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American League Two-a-Days: New York Yankees

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: New York Yankees

2013 record: 85-77
2013 runs scored: 650
2013 runs against: 671
2013 pythag. record: 79-83

The hard truth is that the Yankees are one of the five worst teams in the AL.  They were last year, and they are going to be again this year.  It’s the Astros, White Sox, Orioles, Twins, and Yankees at the bottom of the league.

The Yankees separated themselves this year by spending a lot of money.  They have Masahiro Tanaka on the mound, Jacoby Ellsbury patrolling center, Carlos Beltran in right, and Brian McCann behind the plate.  Those may well be the four best players on the team, and none was here last year.

But none of it matters, because they were unable to retain one of the best players in the AL, Robinson Cano.  He’s replaced with Brian Roberts and the Yankees just aren’t much better than last year.

Who is having a good spring?

McCann and Francisco Cervelli, back from suspension and injury, give the Yankees the top 1-2 catching punch in the AL.  They have almost identical numbers this spring, combining for 2 HRs and 20 total bases.  3B Kelly Johnson was the team’s value signing, and he adds another 10 total bases this spring.  Tanaka has been as advertised, and Hiroki Kuroda, who faded badly at the end of last season, is off to a nice start.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Yankees

The Yankees do not get enough credit for their superb advanced scouting and analytic approach, perhaps as good as any in the game.  If you watch the Yankee defensive positioning over a long time, it’s clear they are more prepared to play than a lot of other teams.  This seems to be a fairly repeatable skill for them, and helped the Yankees into the top four in the AL in terms of run prevention last season.

The Yankees should be above average at preventing runs again this year.  This rotation is stronger than it was a year ago, and they have enough live arms to replace Mariano Rivera in the bullpen.  Replacing a legend isn’t going to be the easiest part of David Robertson’s career, but he’s going to get a lot of help from starters going deep into games.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Yankees

The offense was terrible last season, and even with all the shiny new pieces the Yankees have added this year, there are out-makers throughout the lineup.  The players with above average OBP projections in the lineup are: McCann, Ellsbury, Gardner, Teixiera, Beltran, and whatever PAs you can get from Derek Jeter this year.  Not one player in the lineup is projected to do better than .340 in on-base percentage.  By comparison, the Kansas City Royals have four players with projected OBP above .340.  Having Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro, and Roberts rotating between DH and the bench isn’t going to help matters.

It’s not like this Yankee lineup is power-heavy either.  You take the list above, subtract Jeter but add Soriano, and that’s all the above average power in the Yankee lineup.

This lineup should be more productive than last season, but it’s not much support for the pitching staff.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Yankees is 39.7, 5th in the American League.  Their 20.9 Batters WAR projection is 11th in the AL. Their 18.8 Pitchers WAR projection is 3rd in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Yankees to win 83 games, a 2 win decline over last season.  Masahiro Tanaka is the Yankee with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 4.7.  Jacoby Ellsbury is the position player with the best average projection at 4.3 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 New York Yankees

I see almost no way the Yankees can avoid going backwards in terms of win total in 2014.  This is a better team than last year.  But the more you dug into last year’s Yankees team, the worse they looked.  Frankly, on the offensive end alone, there’s about 50 runs floating around there that came by way of non-repeatable offensive skill.  Ellsbury, Teixiera, McCann, Beltran, and Jeter are good, but I don’t know if there’ s 50 offensive runs there total.  And that’s BEFORE you remember Cano isn’t in this lineup.

Offensively, that runs scored number could slide back from 650.  And that runs prevented number also has a good chance to slide backwards (although this team is stronger defensively).  And so the prediction here is that the Yankees will miss the 80 win plateau for the first (and last) time in the Jeter era, going 76-86.  Tanaka will not be a unanimous rookie of the year.  And the 2014 season will be a struggle in the way the 2013 season wasn’t, because there will be no easy answers.

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American League Two-a-Days: Minnesota Twins

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Minnesota Twins

2013 record: 66-96
2013 runs scored: 614
2013 runs against: 788
2013 pythag. record: 63-99

The Twins were a terrible team last year, a year in which everyone expected them to struggle.  In spite of a nice rebound year for Joe Mauer, a downballot MVP guy, the Twins bottomed out and finally sold off all their veteran pieces.  Trading Justin Morneau to the Pirates signaled the end of an era.  The Twins had been tied to that roster contractually ever since they won the division in 2010 and paid Joe Mauer the moon to stay in town.

Mauer’s contract still looks okay as he approaches the mid-way point.  He’s still one of the best players in baseball.  Credit the Twins for not pulling back on payroll, but going out to the free agent market and bringing in RHP Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes to help out now.

Who is having a good spring?

2B Brian Dozier has picked up where he left off last season, flashing power in 2013 for the first time.  Dozier is in the conversation for second best 2B in the American League, after Robbie Cano.  He put up roughly the same slugging percentage as Ian Kinsler while playing 81 games at Target Field, a pitcher’s park.  German-born OF Max Keplar hasn’t played against the big leaguer’s much, but his prospect status makes his team-leading 6 hits notable.  Phil Hughes has been sensational in two spring starts.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Twins

There are lots of reasons for optimism.  The inefficient spending is finally off the books, although you can call into question giving $50 million to Ricky Nolasco.  Two years ago, the Twins were an unathletic group who swung too much, didn’t walk or hit for power, and was trying to play like this as defenses around the league were getting better positioned and more athletic.  Last year’s team was a much more athletic, patient bunch.  They were an injured group last year, so this year, the offense could be an actual asset.  It wouldn’t be terribly shocking if the Twins posted a league average or better runs scored.

At the same time, this is the best the Twins pitching has been in three seasons.  There’s no top end starter on this staff, but Hughes, Nolasco, Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, Scott Diamond, Sam Deduno, and Vance Worley are all mid-rotation types.  A lot went wrong for the Twins on the pitching end last year, and the five guys above who were on the team last year were surrounded by the worst fill in players imaginable.  The Twins are better across the board this year, and with the AL’s best farm system, more help is on the way soon.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Astros

Joe Mauer is on the back end of his career, and the first domino to fall is his full-time move to first base.  And just like that, the AL’s best catcher is no more.  Mauer is still a star at first base, but he’s replaced by Kurt Suzuki.  That’s not an upgrade.

Every pitcher in the Twins rotation is still going to get bombed from time to time.  They might not finish dead last in strikeouts in the AL again this year, but they won’t finish too much above last.

Ultimately, the Twins just have a long way to go.  They were -174 in run differential last year.  Even an 100 run improvement makes them just a 73-75 win team.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Twins is 25.3, 14th in the American League.  Their 12.9 Batters WAR projection is last in the AL. Their 12.4 Pitchers WAR projection is 14th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Twins to win 70 games, a 4 win improvement over last season.  Joe Mauer is the Twin with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 3.2.  Ricky Nolasco is the pitcher with the best average projection at 2.8 WAR.

The Twins 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 Minnesota Twins

The projections are really down on the Twins this year, but (spoiler alert) I’m going to go aggressively against the numbers on most of the AL Central teams this year.  The numbers view the Twins as a terrible team, and last year they were a terrible team.  But on the offensive end, the Twins aren’t as inept as the numbers are making them out to be.

The Twins haven’t made it by any stretch, but I’m going to pick them to approach .500 this year, and steal a bunch of wins that people are giving the Indians and Tigers.  We’ll go 78-84 for Minnesota this year, and I think they’ll be over .500 at some point after the all-star break.  Not all of that is one year improvement, but stripping out some factors (and players) who doomed the Twins last year should help in the long run.