LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.
Team Synopsis: Baltimore Orioles
2013 record: 85-77
2013 runs scored: 745
2013 runs against: 709
2013 pythag. record: 85-77
Baltimore blew through pessimistic preseason projections last season driven mostly by being one of the top slugging teams in the AL. They improved across the board, reaching the 85 win plateau. They did not repeat their playoff season from 2012, although the improved competition in the AL was as much a factor in the Orioles getting trapped under teams like Kansas City, Texas, and Tampa.
The offseason push came very late for Baltimore, who will forfeit their first and second round draft picks after signing RHP Ubaldo Jimenez and DH Nelson Cruz.
Who is having a good spring?
SS JJ Hardy might be the best player on a team with many good ones. He’s hitting .400/.455/.600 this spring. OFs Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz are crushing the ball. ‘Crushing’ is a relative term though, at least when Chris Davis hits .474/.545/.895. On the pitching side, Baltimore has gotten quality innings from right hander Bud Norris and left hander Wei-Yin Chen.
Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Orioles
Baltimore has a fighting chance with an improved rotation. They didn’t have either Norris or Jimenez on opening day last year. The Oriole rotation is actually pretty good, although some serious regression is expected from Chris Tillman. However: Jimenez, Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Chen, Norris is a pretty decent rotation. Right-handed prospects Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy give the Orioles some rotation depth.
Baltimore is a very good, if a bit overrated, defensive unit. They acquired one of the AL’s better defensive outfielders, David Lough in a trade with Kansas City this offseason.
Baltimore’s productive lineup was pretty young last season, averaging just 27.7 years of age.
Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Orioles
The young lineup for Baltimore produced a ton of extra base hits, but had a major weakness in getting on base. Most of the right handed power in the lineup is swing-happy. The acquisitions, Lough and Cruz, will not change that. As is, Baltimore’s going to have a real issue with getting on base in 2014. Possibly more serious is the full lineup power regression that the projection systems are predicting. Fangraphs projects the Orioles to slug .427 as a team this season. Last year they slugged .432.
When you factor in some defensive regression, the Orioles starting 9 slips to below average in 2014. It’s still pretty talented overall. But Manny Machado (coming off knee surgery) hasn’t played yet in live competition, and is not expected to be ready for the start of the season. That will eat into a lot of the expectations for the O’s offense.
The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Orioles is 35.5, 11th in the American League. Their 21.9 Batters WAR projection is 10th in the AL. Their 13.7 Pitchers WAR projection is 11th in the AL. Cool Standings projects the 2014 Orioles to win 79 games, a 6 win decline over last season. Chris Davis is the Oriole with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 3.6. Ubaldo Jimenez is the pitcher with the best average projection at 3.0 WAR.
The Orioles vs the rest of the AL East
The AL East is baseball’s strongest division in 2014. The Rays and Red Sox are top seven teams, in the elite class of baseball teams, and the Yankees and Blue Jays are anticipated to be top-half teams. The Orioles are probably the best team expected to finish in fifth this season. The Blue Jays are a longshot contender, but the Red Sox and the Rays are the class of the AL East this year.
LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles are not a bad team, but they will play the toughest schedule in major league baseball, and will have an uphill climb to finish above .500. Baltimore should come in right around 80-82 after adjusting for the schedule. It’s certainly not the worst in the AL, and in the right division in the NL, it could be a division contender. In the AL East, this roster contending is pretty unrealistic.
This lineup will not be young forever, and Baltimore is going to have to make some tough decisions after the year. In the mean time, fans should be able to enjoy another competitive team, although one that is probably too flawed and lacking in star power to make any serious noise in the American League.
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 Baltimore Orioles are 29-19. They have a winning record against all except three opponents this year (Yankees, Angels, Rangers). They were a last place team last year. And the year before that. And before that. And every year since 2007, when the Devil Rays were an entity. It’s more than possible (with every team in the AL East being above .500) that the Orioles could be a last place team this year as well. They’re the single largest surprise in MLB this year. But I don’t think they’re a total fluke.
Where to start? The Orioles lineup is incredibly legit. That was probably the case before this year as well. The Orioles have an issue with their offensive depth. Left Fielder Nolan Reimold got off to a .313/.333/.627 start, but he’s hurt (and backup Endy Chavez is hurt), so the Orioles have been forced to play 22 year old Quasi-prospect Xavier Avery. Avery is the offensive black hole in a strong lineup, but he’s explosive enough with his speed and defense to masquerade as a part-time leadoff man for the O’s. The great weakness on the Orioles is the outfield, where major league regulars Adam Jones and Nick Markakis are joined by Reimold/Avery/whoever they can field. With a legitimate left field acquisition, the O’s may have the best offense in the AL East, although in it’s current state, they fall short of the level of the Red Sox and Blue Jays, and are roughly on par with the Yankees (minus Brett Gardner).
The big step forward in 2012 was two fold: they acquired quality depth on the corners (Wilson Betemit, Nick Johnson, Chris Davis during the 2011 season, meaning they turned their biggest weaknesses (hilarious ineptitude at 1B and DH) into a relative strength. The other big step was made by CF Adam Jones, a long time frustrating prospect, who is currently sporting a .308/.349/.595 line, and a brand new 6 year/$80 million contract. Nick Markakis has enjoyed a similar but less heralded power bump (.122 ISO in 2011, .200 ISO in 2012).
The O’s have already had to overcome four key offensive injuries. Injuries to Reimold and Chavez have created a black hole in the lineup. But injuries to 2B Brian Roberts and 3B Mark Reynolds have cost the Orioles a significant part of their payroll to the disabled list. Reynolds has been activated by the Orioles for today’s game.
While it’s worthwhile to be optimistic about the Baltimore offense, it’s hard to know what to think of the pitching. The Baltimore bullpen has been fantastic, and that has likely been manager Buck Showalter’s greatest personal contribution to this hot start, because while there are some strong names in this group, the Orioles have survived by featuring journeymen like Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, Dana Eveland, and Darren O’Day over highly priced pieces such as Matt Lindstrom and Kevin Gregg.
The starting rotation started off really hot, but a couple notes on this group. First of all, a bunch of great starts from the rotation fueled this team’s early April success. That caused most observers to conclude that the Orioles’ couldn’t compete because the rotation would regress sharply and the team would hit a long losing streak. Well, here are the ERA’s of the Baltimore rotation to date: 2.78, 3.31, 4.82, 4.87, 5.07. It’s not a good rotation. Tommy Hunter a 25 year old long man who is a bit out of place in a big league rotation. Brian Matusz is a former 2008 top five draft pick and top prospect. Jake Arrieta is another top prospect. While Matusz has been better of late and might settle in as a nice number three pitcher, Arrieta continues to fight command issues.
Thing is, even after the rotation began to look more like the Orioles rotation of recent years, the Orioles look more like a .500 team than a true last place team. The keys for the rest of the season rest perhaps on two pitchers: Jason Hammel, who looks much improved in his age 29 season with a 8.7 K/9 rate. He probably can’t support a 2.78 ERA all year, but 3.5 is a reasonable hope. The other is rookie Wei-Yin Chen, who might be the biggest candidate in the Oriole rotation for regression. If Chen can beat the odds and put up another nine starts like his first nine, then the Orioles will be in this thing at the trade deadline.
This team will need to find another starting pitcher to move Hunter to the bullpen, and probably at the very least, a left handed power bat in the outfield who can platoon with Nolan Reimold once healthy. Then they’ll need to hope for extremely good health, because the O’s are not a deep club, at all. When the rosters expand to 40 players in September, the Oriole dreamers may start to entertain thoughts of a call up for 19 year old phenom Dylan Bundy, the team’s 2011 first round pick who apparently has no use for the minor leagues. They also have Miguel Tejada playing on a minor league deal in AAA Norfolk, though I’m not sure if there’s anything there. MLB veteran Bill Hall also plays for Norfolk, having just been outrighted after making it through waivers.
The upshot for the O’s is that they’ll need to go outside the organization for help if they want to compete in 2012. There’s no one in the minors who is going to move quicker than Bundy, and although they sky is the limit for him, it’s not going to be Bundy alone that makes the Orioles a contender in 2012 or even 2013. They need Chen, Hammel, Arrieta, and Matsuz, as well as veteran hitters like J.J. Hardy, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, and Nick Markakis to carry the team. That’s the good news: with a couple of parts outside the organization who the Orioles might be able to cash in their vast group of stalled prospects from yesteryear for, there is enough talent here to compete sooner rather than later. The bad news is that for all Showalter has done for this group, the Orioles are going to need to get off the fence and either buy veteran help sooner than anyone in the AL East, or they’re going to want to sell high sooner.
The longer the Orioles wait without making a move, the more of a waste this hot start will have been.
I have no hard evidence to back the theory that I am about to present, but I noticed earlier this month that the teams who were “sellers” at the MLB trade deadline (which just passed this last Sunday) have one common link: their inability to prevent runs. Now, obviously, this is not a new deal to people in the know: bad teams are bad teams because either they score too few runs, or they give up too many runs. With the exception of the punchless offenses in Oakland and Seattle this year, it’s pretty much exclusive to just the bad run prevention units that they are out of it.
There are bad offenses all over the place in baseball this year, and many of those teams are still in the hunt. The LA Angels’ offense isn’t useful at all, but they’re 1.5 games out of first place. Atlanta leads the wild card race, but they’ve done it without the benefit of an above average offense. Pittsburgh is fading, but they weren’t scoring much even when they were winning. The Giants have scored the fewest runs in the AL, and in fact have only outscored the hapless Mariners by 20 runs. They’re leading their division. Bad defense/pitching units though? Pretty much just the Tigers are still in the hunt among teams that have given up 500+ runs this year.
My other observation here is that I’ve found the umpiring (balls/strikes, tag/no tag) to be more erratic this year than in other years. But empirically, this is not the case. The difference is that the strong offenses are doing a good job getting themselves into favorable batter’s counts, and likewise, the pitchers on bad teams are doing a bad job of staying ahead of hitters. The effect of this, I believe, is that struggling teams are more sensitive to the variance in umpire calls. And that bad defensive units are unable to get out of the cycle of balls and hittable pitches.
In the past, I think baseball had been more balanced between scoring and preventing runs. The count mattered in the past, but it mattered for all hitters. I’ve noticed that weaker hitters — more abundant in this current hitting environment — don’t capitalize on the extreme hitters counts (2-0), (3-1) like good hitters do. That trend isn’t exclusive to this year: good hitters have always dominated in hitters’ counts. But if you’re a team that has the pitching staff of the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Houston Astros, or Chicago Cubs, one of the biggest single reasons for all the losing is that it’s become nearly impossible to expect called third strikes to be called in pitcher favorable counts. Though the umpires aren’t doing anything fundamentally different from any other year, the depressed run environment means that every run counts, and sometimes on the margins, a good pitch that gets called a ball, or a check swing that gets appealed and ruled no swing — those events are having a greater effect on the outcome of the game in this run environment than they were just three years ago.
And it would be great if someone could run the numbers on this, but I believe that this is related to the disparate way that we’re seeing teams struggling with run prevention struggle in the win column, relative to their run differential.
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.
The AL East remains baseball’s best division. Will we have a different winner in it than the Rays? That’s the prediction being made here, though Rays fans aren’t going to be too disappointed in these projections.
1) Boston Red Sox (projected finish: 103-59)
The Boston Red Sox are the best team in baseball, at least, as of March 8. Sure, they grabbed headlines with their offseason acquisitions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez (as well as being priced out of the Adrian Beltre sweepstakes). But the Red Sox also had a pretty good season last year (by their own lofty standards), where missing the playoffs because of great seasons by the Rays and Yankees obscures that the Red Sox are one of the three or four best teams in baseball.
The team is strongest at the level of its position players. Crawford and Gonzalez are both excellent defensive players and top of the order threats, and same for Kevin Youkilis who will be stretched a bit as a third baseman this year. The second basemen, Dustin Pedroia, long has been strong on the defensive end, and is another middle of the order threat with the bad. Departed catcher Victor Martinez didn’t fit in with the building plan of the Red Sox, so the weaknesses are all up the middle: C, SS, CF. Crawford’s defensive value will be a little limited by the dimensions of Fenway park, and he possibly would have brought more value elsewhere, but for the Red Sox, it is a big deal that they, and not the Yankees, got Carl Crawford.
The pitching staff is likely to be improved as well with Jon Lester and Josh Beckett up front and Clay Buchholz/John Lackey behind them, and then Daniel Bard and Jonathon Papelbon at the back of the bullpen. If Papelbon continues to struggle, the Red Sox could be interested in Royals closer Joakim Soria at the deadline.
2) Tampa Bay Rays (projected finish: 91-71)
The Rays replaced premium, prime-career talent that they could not afford with aging former stars Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. They also traded away starting pitcher Matt Garza to the Cubs for prospects. But to expect them to decline by more than 50 runs in run differential from 2010 vastly understates how deep of an organization the Tampa Bay Rays are. Put simply, they might not be able to compete with Boston’s strength this year, but if they can get some development out of their young pitching staff, the Rays compare favorably with the Yankees.
The pitching rotation has to remain strong because the Rays are going to struggle to score runs on par with the Yankees or Red Sox. They did okay last year, breaking 800 runs in a light offensive year, but they could find their lineup in the middle of the pack this year, even with Evan Longoria hitting in the middle of that lineup.
Rookie Jeremy Hellickson will join veterans David Price and James Shields to give the Rays a rotation that will be dangerous in a short playoff series, and the Rays have plenty of depth in the organization to find a quality fourth and fifth player to round out the rotation. Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis hold those spots right now.
The Rays will have to figure out their bullpen if they want to hold off the Yankees, because the Yankees STILL have Mariano Rivera, and with him comes the peace of mind that the pen can only be so bad. The Rays, though, have to worry about their bullpen keeping the team out of the playoffs, which should give manager Joe Maddon a funny feeling in his stomach late in games in the month of April.
3) New York Yankees (projected finish: 90-72)
The Yankees know that they have problems in their rotation, and they also know that they will eventually have to trade for a front line pitcher, and seem willing to use top prospect Jesus Montero in a deal to get that pitching help. Montero will bring what will keep the Yankees competitive. But for The Empire, its the the first time in a decade and a half that they will be reliant on someone coming available to keep them competitive.
In all honesty, CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and AJ Burnett is just a fine top of the rotation, but theres a reason why Mark Prior, Bartolo Colon, and Freddy Garcia are all in camp as non-roster invitees. The Yankees are desperate.
However, thanks to a highly productive, even more lavishly paid lineup, New York should be able to outscore most teams they play. There’s not much to say or that needs to be said about the age of Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, because the bats that will carry the team are Robinson Cano, Mark Teixiera, and Alex Rodriguez. They are as good as any teams’ top three. But in the meat grinder that is the AL East, that likely won’t be enough in this division, and come playoff time, the Yankees could be on the outside looking in for the second time in four years. 90 wins seems like a good projection for the Yankees this year (a 5 win decline from last year with the Red Sox improving). But because I don’t have the Rays falling off the map, it’s not good enough for the Yankees to get back to the postseason.
4) Baltimore Orioles (projected finish: 75-87)
I’m not really a buyer in either the Orioles or the Blue Jays this year, but I think that where the Blue Jays are tearing down to build towards something better than they had last year, the Orioles seem like they are going to try to ride the improvement from last year into this year. Which isn’t to suggest the Orioles are doomed compared to the Blue Jays, but that the Orioles have more right now (and less on the farm) than the Jays.
What they do have coming up from the minor leagues is a lot of ML ready pitching talent that could facilitate a push towards the top of the AL East. But that’s a best case scenario. Realistically, their hitting should rebound over a full season from last year, though the real keys to the season is that the Orioles see CF Adam Jones and C Matt Wieters into the players they thought they had in them. If Jones and Wieters don’t hit this year, the Orioles won’t meet this projection and they won’t have much to look forward to in 2011 either. It’s a pivotal year for them, moreso than it is for the Blue Jays.
5) Toronto Blue Jays (projected finish: 73-89)
The Blue Jays actually won 85 games last year, which you probably didn’t realize unless you were a fan. A lot of that production was unsustainable. The Marlins signed all-star catcher John Buck away from them. They extended home run leader Jose Bautista because they couldn’t trade him. They will now hope for a fraction of last year’s production. They dealt pitcher Shaun Marcum to the Brewers for Brett Lawrie, a prospect without a position.
The pitching staff still has a lot of interesting names in it. Brandon Morrow is a strikeout leader on the club, but walks too many batters to be an ace. Kyle Drabek, acquired from the Phillies in the Roy Halladay trade, will try to win a rotation spot in camp. Dustin McGowan will try to hold onto his spot. Ricky Romero might be the “best”, most established pitcher, and could start on opening day. Marc Rzepczynski throws left handed, which is something he has going for him.
There’s still a lot of power in the Blue Jays lineup, but it would surprise no one if they lead the majors in strikeouts, wresting that title from the Diamondbacks. Jays games, in general, will tend to feature a lot of whiffs. That might actually be a good thing for the organization, because it means the pitching is developing, and the hitting can hold its power value even with high K totals. It’s really the only chance they have this year.
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The Baltimore Orioles have 50 losses in 2010. By itself, that’s not so terrible. Most, if not all MLB teams lose at least that many games in a season. The problem here: the Orioles do not play their 70th game until Tuesday.
That’s right: the Orioles have managed a .275 win pct. in their first 69 games. There’s no way they can keep that up…right?
At least, that’s the assumption where this analysis will start. The Orioles need not to tear down every single piece of their roster, because at 27% wins, they’re underachieving. If the Orioles win fewer than 50 games this year, they have a much bigger problem.
There’s a big problem right away with the construction of the big league roster: an O’s first baseman has not homered this season. Of course, as noted by ESPN.com’s Rob Neyer in the linked article, the O’s are getting plenty of power from first-basemen types Ty Wiggington (replacing Brian Roberts at 2B) and Luke Scott (primarily a DH). The bigger issue is that the Orioles are short a power hitter, in essence, they are a National League lineup playing 141 games against the American League. That wasn’t the plan when Roberts was expected to man second base, but the reality is that this unbelievable lack of depth has contributed to one of the worst lineups in the whole league (by far the worst in the AL), in spite of two guys having career years.
The only other player on the Orioles swinging a “plus” bat right now is right fielder Nick Markakis, a legitimate star in the game today who, unfortunately, many expected to step up and be a superstar for this city. Instead, his ability to hit for power has seemingly vanished this year. The good news is that Markakis is walking again this year, which has helped drive his on base percentage back to expected levels.
The position players aren’t even contributing with the glove, which includes the players who were signed exclusively for their gloves. C Matt Wieters has more defensive runs saved than anyone on the team (2), and he’s a catcher (catcher defense still in it’s infancy). Miguel Tejada’s move to third base has, um, adequately replaced Melvin Mora’s defense (yay!) and offense (crap!) in the lineup. Injuries have really, more than anything, hurt the team’s timely development curve: Felix Pie’s injury made room for Corey Patterson, who at best, is just there to buy GM Andy McPhail more time.
The Orioles have Roberts locked up at $10MM/year through age 35 (2013) according to Cot’s, though when he’s healthy, he really is Baltimore’s top trading chip. While Wiggington has predictably butchered second base this year, and getting Roberts back could add 5-6 wins to this team as much for plugging one hole (at first) as for having Roberts in the lineup, neither Roberts nor Wiggington are going to be part of the next great Baltimore team. Also, Luke Scott, who has one year of arbitration left before he qualifies for free agency after 2011, is probably better off traded, and can be acquired for a fraction of the cost for, say, Jose Guillen. A great trade deadline would involve moving both Wiggington and Scott, and then Roberts would probably be shopped in the offseason when he’s not damaged goods.
More than any other team in baseball, the success of the Orioles between 2011 and 2014 is very reliant on the development of players who are already in the major leagues, but are really hurting the team right now. That’s you, Adam Jones. That’s you, Matt Wieters. Ages 25 and 24 respectively, neither is really squarely in either the realm of “really young, and will improve with age” or “too old to significantly improve/failed prospect.” Time, however, waits for no one. The Orioles would be right to wait through the 2011 season for these players to develop as major league hitters, especially given Jones’ all-star half season in 2009, but along with Markakis and Pie, this is really all the Orioles have in terms of being competitive in the AL East over the next three years or so. They’ll wait them out, and hope to get different results than they have so far. The parts that have been producing for the Orioles won’t be here in a few years when the team can conceivably be good again, and the parts that could still be around inexpensively aren’t doing anything with the bats.
The team has one hitting prospect in AAA: 3B Josh Bell, who was the centerpiece of the George Sherrill-to-LA deal, after Sherrill was one of the main pieces in the Bedard deal. Bell will likely start next season in the majors, though he’s struggled to the tune of a 265/312/437 line in AAA this year. He’s got plenty of time to turn it around, because he’s currently blocked at the big league level by Miguel Tejada, who probably won’t be trade-able at the deadline.
That’s a pretty dismal picture for the offense — which is accurate. The pitching in Baltimore is a lot less troublesome long-term (but no less underachiving) in the short run. They have two starters in the majors who would already make no. 3 starters in a strong rotation, Jeremy Guthrie and rookie Brian Matusz. Guthrie is more of an innings eater at this point in his career, as his K/9 rate has fallen below 5 the last two years. He’s cut his home run rate this year, which will help him survive in a big league rotation into his mid-thirties. There’s not much there outside of that. Chris Tillman, a 22 year old received in the Erik Bedard deal, has been roasted in four starts since his call up, but the team still has (needs to have?) high hopes for him. Jake Arrieta, a 2007 5th rounder, just reached the rotation in June, and is off to a 2-1 start. The bullpen has almost no long term pieces in it, with only Alfredo Simon producing a good season in the closer’s role — his upside probably lies more in setup or middle relief.
Bullpen’s though, as a general rule, are erratic from season to season, and so the fact that the Orioles are getting no production from the current group doesn’t exactly spell trouble for future Orioles teams. Just as Simon may not be an effective late inning reliever deep into the team’s future, they might wake up one June morning in 2012 and find their long and middle relief to be a team strength. The return in any deal for Scott or Wiggington will likely be pitching oriented, and only Scott is likely to bring even a single starting prospect.
The good news is that the Orioles were able to sell high on both Erik Bedard and George Sherrill, which has given them pretty much every prospect advantage they have in their system. If their farm system is going to get better, they’ll need to start getting returns on their first round picks. It’s been so far, so good for Matusz, but the team has had virtually no success with it’s high school first round picks making the majors. That’s one long-time organizational issue that McPhail has, um, been unable to rectify? It hasn’t exactly made the Orioles gun shy: they’ve drafted pitcher Matthew Hobgood and now highly touted SS Manny Machado out of high school in the top five picks of the draft the last two years. Hobgood is striking out just 6 per nine innings in A ball, and might eventually project for a bullpen role. Machado, if the Orioles can sign him, will be the centerpiece of the farm system throughout his time there, and will probably bring with him the next hope for a winner in Baltimore, likely not before 2013.
Fixing the Orioles is all about re-emphasizing the draft, and making sure to pick up some useful pieces for it’s veterans that can’t be used. Brian Roberts can likely be flipped for a real prospect or two, but money is the key: the sometimes cheap Orioles might need to foot some of the remaining $30 million on his contract to get a full haul for a to-be 33 year old on a perennial loser. Once you add a high level prospect to this team, and sign Machado, the Orioles aren’t far from contention if they can pull the right strings with their young major league talent. An outfield of Markakis, Pie, and Jones has immense potential as soon as next year, and the Orioles figure to be sound at the corners even after Scott and Tejada move on, as that’s where their help is. Trading Roberts will temporarily create a great void in the middle infield that will probably require a shopping trip to the free agent market, but it’s better than the alternative of paying a declining player eight figures to lead a perennial loser. And then, the team will probably go as Wieters goes.
With select exceptions, the Orioles need to get out of the trap of paying good money for adequacy, and trust the young talent they have put together while they invest great resources to improve a pitching staff that needs a whole bunch of resources. This is not a one year process, but having many of the pieces of your next winner already on your major league roster is an advantage the Orioles have, and many other losers do not.