gone over .500 with their elite defense.  Shields and Guthrie are back, and Santana’s 3 WAR won’t be that difficult to replace.  The Royals, quietly, got below replacement production from the rest of the rotation, something they can improve on easily.  Even with a lot of projection systems betting the under on the Royals rotation to repeat 2013, you should be smart and take the over.  This rotation is better than a year ago.

The Royals should post their best team on-base percentage this season since 2000 when Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon played for them in an offense-heavy environment.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Royals

Though the starting rotation is underprojected, the Royals’ bullpen is going to have a ripple effect resulting from Luke Hochevar’s season ending injury.  The assumption a lot of observers are making about the Royals is that they have a ton of bullpen depth and can just replace Hochevar’s innings with similar production, but sub-2 ERA relievers aren’t particularly common.  When you add to this the inevitable regression on Greg Holland’s sub-2 ERA 2013 season (Holland has been hit hard in the spring), the Royals bullpen depth is going to get tested early in the season.

The depth is also overstated, based on a year ago.  The Royals carried three relievers all year who struggled and tried to hide them in low leverage situations: LHP Tim Collins, RHP Luis Mendoza, and RHP Aaron Crow.  Crow is likely to rebound this season, but Collins isn’t the same pitcher he was two years ago, and Mendoza is pitching in Japan.  Of the relievers who the Royals relied heavily on last year, only RHP Kelvin Herrera is likely to get better.  Hochevar’s out, Holland is the closer and closers can be volatile, LHP Will Smith was dealt for Aoki, and Wade Davis is sliding to the back of the bullpen to take his spot.  Davis, Herrera, and Holland will be a strong back end of the pen, but that’s not necessarily better than what Oakland, Boston, or even Detroit are running out there.  For all the talk about Kansas City’s pitching depth, they might need to acquire a left handed relief arm at the deadline to catch the Tigers.

Offensively, the Royals are aggressive to a fault, and have a lot of young talent that doesn’t always consider patience at the point when it is most virtuous.  The Royals are adept at taking themselves out of innings with little assistance from the pitcher through bunts, pickoffs, baserunning errors, and bad plate approaches.  Normally, a team like this can lean on some home runs to take the edge off, but the Royals do not hit for a lot of power, and don’t seem to care all that much, despite periodic please from manager Ned Yost.  The Royals failed to slug .400 as a team last season.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Royals is 38.6, 7th in the American League.  Their 22.6 Batters WAR projection is 9th in the AL. Their 16.0 Pitchers WAR projection is 6th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Royals to win 81 games, a 5 win decline over last season.  James Shields is the Royal with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 4.1.  Salvador Perez is the position player with the best average projection at 4.1 WAR.

The Royals vs the rest of the AL Central

The AL Central is an above average division this year.  The Tigers enter the season with one of the best statistical profiles of any team.  The Royals and Indians are above average opponents with some downside potential.  The Twins should be improved, and have the consensus best farm system, which should help avoid a repeat of the end of last year when they were running a sub-MLB lineup out.  The White Sox are more volatile this year than last, and will have some upside to go with the worst downside in MLB.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Kansas City Royals

It’s going to be tricky trying to catch the Tigers over 6 months, but one of the projection quirks is that the schedule ratings between the Royals and Tigers are so vastly disparate, that it is throwing off a lot of projections.  The team’s play more or less the same schedule, minus the 19 games they play against each other.  Those matter, but Kansas City went 10-9 against Detroit last season.  These teams are not equivalents, but 19 contests against each other is not enough to completely throw off the projections the way strength of schedule is affecting them.

You can convince me that the Tigers have the AL’s easiest schedule, but the Royals play the Indians, White Sox, and Twins just as many times.

Against an average schedule, the Royals 79-81 win projections sit closer to the 84-87 win range they were in last season.  This is a tick above where the vegas odds have them at.

I implored people above to take the over on those projections.  I’m skeptical that the Royals bullpen can repeat it’s performance from last year, but I also said the same thing about the 2013 Royals, and that bullpen got even better.  The offense looks problematic, but the projections are pretty friendly to most players (Moustakas, in particular).  It’s possible that Billy Butler and Alex Gordon are overprojected if you want to paint the scenario where the Royals fail to win 80 games: if both continue the decline they suffered last season, this team isn’t sniffing the playoffs.  Then again, if you don’t think the players on the Royals are any good, you should be picking them to be below .500.

The official LiveBall Sports prediction is 90-73, including a loss to the Tigers in a division tiebreaker game.  The Royals just don’t have enough to break through in the AL Central, though they will fall short by the slimmest of margins.  90 wins may very well break the Royals 28 season playoff-less streak, but it would have come up short by a game last season.  Whether this prediction is evidence of the Royals coming up short is entirely open to interpretation.

American League Two-a-Days: Detroit Tigers

March 13, 2014 1 comment

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Detroit Tigers

2013 record: 93-69
2013 runs scored: 796
2013 runs against: 624
2013 pythag. record: 99-63

The Detroit Tigers shot themselves in the foot so many times last season that they ended up with a one game margin of victory in the AL Central.  It should never have been that close.  The Tigers were the best team in baseball from April 1 through the ALCS.  They were the best run scoring offense in baseball, and the best pitching team in the American League.  Only the Kansas City Royals gave up fewer runs.  Even their maligned bullpen was a team strength by the end of the season.

So why and how did the Tigers lose helplessly to the Red Sox in the ALCS?  The answer will foreshadow a weakness of the 2014 team: the lineup wasn’t that good in the playoffs.  So did they cramp up in the clutch?  Hardly.  The Tigers lineup was unproductive in September and late August as well.  All of the run scoring the Tigers did was concentrated in the first five months of the season.  That’s when Miguel Cabrera got hurt, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson started to really struggle, and Torii Hunter cooled off.  Without the benefit of a great lineup, the Tigers weren’t a true talent 99 win team in the playoffs.  They very nearly got caught in the division race by the Cleveland Indians.

And then they dealt Prince Fielder in the offseason to Texas for Ian Kinsler, which is going to to little to help the offensive problem.  Luckily, Detroit returns 4/5 of their rotation from last year.

Who is having a good spring?

3B Nick Castellanos, with a spot to win in spring training, has an 1.158 OPS in 33 spring PAs.  CF Austin Jackson has laced 10 hits.  Something named Miguel Cabrera has a .455/.571/.773 spring line.  Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer has picked up right where he left off.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Tigers

That rotation, man.  Scherzer.  Verlander.  Sanchez.  Even if Sanchez regresses of his career year, he’s still a nice no. 3 pitcher.  And with Scherzer and Verlander at the top of any rotation, it’s going to be hard to score on the Tigers.  Are they an all-time great rotation?  No.  Scherzer doesn’t make it deep into games consistently, and Verlander has undergone some level of skill decline recently.  But it’s the best rotation in baseball, even after selling high-ish on Doug Fister in a trade to the Nationals.

Defensively, the Tigers are much, much improved.  This is at least an average defensive unit, and a plus unit in the infield.  Alex Avila leaves something to be desired as a defensive catcher, and the outfield is Austin Jackson (above average) and not a lot of help from Torii Hunter and Andy Dirks.  The bullpen isn’t really a weakness anymore, even if the Tigers are overpaying Joe Nathan.  The Tigers have to be the favorite to prevent the most runs in the AL in 2014.

Rick Porcello, the fourth man in the rotation for the Tigers, would be the top pitcher on many staffs.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Tigers

Offensively, this is going to be more than just a problem for the Tigers.  This is a poor offensive team.  Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez are top five hitters on this team, but both have reached the end of the road career-wise.  If they have anything left to give this team, it’s a plus.  And with 2B Omar Infante departed for the main competition in the division, this offense is really just three guys: Cabrera, Kinsler, and Jackson.

That’s probably selling Alex Avila a bit short.  Avila is a nice player, but he’s a lot nicer as an 8 hitter in a power hitting lineup who ambushes pitchers not wanting to put someone on base for the top of the order.  It might be selling Castellanos a but short, as he’s off to a nice start to his spring.  But since he’s been in Detroit, Miguel Cabrera has always been a challenge to work around because he’s an aggressive hitter and you want to make sure you’re not falling too far behind in the count.  This year, there’s not a whole lot in the Tigers lineup beyond him to be concerned about.  In terms of extra base hits, Cabrera has a slugging projection from Fangraphs of .584.  Second on the team is…Torii Hunter at .431.  It’s not even close.

The Tigers don’t run the bases particularly well either.  Kinsler instead of Fielder improves that a bit, but this is a station to station ballclub with no real patience or power.  Basically, if Miguel Cabrera isn’t getting pitched around, it’s because something is wrong with Cabrera.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Tigers is 46.1, best in the American League.  Their 23.8 Batters WAR projection is 4th in the AL. Their 22.3 Pitchers WAR projection is best in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Tigers to win 90 games, a 3 win decline over last season.  Miguel Cabrera is the Tiger with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 5.9.  Justin Verlander is the pitcher with the best average projection at 5.2 WAR.

The Tigers vs the rest of the AL Central

The AL Central is an above average division this year.  The Tigers enter the season with one of the best statistical profiles of any team.  The Royals and Indians are above average opponents with some downside potential.  The Twins should be improved, and have the consensus best farm system, which should help avoid a repeat of the end of last year when they were running a sub-MLB lineup out.  The White Sox are more volatile this year than last, and will have some upside to go with the worst downside in MLB.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Detroit Tigers

Because of their relatively easy strength of schedule, it’s a good bet that the Tigers will win another 90 games this year.  There’s not a lot of collapse risk with this team.  I do think. however, the Cabrera and Verlander projections are a bit high.  It’s not hard to see Cabrera spending some time on the DL this season with one of the many ailments he has as his body wears down.  Verlander has been nothing if not durable, but it’s hard not to remember how hard he got hit at times last season.  This team is great, but it’s best players do seem to be somewhat overprojected.

I’ll flatly side with the numbers here and predict the Tigers to finish 90-72.  That will not be the best figure in the American League this year.  It could be enough to win the AL Central for the fourth consecutive season but that’s not certain either.  At 90 wins, Cool Standings playoff odds give the Tigers a roughly 70% chance of winning the AL Central.  Two-thirds sounds about right to me.  90 wins in almost all likelyhood will get the Tigers into the postseason: it’s hard to see three wild card teams win 91+ games like last year.

Any postseason trip should seal GM Dave Dombroski’s position as one of (if not the) best executives in Tigers history.

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