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.

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.

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.

American League Two-a-Days: Houston Astros

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Houston Astros

2013 record: 51-111
2013 runs scored: 610
2013 runs against: 848
2013 pythag. record: 57-105

The Astros outscored the White Sox last season and were in the ballpark with the Mariners, but no team was in the ballpark of 848 runs against in either league.  That’s a sign of the run environment that we’re in right now that the Astros were more than two standard deviations below the mean in terms of run prevention.  Remember six 6 years ago when the Detroit Tigers offense was supposed to score 1,000 runs?

Who is having a good spring?

OF Marc Krauss might be turning into something here.  His 17 total bases lead every spring training hitter, and he plays in Florida for spring training.  Most of the offensive leaders are playing in the Cactus league, because the run environment there is so extreme.  RHP Jerome Williams, picked up from the Angels in the offseason, has 6 strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings to lead the staff.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Astros

They pick first in the 2014 first-year player draft.  Even despite this fact, when you hear pundits talking about who Houston is going to take with the first pick, they’re likely talking about the Texans.  2013 – not the best sports year in Texas.

The Astros lost their last 15 games in 2013.  That’s the longest active streak for a Houston professional team, besting the Texans who lost their final 14 games in 2013.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Astros

For a lot of reasons, this roster is getting over-projected.  They are still the weakest roster in the AL, and only the White Sox have more downside potential on the field than the Astros.  There has been a clear upgrade in veteran talent from last season, but the difference is that in 2013, the only qualifications the veterans had to be a member of the Astros was to 1) know and understand you’d have a limited role on an awful team, and 2) have some trade value, potentially.  Or be Rick Ankiel, I guess.

Scott Feldman, Jerome Williams, and Dexter Fowler are useful veteran pieces, but Erik Bedard and Jose Veras were not exactly chopped liver.  The Astros have so much ground to make up just to get to the 60 win plateau.  They’re capable of getting there, in fact, 70 is about the ceiling for this team, but they can’t get there without a reasonable amount of development from young talent.  And that’s where 2013 was truly a lost year for the Astros, is that the under-25 brigade at the MLB level combined for about 2-WAR on the players side.  Combined.  That’s whole team.  And charitably, might I add, because if you include the 25-year olds in that analysis, the Astros fall below replacement level in 2013.

Jimmy Paredes and Brandon Laird will help the Omaha Storm Chasers defend the AAA-Pacific Coast League Title in 2014.  Which means they’ll be playing for a better team than the 2013 Astros.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Astros is 21.6, last in the American League.  Their 14.5 Batters WAR projection is 13th in the AL. Their 7.1 Pitchers WAR projection is last in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Astros to win 67 games, a 16 win improvement over last season.  Jason Castro is the Astro with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 3.2.  Scott Feldman is the pitcher with the best average projection at 2.0 WAR.

The Astros 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 Houston Astros

Given how bad the pitching is, particularly in the bullpen, every game the Astros win is going to feel like an aberration.  There’s absolutely a chance here that Houston could give up more than 848 runs this year.  The rotation was actually better on paper heading into last season, before Phil Humber was the worst player in baseball the first half of the season.  The bullpen was definitely better on paper before they traded everyone in it (by design).  Even the defense was probably better on paper at this time last year, although they’ve improved in center field with the Fowler acquisition.

The offense is an area where you can see progress with this organization.  I touched on Marc Krauss’ torrid spring, but when you put Fowler and a full season of L.J. Hoes back there (acquired from Baltimore in the Bud Norris deal) with Krauss, return Castro, Matt Dominguez, Chris Carter, and Jose Altuve, the Astros offense is…well, I don’t know if good is the right term.  But it looks like a major league starting nine.  And that’s probably enough to break through the 100 loss barrier.  64-98 is the prediction.  And that will be the worst in baseball.

Because if the Astros become the first team to lose 100 games four consecutive years, it may be time to evaluate the operation in greater context.  Or even worse: watch the Texans.

American League Two-a-Days: Tampa Bay Rays

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Tampa Bay Rays

2013 record: 92-71
2013 runs scored: 700
2013 runs against: 646
2013 pythag. record: 87-75

The 2013 Rays were a pretty balanced team, scoring and preventing runs at an above average rate.  Talent-wise, they probably should have missed the playoffs, but Manager Joe Maddon found an extra five wins on their schedule and Tampa Bay won a play-in game against the Texas Rangers to make the postseason.  They then went to Cleveland and won there in the wild card round, before dropping 3 of 4 to the eventual champion, Boston.

Thanks to the miraculous run Tampa made in 2011, this was not the most improbable playoff season in recent Rays history, but it’s clear that the Carl Crawford/James Shields/Evan Longoria Rays are a team of the past.

Who is having a good spring?

Catcher Jose Molina, expected to split the short end of a timeshare with Ryan Hanigan, has reached base 4 of 9 times this spring to date.  SS Yunel Escobar, OF Matt Joyce, and OF David DeJesus are crushing the ball.  OF Kevin Kiermaier has seven total bases and a stolen bag as he attempts to make the team as a defensive ace.  RHP Alex Cobb hasn’t given up a run in two starts.  And in the “small sample optimism is all we have” division, left handed former top prospect Mike Montgomery has allowed two baserunners in three spring innings.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Rays

The Rays aren’t the team you worry about this time of year.  A very good team was able to make some really minor upgrades in the offseason.  They retained DeJesus on a two year extension, they re-signed James Loney, they acquired Hanigan from the Reds, and everyone else was under team control anyway.  The Rays opted against dealing ace LHP David Price, with no deals to their liking out there.  Joe Maddon has more information to use this season.  He has RF Wil Myers for a full season.  The young offensive talent is a year older.  87 wins seems like the floor for this organization.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Rays

The young offensive talent is a year closer to free agency, and some urgency to sell off some of it for payroll flexibility will be present throughout the season, particularly if/when the team is struggling.  The Rays do not have a sustainable competitive advantage over other teams in the American League.  Everything the Rays do that makes them successful is methodology that every other team in the AL has access to if they ever want to enjoy the kind of success Tampa does.  If this were the NFL, people would have coined the “Rays way” and started to steal their trade secrets five years ago.

RHP Jeremy Hellickson struggled greatly last season and is out indefinitely with an elbow tear.  The back end of the Rays’ pitching rotation is not very good.  Price, Cobb, and Chris Archer are an excellent front three, but Matt Moore is still trying to take a step past a guy who is really just a no. 4 starter, and the fifth spot could go to Jake Odorizzi, acquired from Kansas City in the trade that swapped Shields and Myers.  Jeff Niemann should be back from Tommy John surgery around midseason.  These concerns are mitigated somewhat by the fact that Tampa does a good job developing young pitchers.  It’s clear how the Rays plan to fix the back end of their rotation: they have an asking price on Price that essentially replaces Price with a younger top-line SP (Taijuan Walker of the Mariners was their top target) and a second, ML-ready arm for the middle of the rotation.   The Rays are in trouble if no one meets that asking price in the next 365 days.  They’ll have to drop it.

Myers is, by himself, a perfectly adequate return for James Shields, and the Rays also managed to get salary relief (from the Royals!) in the big trade of last offseason, but it’s not clear what kind of value Odorizzi, Montgomery, or Patrick Leonard will bring to Tampa this season.  If Odorizzi is below replacement level as a starting pitcher, then the deal from Tampa’s perspective didn’t return as much as it could have.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Rays is 41.0, 4th in the American League.  Their 25.8 Batters WAR projection is 2nd in the AL. Their 15.2 Pitchers WAR projection is 7th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Rays to win 85 games, a 7 win decline from last season.  Evan Longoria is the Ray with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 6.1.  David Price is the pitcher with the best average projection at 4.5 WAR.

The Rays 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 Tampa Bay Rays

It seems like the Rays have become a 90 win machine, and with that in mind, a team that looks a bit better than it did one year ago should be a fairly conservative choice to go 90-72 again, for a second place finish in the AL East, and probably a wild card.  The longer-term projection for the Rays suggests that this is a fairly pivotal year for the franchise.  Teams are going to start catching up to their defensive methodology and shifting as more information becomes available, and though the Rays have been pioneers in this regard, it is going to be tough for any team to consistently outperform it’s periphrials by as much as the Rays do on an annual basis.

Tampa also hasn’t drafted and developed talent nearly as well as they get credit for.  They’re maxed out in terms of payroll, and from a more human perspective, guys like GM Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon are going to move on eventually.  The constraints on the Rays organization are likely to accelerate that.  Other teams throwing crazy money at them might make it inevitable.  On some level, it’s incredibly impressive that the Rays have kept their core group together for this long.

But it needs to be said that the Rays between 2008-2010 were a more talented team in a conventional sense.  2014 should be the pinnacle year of the Rays’ second wave of talent, but this team isn’t quite the Dodgers, Nationals, Cardinals, or Red Sox in terms of top to bottom organizational strength.  They are in the next tier with the Rangers, Tigers, Braves, and A’s.  If the Rays win just 90 games, that will be a job well done, but not done quite as well as some would have hoped.

American League Two-a-Days: Seattle Mariners

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Seattle Mariners

2013 record: 71-91
2013 runs scored: 624
2013 runs against: 754
2013 pythag. record: 67-95

The Mariners underachieved relative expectations in 2013, and were labeled a dysfunctional organization in the process.  They did little to change that label this offseason, but did the next best thing, which is that they spent a crap ton of money on veteran players.  Quietly, the Mariners have a lot of talent in camp, but after years of underachieving, it’s on them to convince the world that this year will be different.

Who is having a good spring?

The Mariners finished second in the Cactus League last year, and are in first place on the morning of March 9th with a 7-3 record.  Standouts include OF Dustin Ackley, OF Michael Saunders, C Mike Zunino, 1B Justin Smoak, 2B Robinson Cano, 1B Jesus Montero, RHP Erasmo Ramirez, and LHP James Paxton.  Or basically, everyone the Mariners will rely on in 2014.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Mariners

This is the team that paid the $240 million to sign Robinson Cano.  But beyond that…

The team’s young pitching has arrived at the majors, and early returns last September were excellent.  The Mariners’ rotation could be excellent this year.  Very quietly last season, the Mariners lineup saw a power surge.  Although this lineup is still going to struggle to get on base consistently, it’s more than just Robinson Cano and the eight scrubs.  Smoak had a break out year last year, and Ackley and Saunders are at the ages where they’ll produce if they are capable.  Brad Miller is one of the game’s top young shortstops.  3B Kyle Seager is one of the best young players in the game at any position.  There’s not a lot of risk for inexperience-related struggles in the lineup: guys who don’t produce are going to lose playing time to cheaply acquired veterans.

The front of the rotation with Felix Hernandez and Hisachi Iwakuma is as good as any in baseball, including Detroit’s, and the prospects like Ramirez, Paxton, and Taijuan Walker at the back end are legit and can get major league hitters out today.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Mariners

For a team dominating spring training on March 9th, the Mariners are a banged up bunch.  Walker and Iwakuma are inactive right now with (relatively minor) injuries.  Starting OF Franklin Gutierrez is going to miss the entire 2014 season as will fireballing reliever Stephen Pryor.  Defensively, the Mariners better resemble the Washington Generals than the Harlem Globetrotters.  A starting projected outfield of CF Abraham Almonte, LF Ackley, and RF Saunders could look good defensively, but there is a good shot Almonte will begin in the minors in deference to Logan Morrison (Almonte is not established as a ML hitter and is struggling this spring).

The Mariners have a questionable roster construction that includes a lot of different 1B types.  They have Smoak, Morrison, Corey Hart, and Montero, all of whom either can’t play anywhere but first base, or won’t do it well.  They are only allowed one DH.  Meanwhile, reserve infielder and last year’s 2B Nick Franklin is blocked by Cano, and could be ticketed for AAA Tacoma to start the season.  The bench is going to be tough to construct, and won’t add any value to the lineup.  Robinson Cano thinks the team needs another bat or two in the lineup.

This is the team that paid $240 million for Robinson Cano.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Mariners is 35.8, 11th in the American League.  Their 19.2 Batters WAR projection is 12th in the AL. Their 16.6 Pitchers WAR projection is 5th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Mariners to win 84 games, a 13 win improvement over last season.  Felix Hernandez is the Mariner with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 5.7.  Robinson Cano is the position player with the best average projection at 4.7 WAR.

The Mariners 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.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Seattle Mariners

The Mariners walk a very thin line between a total clown show and a legitimate playoff contender.  Based purely on talent as well as performance in the early spring, this Mariners roster should be pretty good and has the potential to improve considerably at the deadline.  However, if you underachieve four consecutive years like Seattle has, you don’t earn any benefit of the doubt.  Superficially, this is the best team Seattle has produced in years, but their organizational issues are problematic at the most fundamental level.  The LiveBall official prediction on the Mariners is optimistic: 87-75, but understands that the inverse of such a record is both very possible, and something the organization would try to spin as an improvement.