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American League Two-a-Days: Oakland Athletics

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Oakland Athletics

2013 record: 96-66
2013 runs scored: 767
2013 runs against: 625
2013 pythag. record: 96-66

On June 1, 2012, no team in baseball was more inept at scoring runs than the Oakland Athletics.  Since, no team has been better.

The Athletics were a complete team last year: offense, defense, rotation, bullpen.  They were my pick to represent the AL in the World Series.  They led 2-1 and had a lead late in the game at Detroit in Game 4 of the ALDS, but coughed up the lead, then went back to Oakland in Game 5 and ran into a determined Justin Verlander.  Season over.

It will be nearly impossible for the A’s to repeat 2013, a year in which basically everything went right in the regular season.

Who is having a good spring?

C Stephen Vogt, SS Jed Lowrie, and OF Josh Reddick are the regulars having strong starts, although no one is standing out offensively for the A’s more than 1Bs Brandon Moss, and Daric Barton.  LHP Scott Kazmir, an aggressive offseason acquisition from the Indians, looked good in his outing.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Athletics

They were really excellent last season.  The A’s have no real offensive weaknesses in their lineup.  Alberto Callaspo may not be a great idea of an everyday second baseman, but if you’re willing to live with the defensive hit of him and Jed Lowrie up the middle, the A’s can put offensive assets in at all 9 spots in the lineup.  Sometimes they’ll go with Eric Sogard at second who doesn’t really have much power, but the A’s idea of a nine hitter is a .322 on base guy.  Or as the Yankees call it, a top of the order guy.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Athletics

There are a lot of regression factors with the defense and the bullpen that will hammer the A’s this year.  It’s still conceivable that the A’s could lead the league in run prevention in 2014.  They do play home games below sea level and with a ton of foul territory.  But they are looking up at the Royals and the Tigers in that regard.  And the rotation does leave a lot to be desired, although part of Billy Beane’s plan is to always trade off starting pitchers before they get expensive.

The A’s are overall a very good defensive team, but there is a delicate balance between having nine hitters in the lineup and having guys who can defend the middle of the diamond.  The A’s have both types of players on their roster, but baseball rules require them to play only one at a time.

Oakland has never really invested in their farm system very much, and while other organizations can pull guys up at mid-season to help the push for the playoffs, the A’s usually are stuck going bargain shopping outside the organization.  Every once in a while you can pluck Alberto Callaspo or John Jaso, but it isn’t a reliable way to cheaply improve the roster.  At least not during the season.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Athletics is 38.4, 8th in the American League.  Their 23.9 Batters WAR projection is 3rd in the AL. Their 14.5 Pitchers WAR projection is 8th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Athletics to win 86 games, a 10 win decline over last season.  Josh Donaldson is the Indian with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 4.5.  Scott Kazmir is the pitcher with the best average projection at 2.4 WAR.

The Athletics 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 Oakland Athletics

It is hard to build a preseason favorite without stars, and the 2014 A’s aren’t an exception.  This is not the preseason favorite that the Tigers and the Red Sox are, even though the A’s were just as good as those teams last year.  The truth is, when making projections, teams that feature Pedroia/Ortiz and Cabrera/Verlander are just starting ahead of a team that’s best two players are Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp.

My prediction for the 2014 Athletics is right in line with what the numbers think of them: 86-76. This is a prediction that the A’s can easily outperform.  There is better than 86 win talent on the roster.  But even as sensitive to the concept of replacement level as the A’s are and have always been, a team that is built this way can endure long stretches of ineffective hitting or pitching.  And if the whole team is failing to produce, there’s not one thing the general manager or field manager can do to get the dead weight out of the lineup.  Last year the A’s had the benefit of a strong start to finish effort from the entire roster, but if they don’t get a similar effort from this group, they will fall short of the 90-win mark.

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American League Two-a-Days: Cleveland Indians

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Cleveland Indians

2013 record: 92-70
2013 runs scored: 745
2013 runs against: 662
2013 pythag. record: 90-72

The Cleveland Indians were a pretty good team in 2013, and made the postseason for the first time since 2007.  It’s hard to argue, however, that they were one of the five best teams in the American League a year ago.  By Pythagorean record, they were actually better than the Rays, and thus were one of the five best teams in the AL, but the Indians had a huge split last year between performance against good teams and bad teams.  They won their final ten games of the regular season against the Astros, White Sox, and Twins, and made the playoffs by a single game.

The schedule is not so unbalanced that you can call the Indians’ run a fluke — it wasn’t fluky.  But against playoff caliber opponents, the Indians went 14-32 (.291) last season.  Against the White Sox, Astros, and Twins, the Indians went 36-8 (.818) including 17-2 and a streak that included the final 14 games against the Sox.  If the White Sox had been a little less putrid last year, the Rangers are in the postseason instead of the Indians.  Given the splits above, it’s hard to imagine one of the true best teams in the AL looking that inept against playoff competition.  They were closer to average than great last year.

But the real question those splits suggest is whether the Indians are any good going forward?

Who is having a good spring?

The Indians have a great offensive infield, and Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, and Mike Aviles are all raking in spring training.  Ryan Raburn, who has the spirit of an infielder, but the glove of a DH, has popped two spring homers.  Mike Brantley got a contract extension in the offseason, he’s hitting .600 this month — a thing that can happen in spring training.  Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco are leading the pitching staff.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Indians

The offensive depth that the Indians have is better than any team in baseball, with two possible exception in the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays.  At many positions, the Indians go with a straight platoon, and always gain the handedness advantage.  This turns guys like Ryan Raburn, David Murphy, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Mike Aviles into useful offensive players.

If you didn’t follow the Indians last year, you may not be aware that Yan Gomes is one of the best catchers in the American League.  He is.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Indians

The Indians pitching staff was excellent last season, and a great surprise, but this is in many was a bunch of misfit parts that have been glued together to form a staff.  You have a singular top-rotation talent in Danny Salazar, who hasn’t pitched a full 6-month season at any level yet.  You have a nominal staff ace in Justin Masterson, who has one of the largest platoon splits in baseball.  You have Zach McAllister and Cory Kluber, who are both nice pitchers, but profile best as mid-rotation guys.  All of the last three names spent time on the DL last season.  You have Carrasco, who was dreadful as a starter last year but useful in the bullpen.  They have Trevor Bauer, the 3rd pick in the MLB draft two years ago, who sits 95-97 on his fastball but can’t find the strike zone.  And Tyler Cloyd, a non-roster invite  acquired from the Phillies organization.

Pitching coach Mickey Callaway is tasked with turning Salazar and a lot of loose fitting parts into something that can replace a rotation that was at the top of the AL in strikeouts a year ago and featured Ubaldo Jimenez (now Baltimore’s ace), and Scott Kazmir (now Oakland’s ace).  It’s hard to see this team staying competitive without acquiring a pitcher at some point.

Cleveland is one of baseball’s worst defensive teams, especially in the infield, where they are below average across the board.  The outfield defense is at least adequate, and Gomes is really good behind the dish.  But Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jason Kipnis are all well below average defenders at their positions.  You can pencil Cleveland in to give up 700-750 runs this season, up from last year’s 662.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Indians is 36.9, 10th in the American League.  Their 22.7 Batters WAR projection is 8th in the AL. Their 14.1 Pitchers WAR projection is 10th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Indians to win 83 games, a 9 win decline over last season.  Carlos Santana is the Indian with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 3.5.  Danny Salazar and Justin Masterson are pitchers with the best average projection at 3.2 WAR.

The Indians 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 Cleveland Indians

In mid-September, it wasn’t that clear that the Indians were going to pay off their good season with a playoff run.  But a 10 game winning streak put them over the top and got them to host the wild card playoff.  They lost to the Rays, and the playoff run was short lived.  The real problem is that the construction of last years Indians team was to overpay free agents who are now in their 30’s like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn.  With Swisher/Bourn/Cabrera on the decline and the farm talent like Francisco Lindor a half-year away, that fairly conservative offensive projection of 10th in the AL in WAR could crater.

With the rotation not quite ready to pick up the slack, the Indians could be in for a 2012-type season.  A season like that wouldn’t really change the level of talent in the organization, but when you look at their performance against the best teams, the Indians are going to need a lot of improvement that just isn’t coming.  This is a 74-88 team.