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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.

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What if the Marlins and Royals made the trade of the offseason: a Thought Exercise

The Blue Jays and Royals are about to meet in Kansas City in a fairly high-profile mid-April meeting between a first place team (Kansas City) and a Toronto team that doesn’t want to get to the end of April having to climb uphill the rest of the season to justify the trade.  Today, I’m going to look at the trade that brought the Blue Jays about 25% of their team, and examine what might have happened if the team that was the other major buyer on starting pitching made this deal.

A brief reminder of the parameters of the actual trade, from the associated press:

The trade sends All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes to the Blue Jays along with pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, catcher John Buck and outfielder Emilio Bonifacio for seven players, none of whom has a big-money contract.

Miami received infielders Yunel Escobar and Adeiny Hechavarria, pitchers Henderson Alvarez, Anthony DeSclafani and Justin Nicolino, catcher Jeff Mathis and outfielder Jake Marisnick.

The components received by the Marlins will have to be at least matched by the Royals in this exercise, so Alcides Escobar (and his largely excellent contract) becomes the center of the trade from the Royals to the Marlins.  Hechavarria is a top 100 MLB prospect (as is Nicolino), so the Royals have to meet that value at some position, although not necessarily shortstop (thanks to Escobar’s long term contract).  The three pitchers the Royals would send over in this deal are easy to identify: they would have sent top prospect RHP Jake Odorizzi, as well as recent prospect LHP Mike Montgomery (who the Royals were ready to give up on), and to match Alvarez in value, they’d give up RHP Luis Mendoza, a pre-arbitration pitcher who is currently the no. 1 starter on the AAA Omaha Storm Chasers.

That’s not quite enough to receive Reyes in the trade though, so the Royals would also have to part with 17 year old SS Adalberto Mondesi, of “yes, that Mondesi” fame.  However, thanks to the salary they would be willing to take on, the Royals would have been able to pull off this trade without dealing away top prospect Wil Myers.  In the actual deal, the Blue Jays saved their two top prospects (which on the Royals were AA RHP Yordano Ventura, and Myers) to go to New York for ace knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.  The Royals are not necessarily making that move, having already bought Ervin Santana’s contract from the Angels.  Finally, instead of Mathis/Buck being in the trade, the Royals would simply receive catcher Brett Hayes from the Marlins as they actually did this offseason.

So to get in on the Miami fire sale, receiving SS Jose Reyes, SP Mark Buerhle and Josh Johnson, C Brett Hayes, and UTIL Emilio Bonifacio, the Royals give up SS Alcides Escobar and Adalberto Mondesi, SP Luis Mendoza, Jake Odorizzi, and Mike Montgomery, and outfielder David Lough, a major league ready player, but not OF Wil Myers or RHP Yordano Ventura, the Royals top high-level prospects.

The Marlins take on only Alcides Escobar’s $3 million salary in the deal, as well as roughly $1 million in major league contracts.  The Royals take on $10 million salary for Reyes, as well as the rest of his contract, another $11 million for Mark Buerhle, $13.75 million for Josh Johnson, $2.6 million for Emilio Bonifacio, and roughly $1 million for Brett Hayes, a total of $38.35 in salary for the Royals, who send just $4 million of that back to the Marlins.

This forces the Royals to non-tender RHP Luke Hochevar for salary purposes, which hurts their depth a bit (I suppose), and takes them effectively out of the running to re-sign RHP Jeremy Guthrie.  With the Ervin Santana trade factored in, the Royals have increased their payroll $45.35 million from 2012 to 2013.  In reality, the Royals are paying $9 million to James Shields, $5 million to Jeremy Guthrie, $4.56 million to Luke Hochevar, and $2.8 million to Wade Davis that they are no longer taking on thanks to the Marlins trade, $21.36 million the Royals will not add in this exercise.

The Royals would be spending an additional $10 million in payroll this year, assuming they still do the Ervin Santana trade (which happened before the Marlins firesale).  The Royals can support a $92 million payroll, despite protests of management to the contrary.  They’d be pretty much locked in at that figure (or lower) for the foreseeable future, but the Royals’ accounting books would not crash given two years with a payroll above $90 million.  Whether or not they’d lose money simply depends on your method of accounting.

The Kansas City rotation in 2013, given involvement with the Marlins would look like:

  • RHP Josh Johnson
  • LHP Mark Buerhle
  • RHP Ervin Santana
  • LHP Bruce Chen
  • LHP Will Smith

And the Royals lineup (though not opening day lineup):

  1. SS Jose Reyes
  2. LF Alex Gordon
  3. DH Billy Butler
  4. 3B Mike Moustakas
  5. C Salvador Perez
  6. 1B Eric Hosmer
  7. RF Wil Myers
  8. CF Lorenzo Cain
  9. 2B Emilio Bonifacio

The problem for the Royals is that this is a much poorer allocation of the salary they are spending because the money that is currently tied up in giving them great rotation depth is essentially now dead money given to Jeff Francoeur to be a bench guy/DFA candidate.  Futhermore, while the Royals rotation is still strong, it has got to stay healthy because it’s already starting a AAA pitcher in the fifth spot, and Bruce Chen as the fourth starter means that he can’t also be in the bullpen.  The Royals bullpen is still loaded, but there may great incentive to rush Yordano Ventura to the majors in case of injury because there is no help there for the Royals rotation in triple A.

Consequently, would the Blue Jays have been better off if they had stayed in the division (the horrors!) and made the play for James Shields and Wade Davis that the Royals did?  They would still have to have given up Adeiny Hechavarria and Jake Marisnick to be involved in the trade, not to mention their top pitching prospect, RHP Noah Snydergaard (who went to the Mets in the Dickey deal), and Justin Nicolino to acquire James Shields, Wade Davis, and IF Elliott Johnson from the Rays.  And they wouldn’t have Jose Reyes, who is kind of leading their offense right now.  But they would have more rotation flexibility, and more prospects sitting around without having to go get R.A. Dickey to justify their offseason.

The Blue Jays rotation, having taken the Royals route:

  • RHP James Shields
  • RHP Brandon Morrow
  • LHP Ricky Romero (or RHP Henderson Alvarez)
  • RHP Wade Davis
  • LHP J.A. Happ

A perfectly adequate rotation with some depth.  It lacks the wow factor of the kind of names the Blue Jays are actually running out there, but name value in baseball is great in the spring, while I’d argue people would be more optimistic about this version of the Jays rotation — given ERAs in the threes and fours for Shields and Davis respectively against the early season rotation struggles that the Blue Jay acquisitions have had — and they still have their top catching prospect Travis D’Arnaud.  Is their lineup better?  Eh, perhaps?  It’s missing a big part without Reyes, however:

  1. 3B Brett Lawrie
  2. LF Melky Cabrera
  3. RF Jose Bautista
  4. 1B Edwin Encarnacion
  5. CF Colby Rasmus
  6. DH Adam Lind
  7. C J.P. Arencibia
  8. SS Yunel Escobar
  9. 2B Elliott Johnson

The Blue Jays certainly have a better lineup when Jose Reyes is up there at the top, and are probably a better team right now…because they did go and get Dickey from the Mets.  It hasn’t helped them much through three series because even though that prospective lineup would be underachieving, it needs to be mentioned that the Jays actual rotation IS underachieving.

I guess the takeaway from this exercise is that sellers always have the inside position on buyers in major league baseball: it’s much easier to get the value when you have the assets that have established value instead of speculative value.  It also means that an incredible burden of return is put on the team that is trading away the top player.

And also: the Royals only had a couple of options to go improve their team: they either had to go make a deal with a team that was looking to dump all of it’s salary (Miami) with return as a secondary factor in the trade, or they had to make a deal with a team that was dealing from a position of strength into a strong market (Tampa Bay) with the need to grab a strong return.

And given what actually happened, the Royals and the Marlins actually came out pretty well: the Marlins grabbed a bunch of prospects in a deal where the salary relief should have been adequate to pull the trigger on that deal.  And the Royals had to give up one of baseball’s best prospects.  But they received a very efficient allocation of payroll increase with no inefficiency in salary.  The downside for the Royals comes on the offensive end: that prospective lineup above looks incredible and could easily drive the Royals to the playoffs.  But if you cross your eyes enough, you can see the rotation that the Royals have assembled doing the same thing for them.  And I think if they accept that they are going to be a pitching-dominated team, then the Royals have accomplished the main goal of making the trade: they bought themselves more time to develop their young hitters.

Which, I think was the whole goal of the Royals offseason: they needed to buy a full year for Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas to develop, and Wil Myers was the price tag on the pitching that buys them that year.  At some point in the future, I’ll probably do an analysis on whether a team can stretch its development resources too thin by having too many prospects, but it makes sense to conclude briefly that having two strong young players out of three is no different than having to give up on a young player because a team needs to win more quickly.

2013 Major League Baseball Mega-Preview: the American League

The American League begins it’s 113th season with a stranglehold on MLB dominance in the regular season.  However, no American League team has managed to take home the World Series since the Yankees did in 2009.  Given where the Yankees and Red Sox are with regard to rebuilding their rosters and restructuring their finances, AL teams have a ton to prove this year.

Five teams have won multiple World Series since the Toronto Blue Jays last made the playoffs in 1993: the Yankees have won five times, and the Red Sox twice.  But the other three teams: the Florida Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, and most recently, San Francisco Giants.  The remarkable thing is this has happened over a period of AL dominance.

Lacking the consensus best team in baseball for the first time in awhile, the American League looks to reclaim bragging rights over the National League as interleague play becomes an all-the-time thing for the first time ever.

The American League Central

The Detroit Tigers (2012: 726 runs scored, 670 runs allowed) enter the 2013 season as the clear favorites to represent the AL in the World Series for the second straight year — and the third time in the last seven.  The Tigers are a three man team in many ways, as the only way that Detroit can overcome a down year from RHP Justin Verlander, 1B Prince Fielder, or 3B Miguel Cabrera is for the other two to pick up the slack.  The problems facing the Tigers are numerous: the team declined from its peak in 2011 through the 2o12 season, either slightly (run differential) or significantly (wins) depending on what measure you use.  And outside of getting DH Victor Martinez back from an injury that cost him his 2012 season, it’s not exactly clear where all the Tigers’ perceived improvement is going to come from.

The reason the Tigers are favored heading into the year is because they have the clearest path to the playoffs through the AL Central: having just the White Sox, Royals, and Indians nipping at your heels gives you plenty of leeway.  The Tigers are gambling that they can score 800 runs in 2013 because of an improved outfield, featuring Andy Dirks and Torii Hunter in full time roles instead of Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch.  Actually, truth be told, the Tigers are gambling on a lot of things, especially a flimzy bullpen.  However, improved defensive efficiency in the outfield leads me to bump the Tigers slightly to a 91 win team.

That should be good enough to win a division where there’s unlikely to be a trio of 85+ win teams, but wouldn’t it be nice if the Kansas City Royals (2012: 676 runs scored, 746 runs allowed) could push the Tigers this year.  The Royals best profile as a 83-79 team, but that’s not totally going to take them out of contention for the second wild card, and should make things interesting with the Tigers into early September.  The Royals have a chance to do special things with their bats this year.  LF Alex Gordon enters 2013 a legitimate candidate for AL MVP, as you could make a charitable case for the two time Gold Glove winner as a poor mans* version of Mike Trout.  The Royals spent an obscene amount of money to take the variance out of their pitching staff, which really lead their team’s run prevention through the first two and a half months last year before regressing to it’s true talent level of “minor league.”  The upgrades make the Royals one of the safest, easiest teams in the AL from a projection standpoint: there’s not a ton of upside here, but the dark days appear to be over in Kansas City.

*Although Gordon will make about 22 times more than Trout will this season.

The Chicago White Sox (2012: 748 runs scored, 676 runs allowed) may be the most average team in baseball this year, as they head towards one more year of 82 wins.  The excellent run prevention unit of the White Sox is likely to stay in the ballpark, so to speak: this is a strong defensive team led by SS Alexi Ramirez, C Tyler Flowers, and CF Alejandro De Aza, and a top-level pitching staff featuring LHP Chris Sale and RHP Jake Peavy.  However, after shocking the world and putting up 748 offensive runs and leading the division in run scoring, the White Sox will have a really tough time doing that again.  Run producers like Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn are aging quick and there’s not much the White Sox can do to score if those two stop hitting bombs at such a high rate.  It should be easier for the Cleveland Indians (2012: 667 runs scored, 845 runs allowed) to catch the Tigers in run scoring as the Tribe features a premier lineup, headlined by C Carlos Santana and 2B Jason Kipnis.  But the Indians giving up 845 runs last year wasn’t a fluke: it was just horrific pitching.  That’s a problem that went largely unsolved this offseason, shaping the Indians as a 77 win team.  And Minnesota Twins (2012: 701 runs scored, 832 runs allowed) fans still get to enjoy C Joe Mauer’s best seasons, which is awesome.  They won’t get to enjoy a whole lot a good baseball, but the Twins should be able to avoid 100 losses through some combination of dark magic and veteran contributions.  Pencil the Twins at 65 wins.

The American League East

Dynastic.  While most of the baseball universe realizes that we’re entering a year where the Red Sox and Yankees are strong underdogs against the Tampa Bay Rays (2012: 697 runs scored, 577 runs allowed), I don’t think the baseball universe much realizes how FAR the Yankees and Red Sox will have to go in order to reach where the Rays are going to be in three years.  There’s no question that the Rays — division favorites as far as I’m concerned — have holes on the current team: they tentatively will DH Luke Scott, will play Ryan Roberts at second base, and James Loney at first base, we’re talking about a team that traded away RHP James Shields to Kansas City, and may set a modern American League record for runs prevented this year.  They allowed just 577 runs last season, which is less preposterous when you consider the ballpark effect of Tropicana Field, but the Rays find a way to rank at the top in terms of defensive efficiency every single year.  That won’t change with Desmond Jennings patrolling CF.

But more than any other team in the league, the Rays are injury-proof.  Sure, they’d have just as much a problem as anyone replacing the lineup production of 3B Evan Longoria or 2B/RF Ben Zobrist in extended absence of their two best offensive players.  But they can replace any member of their pitching staff using their lush farm system.  Improving just a bit in terms of run scoring, I think the Rays are capable of a division winning 94 wins.

Their main challenger went all-in on their pitching staff this offseason, making the Toronto Blue Jays‘ (2012: 716 runs scored, 784 runs allowed) win-now tactic a sharp contrast to the win-always scheme preferred by the Rays.  The Blue Jays had two main problems last year: every pitcher got hurt or struggled, and everyone on the offense underachieved or was hurt (save for DH Edwin Encarnacion).  Similar to the Royals, the move all-in to acquire a new pitching rotation (added: RHP R.A. Dickey (Mets), LHP Mark Buehrle (Marlins), RHP Josh Johnson (Marlins))  means the Jays won’t be reliant on recovering pitching arms and prospects (such as Kyle Kendrick ->Tommy John surgery), which is a positive.  But the Blue Jays had a second problem last year which isn’t necessarily going to be fixed purely through regression: their lineup really sucked.  To fix that, they acquired a lot of the Marlins spare contracts, which made a lot of sense in theory until we consider the Marlins lineup also struggled last season.  The cause for optimism is that the Blue Jays are now spending money, which makes them competitors in the AL East this year, and their rotation has a chance to be really, really good.  But the makeover happens on a foundation that won 73 games last year.  90 wins would make them the most improved team in baseball, but the foundation would not fundamentally change unless the Jays push 100 wins, in which case a lot of things got a lot better pretty quickly.

It could be worse.  The New York Yankees (2012: 804 runs scored, 668 runs allowed) haven’t even made it out of Spring Training in a state where Brennan Boesch is not considered an upgrade.  Injuries to 1B Mark Teixiera and OF Curtis Granderson have headlined the spring in New York.  But the Yankees are about to take the field on opening day with three regulars from last years lineup only: Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, and Robinson Cano.  The rotation is rather promising, and should keep the Yankees out of the cellar by a good margin, but the bottom line is that the Yankees are a 79 win team this year.  That should keep them in company of their rivals, the Boston Red Sox (2012: 734 runs scored, 806 runs allowed), also at 79 wins.  Whereas the Yankees have some semblance of a plan, the Red Sox appear to be trying to tear down to rebuild and compete at the same time.  On the positive side, the Red Sox were 5 games over .500 at the end of June last year, and this isn’t a completely hopeless ballclub.  The rotation isn’t great shakes, but it’s littered with name guys like Jon Lester, Ryan Dempster, and John Lackey, which will probably end poorly in a couple cases, and work out well in others.  You can say that about a lot of areas of a .500 team.  And I think .500 happens to be a bit aggressive for the Baltimore Orioles (2012: 712 runs scored, 705 runs allowed), who finished 2012 impressively, winning all the games that Boston would lose.  Baltimore shakes out as a 75 win team thanks to weaknesses in the rotation, and a team-wide issue with on-base percentage.  There’s upside on the offensive end here with Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and Chris Davis all entering their age 27 seasons.  The bullpen, led by closer Jim Johnson, doesn’t have to be as dominant as it was last year for the O’s to exceed 75 wins, but it must still be quite good.

The American League West

The AL West is the strongest division in the American League, and possibly all of baseball.  It would be even stronger if the Houston Astros (2012: 583 runs scored (NL), 794 runs allowed (NL)) didn’t move into it.  The Astros will be fighting to avoid losing 100 games all year.  I think they’ll come close, topping out at 61 wins.  But the real story is at the top of the division, where the Oakland Athletics won their final six games last season to steal the division from the Texas Rangers (2012: 808 runs scored, 707 runs allowed).  The Rangers return as division favorites in my eyes, although many others prefer the Los Angeles Angeles of Anaheim, a California-based baseball club (2012: 767 runs scored, 699 runs allowed).

Texas has been routinely criticized for “losing” in an offseason where they allowed Josh Hamilton ($125 million) to sign with the Angels, failed to reel in Zack Greinke ($147 million) after his contract expired (hard to blame them at those price tags).  They ended up grabbing Derek Lowe on the cheap while biding their time for Colby Lewis to return from arm surgery.  Here’s the thing though: I don’t hear a lot of people arguing that Texas’ offense won’t be alright without Hamliton (they’ll survive) even as most laud the Angels’ aggressiveness in the market.  Texas is being criticized for not acquiring pitching.  But after giving up just 707 runs playing 81 games in the Ballpark in Arlington (Park factor: 112) last season, people are under-rating the quality of the Texas bullpen.  And their biggest offseason acquisition flew mostly under the radar, when the Rangers plucked Joakim Soria from the Royals at rehabilitation (torn UCL) prices.

Although there’s not a ton of pitching depth here, expect the run prevention of the Rangers to improve and they’ll lead the AL in wins this year at 98.  The Angels on the other hand may feel confident in a lineup that can make pitchers face Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton in the first four batters.  The issue with the Angels is that the pitching is a disaster.  They don’t have the bullpen the Rangers do.  They don’t have a bullpen that can consistently get outs.  And unlike last year, they don’t feature a rotation that can get deep into games.  The Angles jettisoned both Torii Hunter and Kendrys Morales to get…something.  Hamilton and Mark Trumbo are a major improvement over Vernon Wells and Hunter, but since neither can play a premium defensive position anymore, the Angels opening day lineup will likely feature Peter Bourjos, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo, and Chris Ianetta playing those tougher defensive positions.  Those players will absorb about half of the team ABs for the Angels this year.  Not only is this not a 1,000 run lineup, but it’s likely not even a 750 run lineup.  The Angels are an 80 win team this year.

Does this mean the Royals are in the playoffs?  Not exactly.  The AL West is strong after the Angels as well, and the Oakland A’s (2012: 710 runs scored, 614 runs allowed) did win the division, posting a run differential exactly on par with the Rangers, and plucked the division on the season’s final weekend.  They would have made a lot of noise if they had beaten the Tigers in the ALDS, but as is, the team returns a lot of it’s pieces from 2012.  Brett Anderson will replace Brandon McCarthy (signed with Arizona) atop the rotation.  Anderson is finally healthy after missing more than two thirds of last year with the torn UCL he suffered in 2011.  The A’s don’t have the front line pitching to allow just 614 runs again, although 660 is a very reasonable expectation for a strong defensive team playing in the hitter graveyard that is the Oakland Coliseum.  I think that 83 wins is a strong expectation for the A’s.

And that will not quite make the playoffs in the AL West.  I am predicting the second wild card will fall to the Seattle Mariners (2012: 619 runs scored, 651 runs allowed), which I’m sure will make Ichiro happy.  The Mariners have done well to rebuild their outfield on the fly, acquiring Michael Morse from the Nationals (in a questionable trade), to match with Casper Wells and Michael Saunders, who both came into their own last year.  With the lineup looking like something other than the worst offense in the AL this year (although still pretty bad), Mariners fans and league observers can finally appreciate the dominance of Felix Hernandez every fifth day.  But after making a lot of quietly sharp moves this offseason (possibly excluding the Morse deal, although that should help out in the aggregate), I think 85 wins might actually qualify them for the playoffs this season.  If not, they’ll at least be right in it.

2013 AL Predictions

East Champ: Tampa Bay Rays (94-68)
Central Champ: Detroit Tigers (91-71)
West Champ: Texas Rangers (98-64)
AL Wild Card #1: Toronto Blue Jays (90-72)
AL Wild Card #2: Seattle Mariners (85-77)

The best Shortstop in the American League

Derek Jeter and Elvis Andrus will represent the American League in the all-star game among shortstops.  That’s pretty cool, I guess.  But who is the best shortstop in the American League today?  And is he going to represent the AL in the all star game anytime soon?

Derek Jeter

Jeter is starting the all-star game carrying a .304/.351/.408 batting line, which is actually really good.  With the exception of Jeter’s MVP caliber 2009 season, this is really who “mid-thirties Derek Jeter” has been for the last five years.  The problem now is on defense.  It’s fair to surmise that Derek Jeter has worked incredibly hard on his defense in order to be a better shortstop throughout his thirties than his twenties.  But this year, we’ve reached the point where Jeter isn’t physically able to handle the position anymore.  It’s not a conditioning issue, clearly: Jeter is himself at the plate this season.

Jeter’s run at shortstop for the last seventeen years may turn into one of the biggest stories of the offseason for the Yankees.  It’s not clear where he will move to if the Yankees acquire a better defensive shortstop in the offseason, but Alex Rodriguez is getting very close to “full time DH” territory, and at that point, the natural move for Jeter might simply be a couple steps to the right.

Either way, when the Yankees move Jeter, that’s going to end his all-star candidacy at short.  There are three obvious picks to take his place before we get to prospect types like Francisco Lindor and Jurickson Profar.

Asdrubal Cabrera

Asdrubal Cabrera is a gold glove winning shortstop who is more similar to Jeter than different because defensive numbers have shown that Cabrera has not been a good defensive player throughout his 20’s.  There isn’t a debate though that Asdrubal Cabrera is a really fantastic hitter, regardless of his position.  Beyond that, since Jason Kipnis has locked down the second base job in Cleveland for the forseeable future, Cabrera is going to become the most attractive trade piece for the Indians as Francisco Lindor progresses through the system.  In fact, Cabrera is one of the most likely options to eventually replace Derek Jeter at shortstop for the Yankees via trade, although Lindor is not likely to see the majors in the 2013 season.

Cabrera is probably the top shortstop in the American League right now, however, there are two players who come with higher upside who are younger than Asdrubal Cabrera.

Alcides Escobar

Escobar has been a sensational defensive player for the Royals since coming over in the December 2010 Zack Greinke trade, but this year he’s added a bat to go with that glove.  Escobar always hit in the minor leagues and was a prospect of great stature in the Brewers system before struggling in the full time role in 2010.  Moving to the American League in 2011 made things even more difficult, though he showed some life with the bat during the summer last year after the Royals demonstrated great patience with him throughout the spring.

Alcides Escobar is now a .309/.352/.413 hitter up to the minute.  He’s still striking out a lot more than he walks (whereas someone like Asdrubal Cabrera is essentially one to one), and is a much better earlier in the account than he his when he sees a bunch of pitches, which has been a formula that has made him a poor hitter in the clutch this year.  But the bat is real, and he looks like a legitimate top of the order hitter for the Royals with about five gold gloves in his future.  The only problem is everything I’ve said about Escobar is true of another American League player about two years younger.

Elvis Andrus

Andrus leads all AL shortstops in fWAR with 2.7 prior to the all-star break.  He has combined consistently effective defense with a developing bat.  Andrus isn’t quite as effective with the bat this season as Escobar has been for the Royals and he is never going to be in the same class as Cabrera, but Andrus could easily have a Jeterian-like career for the Rangers.  He’s that young and that good.  There’s just one thing about that.

I think the 23 year old Andrus is the best shortstop in the American League right now, and the only threat to that title is a guy in his own system by the name of Jurickson Profar.

MLB Quarter Pole Team Capsules: the Kansas City Royals

It’s difficult to figure out which direction the Kansas City Royals are headed in.  On the surface, they aren’t heading anywhere.  This is the youngest team in baseball, and its performance on the year has been identical to the team’s performance from a year ago, when they were even younger.  In a lot of ways, the 2012 Royals have been disappointing, in that: the team was so young that it was expected to improve, and then a bunch of core players have come in and haven’t produced.

A bit of digging shows you that the main problem with the 2012 Royals  has been injury.  The Royals have been playing with replacement level performances at most positions: catcher, second base, center field, and first base.  That’s actually most of the lineup.  Of the four replacement positions on the Royals, only first base has underperformed without attribution to injury.  The Royals lost their first and second string catchers in spring training, Sal Perez and Manny Pina.  They lost their starting centerfielder Lorenzo Cain in the fifth game of the year.  And they lost their second baseman, Chris Getz, to the 15 day DL about two weeks ago.  1st baseman Eric Hosmer may have only himself to blame for a .220/.281/.376 batting line, but that’s up considerably over a recent nine game hitting streak.

Beyond injury though, the healthy members of the 2012 Royals have actually OVERperformed.  Injuries have struck the Royals rotation pretty hard as well, sending Felipe Paulino, Danny Duffy (out for season – Tommy John surgery), Jonathan Sanchez, and Everett Teaford to the DL this year, forcing the Royals to pull two starts out of Omaha every time around the rotation.  On top of that, Luke Hochevar (who at least has stayed healthy) has been wildly inconsistent (6.63 ERA).  And amazingly, the Royals rank fifth in the American League with a team FIP of 3.95.

The Royals rank highly on the strength of their excellent bullpen, which has thrown the most innings in all of baseball, but their rotation also deserves credit for keeping the ball in the ballpark.  The Royals have been a highly disappointing defensive team, ranking at the bottom of the AL with a .679 defensive efficiency, ahead of only the Detroit Tigers.  But as long as the Royals pitchers continue to keep the ball in the yard (of Royals who have thrown 24 or more innings, only Kelvin Herrera has a higher HR rate than 1.0/9 IP), the defense can improve the run prevention unit when it gets healthy.  The Royals pitching staff is doing this in a year where Kauffman Stadium has played like an extreme hitters’ park.

Which is a fact that really helps to frame how disappointing the starting lineup has been for the Royals.  When you’re 13th in the AL in defensive efficiency and 13th in the AL in runs scored, exactly what are you doing to help your pitching staff?  For the most part, what the Royals’ lineup has done is suck up money, and not a whole lot else.

The exceptions to the rule have been 3B Mike Moustakas and DH Billy Butler, both of whom are enjoying all-star caliber seasons, and with the all-star game being played in Kansas City this year, it’s going to be a travesty when Ron Washington picks the highly inconsistent Jonathan Broxton for the team instead.  Broxton is the member of the Royals most likely to be traded before the end of the season, and they haven’t played the all-star game in KC in 39 seasons.  Naturally, this will happen.

The 2012 Kansas City Royals can still conceivably trend towards either the outhouse (worst record in baseball) or the penthouse (shocking AL Central champs) and once the team is healthy, their plight will likely be determined by their reinforcements.  And rather than buying veteran talent at the deadline, the Royals enjoy the luxury of being able to promote from within.  There aren’t many teams who can choose to add a middle of the lineup bat to a punchless order without giving up the farm to do so, but the Royals can (and likely will) call up OF Wil Myers who now has more home runs than any player in minor league baseball this year, when he hit his 20th HR–a grandslam–off Roy Oswalt today in Omaha.  They also have SP Jake Odorizzi, who today dropped his triple A ERA to 2.22 (28.1 IP) in five games this year.

The Royals aren’t going to rush their prospects to the majors, but at this point, both top prospects appear to be MLB ready.  And while the Royals are probably going to be pretty patient through interleague play and try to win with the roster they have now, the Royals are going to look very different on July 1st than they do right now.  Up to 30% of the 25-man roster could be modified over the next month.

At the end of the year, it might not matter.  The Royals appear to be headed clearly towards another fourth place finish.  But then again, it might matter.  And until someone steps up and runs away with the AL Central, the Royals should do what they have to in order to stay in the race.

Zack Greinke is the Best Pitcher in Baseball

June 12, 2011 1 comment

Milwaukee’s own Zack Greinke (6-1; 4.69 ERA) is 6-1 for only the second time in his seven year baseball career.  The other time he was 6-1, the BBWAA gave him the award pictured above.  Equipment producer Mizuno gave him this.

However, no one is throwing a parade in a plaza for Greinke this time around.  Back in 2009, Greinke was sitting on a 0.50 ERA at this point, and could be considered a hard luck 6-1.  This time, NL opponents have scored 26 times off Greinke already.  But the differences are remarkable.  Greinke is stranding the lowest rate of baserunners in his career: 63.0%.  He is suffering from a flyball tendency in a way he has not struggled with since his formative days in Kansas City.  Greinke’s BABIP has soared over his last two starts (both wins) to .344 on the season.  And the reasoning for all those problems resulting in a 4.69 ERA instead of something more resembling the numbers he put up in Kansas City is exclusively related to the homerun ball.

Greinke has allowed six homers this year, including yesterday.  And those homers haven’t been of the common, solo variety either.  They’ve been potential back-breakers to the Brewers chances.  It’s a combination of the opponents being able to get the ball in the air, having runners on base against Greinke when it happens (Greinke is allowing a fraction over a baserunner per inning, so this has to regress at some point), and the Brewers defense simply not getting to balls in play.

But Greinke could care less about that ERA stat.  For the first time in his career, he plays for a team that bails him out by way of run support.  And Greinke himself, who has already scored twice this year, including the game tying run yesterday on a Rickie Weeks go-ahead 6th inning homer, is now part of that run support equation.  It’s really made all the difference for him to go for hoping to get 2 or 3 runs to work with from the Royals offense, and not even getting that at times, to being able to give up 3, 4, or even 5 runs in a start, and still find a way to be pitching from ahead deep in the game.

It is not probable, but it is possible, that Zack Greinke could do the whole career high in games won this season despite missing roughly five starts due to a DL stint for a fractured rib in March/April.  Greinke lost his first start coming off the DL in Atlanta, but having pitched at home in Miller Park in all but one of his next seven starts, the Brewers have managed to win each one of those seven games, now the longest single-season winning streak in games started by Zack Greinke (he had a longer one lasting from September 2008-May 2009).

Two years ago, there was a situation revolving around the all-star game starting pitcher, which Greinke had clearly identified as either himself or Toronto’s Roy Halladay.  Two years later, we can wonder if anything has really changed.  Greinke is in the National League, as is Halladay.  Cliff Lee is a pitching leaderboard mainstay.  Felix Hernandez also has a Cy Young award to show for his efforts.  One of those four pitchers has to be the best pitcher in baseball.

The majority would probably sat that Halladay is still the best.  It’s hard to disagree.  Greinke probably wouldn’t disagree.  Look at the year to year production.  Roy Halladay is still the toughest pitcher to beat in a major league game.

The only group of people I might think of that could disagree is National League hitters.  Collectively, I don’t know if there’s a group out there who has less success than NL hitters against Greinke.  60 players have struck out against Greinke this year.  56 players have reached base against Greinke this year.  If dominance for a pitcher is represented by those two numbers even being close (like they were in 2009 for Greinke, or they have been for Halladay throughout his career), the pace Greinke is on in 2011 is nothing short of historic.

There’s just no reason to think he can keep that pace up.  Unless, of course, you believe that Greinke is better than he was in 2009.  I’m not saying he is.  I’m also not saying he isn’t.  What I am saying is, from the perspective of hitters alone, putting aside his value to an organization or all-star credentials or other distractions, Zack Greinke is the most dangerous pitcher in baseball to face, and also possibly the very best.

Baseball’s Opening Weekend in the books, and the prediction LiveBall wants back

Jul 4, 2010; Anaheim, CA, USA; Kansas City Royals first baseman Billy Butler (16) during the game against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium. The Angels defeated the Royals 11-0. Photo via Newscom

Four days of baseball tells you…not much about teams. What it might tell us is that we just didn’t know what we were talking about in the preseason. After the seasons’ first series, I really want to take back all those picks I made without conviction.

Specifically speaking, I feel like I just overlooked the NL Central defending champion Cincinnati Reds.  And this is an incredibly pre-mature mea culpa.  In LiveBall’s NL Central preview, I hesitantly picked the Brewers to win after expressing concern that I was picking a sucker’s bet in a weak division.  Well, the Brewers have begun 0-4, but you know, the Cardinals haven’t won either, and the Cubs didn’t get started on the right foot at Pittsburgh, while neither the Pirates or Astros can yet be taken seriously.  The team I so obviously overlooked was last years winner, the Reds, who emphatically crushed the Brewers at home in a three game set.  None of the games were close after Opening Day, when the Reds won in comeback, walk-off fashion.  The Brewers have now fallen to 0-4, and while I think they will rebound to win 80-some games easily, the assertion that there is no clear favorite in the NL Central appears wrong.  The Reds are a clear favorite.  The Brewers may be the best of the rest, but after being swept in Cincinnati, it’s the Reds that are the team to beat.

What the Brewers have shown early on is a complete lack of depth.  Corey Hart has a strained rib cage muscle, and is on the DL.  The assumption with those picking the Brewers is that the always potent Brewers lineup would “score runs.”  Of course, they traded their starting SS and potentially starting CF to the Royals in the Zack Greinke deal, and even though the now incumbent CF Carlos Gomez is showing some production with the bat, the Brewers simply don’t have the depth in RF with Hart out.  Even with the top four in the lineup off to a good start, the bottom of this order after Casey McGahee is dreadful.  Yuni Betancourt, an Erick Almonte/Nyjer Morgan platoon replacing Hart, and then George Kotteras and Wil Nieves at catcher.  As a 6-8 in the NL, that’s a horrendous lineup.  The Brewers will make a run when Hart and Zack Greinke come off the DL, but if the Reds play like they did last year, it’s not going to matter.  The Reds will win the division with one of the NL’s best records, and the Brewers will have to scrap for a wild card berth.  If they get that Wild Card, I still like them to go deep in the playoffs, even at 0-4 to start the season.

The weirdest series of the weekend was played in Kansas City, where the Royals won the series 3-1 winning TWO games on walkoff homers.  In the entire 2010 season, the Royals won just once on a walkoff homer, by Alex Gordon, over the Orioles the week before Buck Showalter took over.  They’ve doubled that total, and there are still 158 games to play.

One of the reason for increased walkoff homers is that the Royals never hit so many homers in a series in general.  The Royals hit six homers in the series (all but one a solo shot), and they were hit by six different players.  The Angels spent the entire series playing longball as well, going yard 9 times.  15 homers in a single series at Kauffman Stadium is a lot, even considering 4 games, and typically only happens when Royals pitching is feeling up to the task.  For the Angels to hit 7 homers of 9 homers in a three game span, losing all three games in the process says a lot about the Angels.  The weather was whacky as well, as both the Angels and Royals’ television production crews were forced to move out of “high home” position, thanks to gusting wins that blew water out of the signature fountains at Kauffman Stadium and would have potentially destroyed the cameras if left in normal position.  Water wasn’t the only thing blown around by the wind, as Bruce Chen “fastballs” also ended up traveling further than they might have otherwise, if only for effect.

The Royals’ series win could spell trouble for the Angels — the Royals rarely outscore a team in a series.  The Angels can’t trust their bullpen, can’t trust Scott Kazmir, and bat Bobby Abreu and Alberto Callaspo in a lineup of otherwise overrated hitters as they wait to bring 1B Kendrys Morales back to the lineup when he’s fully recovered from a broken leg suffered at home plate after a walkoff homer in 2010.  But the Royals feature unbelievably impressive depth in their bullpen mostly from arms under the age of 25.  Their ability to hold late leads and play defense late in games is an ability they pretty much lacked last season, and could prove to pit their decision makers in an odd dilemma: whether to push starting pitching prospects up to make a previously unfathomable run in the AL Central if they leverage a weak April schedule into a lot of early wins and a hot start.

Angels fans aren’t panicking quite like Red Sox fans after an 0-3 start.  The Rangers played longball off Red Sox pitching, and though the Red Sox will score this year, pitchers Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Clay Buccholz simply weren’t up to the task on baseball’s first weekend.  The Rangers meanwhile, threw fine in their first series without Cliff Lee on the roster, and look to be every bit the favorites in the American League this year.  The Red Sox will be fine, but maybe were exposed a bit as overrated by the masses considering better than 70% of fans expected the Red Sox to beat the other four teams in the division.  That’s a sizable majority, but the standings say: two games behind the Yankees (and three and a half behind the Orioles)!

Wrapping up, the AL East is also the place of the most meaningful early series, where the Orioles swept — yes, swept — the Tampa Bay Rays.  This blog has the Rays returning to the playoffs behind only, ahem, the Red Sox, but those chances took a big hit as all-world 3B Evan Longoria will head to the disabled list, rendering the Rays offense largely punchless.  Time to see if Ben Zobrist, John Jaso, and BJ Upton are worth the big bucks in Tampa, and it’s time for that rotation to carry them.

But the Orioles are the story of baseball in the early going, if only because their late season production last year seemed unsustainable.  At this point though, last year’s season-best finish is a reason to buy the Orioles as a potential wild card contender.  I don’t think they’ll be able to do it, but it does look like the Orioles aren’t heading to last place anytime soon, and could have the talent (particularly in the pitching staff) to hang with the Big Boys in baseball’s best division.  After all, the standings are the only thing that matters this early in the season, and we’re still waiting on the first team to beat the Orioles in 2011.  The Detroit Tigers will take another crack at pulling off such a feat tomorrow as baseball’s regular season hits high gear.