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American League Two-a-Days: Detroit Tigers

March 13, 2014 1 comment

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Detroit Tigers

2013 record: 93-69
2013 runs scored: 796
2013 runs against: 624
2013 pythag. record: 99-63

The Detroit Tigers shot themselves in the foot so many times last season that they ended up with a one game margin of victory in the AL Central.  It should never have been that close.  The Tigers were the best team in baseball from April 1 through the ALCS.  They were the best run scoring offense in baseball, and the best pitching team in the American League.  Only the Kansas City Royals gave up fewer runs.  Even their maligned bullpen was a team strength by the end of the season.

So why and how did the Tigers lose helplessly to the Red Sox in the ALCS?  The answer will foreshadow a weakness of the 2014 team: the lineup wasn’t that good in the playoffs.  So did they cramp up in the clutch?  Hardly.  The Tigers lineup was unproductive in September and late August as well.  All of the run scoring the Tigers did was concentrated in the first five months of the season.  That’s when Miguel Cabrera got hurt, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson started to really struggle, and Torii Hunter cooled off.  Without the benefit of a great lineup, the Tigers weren’t a true talent 99 win team in the playoffs.  They very nearly got caught in the division race by the Cleveland Indians.

And then they dealt Prince Fielder in the offseason to Texas for Ian Kinsler, which is going to to little to help the offensive problem.  Luckily, Detroit returns 4/5 of their rotation from last year.

Who is having a good spring?

3B Nick Castellanos, with a spot to win in spring training, has an 1.158 OPS in 33 spring PAs.  CF Austin Jackson has laced 10 hits.  Something named Miguel Cabrera has a .455/.571/.773 spring line.  Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer has picked up right where he left off.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Tigers

That rotation, man.  Scherzer.  Verlander.  Sanchez.  Even if Sanchez regresses of his career year, he’s still a nice no. 3 pitcher.  And with Scherzer and Verlander at the top of any rotation, it’s going to be hard to score on the Tigers.  Are they an all-time great rotation?  No.  Scherzer doesn’t make it deep into games consistently, and Verlander has undergone some level of skill decline recently.  But it’s the best rotation in baseball, even after selling high-ish on Doug Fister in a trade to the Nationals.

Defensively, the Tigers are much, much improved.  This is at least an average defensive unit, and a plus unit in the infield.  Alex Avila leaves something to be desired as a defensive catcher, and the outfield is Austin Jackson (above average) and not a lot of help from Torii Hunter and Andy Dirks.  The bullpen isn’t really a weakness anymore, even if the Tigers are overpaying Joe Nathan.  The Tigers have to be the favorite to prevent the most runs in the AL in 2014.

Rick Porcello, the fourth man in the rotation for the Tigers, would be the top pitcher on many staffs.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Tigers

Offensively, this is going to be more than just a problem for the Tigers.  This is a poor offensive team.  Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez are top five hitters on this team, but both have reached the end of the road career-wise.  If they have anything left to give this team, it’s a plus.  And with 2B Omar Infante departed for the main competition in the division, this offense is really just three guys: Cabrera, Kinsler, and Jackson.

That’s probably selling Alex Avila a bit short.  Avila is a nice player, but he’s a lot nicer as an 8 hitter in a power hitting lineup who ambushes pitchers not wanting to put someone on base for the top of the order.  It might be selling Castellanos a but short, as he’s off to a nice start to his spring.  But since he’s been in Detroit, Miguel Cabrera has always been a challenge to work around because he’s an aggressive hitter and you want to make sure you’re not falling too far behind in the count.  This year, there’s not a whole lot in the Tigers lineup beyond him to be concerned about.  In terms of extra base hits, Cabrera has a slugging projection from Fangraphs of .584.  Second on the team is…Torii Hunter at .431.  It’s not even close.

The Tigers don’t run the bases particularly well either.  Kinsler instead of Fielder improves that a bit, but this is a station to station ballclub with no real patience or power.  Basically, if Miguel Cabrera isn’t getting pitched around, it’s because something is wrong with Cabrera.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Tigers is 46.1, best in the American League.  Their 23.8 Batters WAR projection is 4th in the AL. Their 22.3 Pitchers WAR projection is best in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Tigers to win 90 games, a 3 win decline over last season.  Miguel Cabrera is the Tiger with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 5.9.  Justin Verlander is the pitcher with the best average projection at 5.2 WAR.

The Tigers 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 Detroit Tigers

Because of their relatively easy strength of schedule, it’s a good bet that the Tigers will win another 90 games this year.  There’s not a lot of collapse risk with this team.  I do think. however, the Cabrera and Verlander projections are a bit high.  It’s not hard to see Cabrera spending some time on the DL this season with one of the many ailments he has as his body wears down.  Verlander has been nothing if not durable, but it’s hard not to remember how hard he got hit at times last season.  This team is great, but it’s best players do seem to be somewhat overprojected.

I’ll flatly side with the numbers here and predict the Tigers to finish 90-72.  That will not be the best figure in the American League this year.  It could be enough to win the AL Central for the fourth consecutive season but that’s not certain either.  At 90 wins, Cool Standings playoff odds give the Tigers a roughly 70% chance of winning the AL Central.  Two-thirds sounds about right to me.  90 wins in almost all likelyhood will get the Tigers into the postseason: it’s hard to see three wild card teams win 91+ games like last year.

Any postseason trip should seal GM Dave Dombroski’s position as one of (if not the) best executives in Tigers history.

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 Kansas City Royals and $40 million pitching rotations

February 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Baseball’s Pitching Rotations, by projected salary of top six starters for 2013:

-Los Angeles Dodgers $78.2 million
-Philadelphia Phillies $72.7 million
-San Francisco Giants $69.5 million
-New York Yankees $58.2 million* (excludes $8.5 million sent to Pittsburgh w/AJ Burnett)
-Toronto Blue Jays $50.45 million (excludes $8.5 million received from Miami in six player trade)
-Boston Red Sox $47.6 million
-Los Angeles Angles $46.9 million (exclues $1 million sent to KC with Ervin Santana)
-Detroit Tigers $45.2 million
-Chicago White Sox $41.25 million
-St. Louis Cardinals $40.1 million
Kansas City Royals $40.1 million (excludes $1 million relief from Angels for Ervin Santana)
-Pittsburgh Pirates $38.5 million* (excludes $13.5 million relief team has for AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez)
-Chicago Cubs $37.4 million
-Cincinnati Reds $36.3 million
-New York Mets $34.1 million
-Washington Nationals $32.0 million
-Seattle Mariners $29.8 million
-Texas Rangers $23.3 million
-Cleveland Indians $20.6 million
-Atlanta Braves $19.85 million
-Baltimore Orioles $19.1 million
-Colorado Rockies $17.1 million
-Arizona Diamondbacks $16.7 million
-San Diego Padres $16.1 million
-Tampa Bay Rays $15.7 million
-Miami Marlins $15.15 million (excludes $8.5 million sent to Toronto in six player trade)
-Milwaukee Brewers $14.5 million
-Minnesota Twins $13.3 million
-Oakland Athletics $10.75 million
-Houston Astros $6.3 million (not counting $5 million owed to former pitcher Wandy Rodriguez)

All data via Cot’s/Baseball Prospectus

The Kansas City Royals appear out of place on this list, relative to their market size.  Actually, they’re just out of place on this list in general.  When you look at the small market teams on this list, they’re pretty much universally collected at the bottom: Oakland and Tampa have made the playoffs recently as have the mid-market Diamondbacks.  But low-revenue teams such as the A’s, Brewers, Marlins, Padres, Rays, Indians, and Pirates (considering salary relief) are all paying between $10 million and $25 million for entire rotation, which comes out to between $2 and $4-5 million per pitcher.

Broken down into a wins above replacement argument, small market teams are almost universally structured so that the money they pay to their pitching rotation year after year comes in under an average of 1 win per pitcher on the open market.  It’s practically impossible to not operate with a surplus in return on investment, because small market teams are highly invested in young arms who can get hitters out without costing the team a lot.

$40 million rotations on the other hand mean that the team sits between 1-2 wins above replacement per pitcher in terms of average compensation.  Only 10 rotations in baseball are at this pay-grade,  and every team (perhaps with the exception of the White Sox) is in go-for-it mode every year.  You can’t rebuild while paying $40+ million for your starting rotation: it’s lunacy.  The risk of losing your payroll dollars to the disabled list is extremely high.

Whether the Royals are spending their payroll most efficiently is a different argument entirely.  Their overall payroll isn’t extreme: it will be a fraction under $80 million this year, but the mid-market Twins consistently held an $100 million payroll when they were competing for the division every year, and there’s little doubt that most teams can do the same.  The Indians are in exactly the same financial situation as the Royals, and are spending the same amount.  But the percentage of the payroll the Royals have put towards pitching IS extreme.  The Royals have just three position players on their roster making more than $3 million this year: RF Jeff Francoeur, DH Billy Butler, and LF Alex Gordon.  Their entire rotation, with the exception of Wade Davis, will make more than $3 million each.

The Indians are invested very differently.  They spent the same kind of money the Royals did this offseason, but waited out the market and ended up signing hitters instead of pitchers.  They signed four position players this offseason (OF Michael Bourn, OF Nick Swisher, IF Mark Reynolds, IF Mike Aviles), committing a grand total of $116 million in salary, though just $26.25 million for this season.  To upgrade their rotation, they acquired Brett Myers (most recently of the White Sox), and will convert him to the starting rotation.

Both teams saw a relative opening in the AL Central, and tried to fix their biggest weakness to get there.  The Royals got 7.5 wins from their rotation last season, which would essentially be worth $40 million on the open market.  But it’s not like the Royals had to keep their entire rotation from hitting the market, nor would they have paid that amount to keep those guys had they needed to.  The Indians got 4.6 wins from their rotation last season, which is worth about $25 million on the market.  From a salary perspective only, neither team can expect to receive a boost in terms of pitching performance from last year.

It’s a weird position for the Royals to be in because it’s the same position that large market teams find themselves in year after year: paying big bucks to remain relevant/not lose ground.  The Yankees have been in this cycle for years.  The Dodgers appear ready to enter it.  The Phillies are stuck in it.  The Giants are still winning world series, but have no way of improving their run prevention at this point.  The top of this list suffers from this investment effect every year.

The problem of course is that the Royals won 72 games last year and the Indians won 68.  Paying for arms is not going to improve either team, so the improvement has to be made on the other side: with the position players.  Both teams are hoping that they improved enough from the outside (Indians) or through internal development (Royals) to make their financial investments worth the trouble.  The Toronto Blue Jays, who only received 5.5 wins from their rotation last year (and won just 73 games), are hoping for the same kind of thing: they’ll be expecting at least 2-3 more wins from their rotation this year.

There may not be an optimal strategy here, but simply spending money on the rotation has worked for National League teams in recent years such as the Pirates and the Cardinals, not to mention large market teams like the Giants, Nationals, and Phillies.  It hasn’t worked quite as well in the American League, for a number of reasons.  Instead, teams like the Rays, Athletics, Orioles, and Rangers have won in spite of their abilities to shed large contracts to players while the Red Sox, Tigers, Yankees, and Angels, who spend the most on pitching, consistently have the weakest results.

I’m skeptical that the Royals’ investment is going to work out for them.  It certainly can, but there will likely be other factors at play here, including the improved health and training/development of their current staff.  If that had worked over the last three years with their young pitchers, the Royals wouldn’t have been in this position to begin with.  So the team’s methodology must improve across the board.  And in the American League this year, there are enough bottom feeders to keep a team like Kansas City afloat.  But to get to the playoffs, their approach is going to have to prove stronger than teams in like situations, such as the Indians and Blue Jays, and the track record of high pitcher salary in the American League in recent years is simply not that good.

 

Hard to Ignore: Teams are not scoring runs on opening day

Watching baseball in April isn’t anything like watching baseball in July.  I get that.  Common belief dictates that pitching starts ahead of hitting, and that the cold weather certainly doesn’t favor those holding the lumber.  But with the way that offensive totals have collapsed over the last two seasons, I was anxious to see how long it would take for the game to rebound in the direction of offense.

And as the first day of baseball occurs, there’s some more evidence that baseball is trending away from offense.

There are no conclusions to be made from this post, as the sample size is too small.  But for those of us looking for evidence that offense will be on the rebound, it is difficult to watch flyballs get knocked down in caught in the outfield at an astounding rate while teams

I enjoy the late comebacks as much as any fan (and we’ve had three already by the Red Sox, Nationals, and Blue Jays on Opening Day), but if baseball is going to ever compete with football or basketball again in terms of TV ratings, it would seem like the only way would be to create an offensive environment that swings the score back and forth like often happens in football.  If the first team to score leads throughout the first six innings, then I’m not sure the product will ever be compelling enough for the die hards, let alone the casual fan.

And I’m not sure that baseball can support a continued trend towards a tougher run-scoring environment.  Baseball could use the volatility.  Which means that although MLB has to be pretty happy with the exciting endings that they’ve gotten on Opening Day, even the purists have to be concerned that no team scored more than 4 runs today in the first nine innings.  And I’m skeptical enough to believe the Dodgers and Padres are going to force us to wait until tomorrow to break that streak.

Prince Fielder’s deal makes more sense than Albert Pujols’ deal

January 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Salary data in this post courtesy of Cot’s/Baseball Prospectus.

The big problem I had with the Albert Pujols deal the day it was signed is the nature of the contract.  The Angels were described as “having plenty of cable revenue” in order to execute such a deal with the game’s biggest star, which made sense.

What did not (and does not) support that notion is that this deal is very heavily backloaded.  The Angels have a ton of salary flexibility in 2012 and 2013, but after that, Pujols is to cost the Angels between 23 million and 30 million per season on an ascending basis for 8 years.  When you look at the Angels current payroll, you can see why they would do such a thing in terms of backloading Pujols’ money as they will free up plenty of salary each of the next three years.  But the only reason it makes sense is if you are skeptical that the Angels are currently awash in cash, or that this cash is burning a hole in their pockets.

There is no question the Angels are a large market team at this point, clearly the dominant franchise within their own locale, and just behind the Yankees in terms of total spending ability, but the payroll flexibility is an illusion.  You don’t need flexibility when you have Albert Pujols in his prime, but you most certainly will when you have Albert Pujols well past his prime.  It’s particularly disturbing when you look at some of the players the 2014 Angels may feature when you assume zero payroll flexibility (probably too tough an assumption, but still):

  1. 34 year old Albert Pujols ($23 million)
  2. 35 year old Vernon Wells ($21 million)
  3. 31 year old Jared Weaver ($16 million)
  4. 33 year old C.J. Wilson ($16 million)
  5. 30 year old Howie Kendrick ($9.35 million)
  6. Arb-eligible Peter Bourjos
  7. Pre-arb Mike Trout
  8. Arb-eligible Hank Conger
  9. Arb-eligible Mark Trumbo?

A couple of those contracts look fine on their own merits (Jared Weaver’s contract still looks great and Howie Kendrick’s extension is a bargain if 2011 is a real glimpse of his talent).  But that list of nine players on the 2014 Angels exceeds $90 million in estimated salary, and simply won’t win a lot of games unless the Angels are able to add to it.  The Angels (I am guessing) will try to sit in the $150-$160 million range in payroll over the length of the Pujols deal, which means that they have enough flexibility to build a team around that core, but to stave off the effects of age, the core is almost going to have to be entirely drafted and developed.  It’s already 2012, so you might want to get started on that if you’re the Angels.

The Prince Fielder-Detroit Tigers deal makes a lot more sense for the Tigers.  The biggest argument against the deal, to me, is that it seems pretty frivolous.  The Tigers enter 2012 as a clear favorite in the AL Central, with the Royals and the Indians still about a year away from being true 90 win contenders, and needing the Tigers to decend to between 84-86 wins to be within the realm of contention.  The immediate reaction to the Fielder deal was that the Tigers accomplished this: with a Boesch-Fielder-Cabrera-Peralta-Avila middle of the order, there’s no team in the AL Central that can go blow for blow with that group, added to the fact that the Tigers were probably already going to enter the season with the most daunting rotation in the division.  But if you take Fielder out of that, you probably drop an estimated 3 or 4 wins off the Tigers total, yet, none of the things I wrote about the Tigers above are untrue.

But what I like about the Fielder deal is that it is in no way backloaded.  In the aggragate, the Tigers are going to end up raising payroll by about $15-$20 million over last season and are likely committing to hold payroll steady for the remainder of the tenure of Mike Illitch’s ownership.  They had planned to invest the money freed up by the expiration of Magglio Ordonez’ contract into arbitration raises and the backloaded portion of Justin Verlander’s contract.  The Fielder deal was most likely executed by ownership in an understanding that payroll would be raised over the life of the deal, obviously with the Franchises’ blessing.

The Tigers lose pretty much any payroll flexibility they might have had, but the first time this will even be a minor consideration for the Tigers is if/when Justin Verlander approaches free agency after the 2014 season.  The commitment by the franchise to stay in the $120-$130 million range in payroll for the forseeable future is as large a step forward as it was when they upped payroll in 2008.  But this time there is no Dontrelle Willis deal that will threaten the Tigers as AL Central favorites.  Only time can do that as the Royals and Indians attempt to join them as annual 90 win clubs.

In other words, the 2014 Tigers have more free money and overall better contracts than the 2014 Angels do.  Take a look:

  1. 30 year old Prince Fielder ($24 million)
  2. 31 year old Miguel Cabrera ($22 million)
  3. 31 year old Justin Verlander ($20.1 million)
  4. 35 year old Victor Martinez ($12 million)
  5. Arb-eligible Max Scherzer
  6. Arb-eligible Rick Porcello
  7. Pre-arb Jacob Turner ($1.1.75 + $1.0 million club option)
  8. Arb-eligible Austin Jackson
  9. Arb-eligible Brennan Boesch
  10. Arb-eligibile Alex Avila

That’s about the same $90 million dollars the Angels are in for 2014 payroll, but that is a much younger team to a man, and a more talented team in my opinion.

And the Fielder contract against the Pujols contract is emblematic of the problems that the Angels are forcing themselves into later.  The Tigers might end up being overrated in 2012, but they are not in danger of needing to dismantle their team at any point.  Even though they would be better characterized as medium-market against the large market Angels, the Tigers look like they will be a better team starting in 2014 and all else equal, through the 2020 MLB season.

The Staying Power of the Cleveland Indians

After being swept at home in four games by the Texas Rangers it may be time to ask if what we’re seeing from the Cleveland Indians is simply natural regression, or something more detrimental to the playoff hopes of the Tribe.

First, lets define the competition of the Cleveland Indians.  For awhile, when it looked like the Indians were going to run away with the division, it seemed like they would certainly finish with a better record than the wild card team from the AL East.  That now looks more or less impossible.  The Yankees and Red Sox have been hot recently, and the AL East is primed to send two teams to the playoffs for yet another year.  The Indians will have to win the AL Central to make it to the AL Postseason.

Right now, their primary competition is the Detroit Tigers, who sit just 2.5 games back.  It’s likely the gap between the Tigers and the rest of the division (White Sox, Royals, Twins) will close over the next two months.  If the Indians keep winning over the next two months, this race will be over around the trade deadline.  If the Indians slow their pace, this could be a dogfight throughout the last two months.

Regardless, the truth about the Indians seems to lie somewhere in the middle.  Their pace will slow a bit, and the door will be opened for the Tigers.  But how much will it slow?  The numbers tell an interesting story.

The Indians have already been hit hard by injury and by underperformance.  The problem over the last two weeks has been that the Indians have been hurt by these factors before they could be helped by the natural regression of middle of the order hitters Shin Soo Choo and Carlos Santana.  The 3-9 record since May 24th is most likely a mirage, because the Indians aren’t getting their offensive production from anywhere, even though they have a strong lineup.  Furthermore, they are hurting in terms of depth right now, as they weren’t exactly constructed to compete this year.

I may be biased as a Royals fan, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen Michael Brantley every get out.  Right now, he’s just on basing a pretty good .349.  That’s better than everyone than Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera (pictured above).  Now, 3B Jack Hannahan, who was as much a part of the Indians strong start as any player, is regressing — probably because he’s Jack Hannahan.   Most of the timely power hitting has come out of the 8 hole from former top prospect Matt LaPorta.  Laporta, Cabrera, and Brantley are the breakout studs who can power the engine that is the Indians offense, but even with those players, the team must overcome their weaknesses at second base and at third base.

Lineup theory tells us that a team can score a bunch of runs with seven above average players, and while the Indians had 8 or so players playing over their heads most of the season, it’s clear that they’re going to have to produce throughout the outfield, and from the DH position as well to continue to score enough runs to win games.

This is where it makes sense to discuss the effect of the Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner injuries.  Hafner has been sensational this year, but he’s also been to the DL twice.  It’s an identical situation for Grady Sizemore.  He started the year on the DL, and now is back on.  This is relevant because without Sizemore, the Indians have been forced into a mostly ineffective platoon with Travis Buck and Austin Kearns.  Of course, without Sizemore and Hafner, Shelley Duncan is the every day DH.  And that means that even if Brantley, Cabrera, and LaPorta continue to rake, they still can’t outpace the rest of the division offensively even when Shin Soo Choo and Carlos Santana begin to drive the ball consistently.

The Indians will likely require some sort of upgrade at second base because Orlando Cabrera’s defense just isn’t good enough make him an every day player while he OPSes .581.  But they’ll also need to get some help should Hafner and Sizemore not return at full ability.  A strong Indians lineup counts on production from veterans as well as the breakout candidates.  The young players have held up their end of the bargain thus far, but if the Indians are going to ride out the inevitable summer struggles of LaPorta and Brantley, they’re either going to need a better trainer or more depth.

The Indians have been able to hold late leads because of their bullpen strength and defined roles.  But the rotation is of great concern, and the issues there may limit the ability of the Indians to acquire their much needed offensive depth.  Justin Masterson looks like a developing ace, though his K rate places him squarely as a middle of the rotation pitcher.  Josh Tomlin pitches to the corners, and though he had great success early (1.4 BB/9), he’s starting to be hit hard (1.4 HR/9).  Lefty Mitch Talbot can get strikeouts, but is nothing more than a back of the rotation guy on a playoff contender.

The problem here is that young Carlos Carrasco isn’t yet good enough to be in a big league rotation on a contending team, and has merely survived to date by keeping the ball in the park.  The other problem is that Fausto Carmona isn’t very valuable at all as anything more than an innings eater, and needs to be upgraded.  Prospect Alex White is currently on the DL.  If he can come back healthy, he’s likely the second best pitcher in the Indian rotation, after Masterson.  If his arm gives him problems all year, the Indians have no choice but to go outside the organization to get help.

Carmona isn’t going anywhere, but the Indians will only be able to hold off the Tigers if they can start four valuable pitchers every time they turn over the rotation.  Masterson is a given.  They have to hold out hope on both White (injury) and Tomlin (effectiveness) that they have at least one all season.  Then there’s Talbot, a good no. 4.

The Indians will have to trade for a mid-to-front line starting pitcher to hold of the rest of the AL Central, and they probably should not wait, as Carrasco is a liability.  The Twins and Royals aren’t playing competitive baseball (not even head to head — 2 sweeps in three series), but have hardly any pitchers that would be of value between them.  The Indians could target Scott Baker of the Twins, who is still owed $10 million between now and next year.  It’s probably too early for the A’s to be sellers, so absent Baker, the Indians are likely looking at trying to acquire a pitcher in the National League, such as Wandy Rodriguez (who is also on the DL), Chris Capuano, R.A. Dickey, Tom Gorzelanny, Ryan Dempster, or Aaron Harang.  The translation ability of an NL pitcher to contribute on an AL team is typically not a good risk.

Still, the Indians are sitting pretty in the AL Central.  Maybe not so much right now, as the Tigers are healthy and have more obvious places where they can improve by mid-season transaction, but the Indians’ young talent has done anything except turn back into a large pumpkin at midnight.  They’re still being driven forward in the AL Central by the young guns.  Its now time to find the veterans who can stay healthy and help push the Cleveland Indians into the playoffs.

Categories: MLB Tags: ,

LBS 2011 MLB Preview: AL Central

March 7, 2011 1 comment
SURPRISE, AZ - FEBRUARY 25:  Pitcher Luke Hochevar #44 of the Kansas City Royals poses for a portrait during Spring Training Photo Day on February 25, 2007 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

LiveBall’s Previews of the 2011 MLB Season begins right in it’s own backyard with a look at the American League’s most tightly packed division, a worst to first description of all the contenders.  And, yes, the Indians and the Royals as well.

5) Cleveland Indians (projected finish: 66-96)

The Indians’ second rebuilding project since their appearance in the 2007 ALCS began much earlier than expected, and was officially brought in by the seemingly natural front office progression of the promotion of hotshot candidate Chris Antonetti to the role of General Manger, with former GM Mark Shapiro taking on the title of “President of Baseball Operations.”  That doesn’t make it immediately clear who will be doing what, but the Indians message for their fans is clear: it’s Antonetti’s show now.

Cleveland’s best asset is its deep farm system, although they lack the bevy of top prospects of the next team on this list.  They have two proven major league regulars in OF Chin-Soo Chu, and OF Grady Sizemore, another to-be regular in second year C Carlos Santana, and then will rely on whatever contributions slow-to-develop OF/1B Matt LaPorta and longtime DH Travis Hafner can give them.

That’s a decent core to build a team around, but unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Chu, Sizemore, or Hafner will be around for the next AL Central-contending Indians team.  LaPorta is increasingly less likely to develop as a power hitter as the weeks pass, and while Hafner rebounded in 2010 for his best season since 2007, he’s 34 now.

The Indians don’t have much by way of pitching, with the erratic Fausto Carmona at the top of their rotation, and the bullpen unsettled, to put it kindly.  This is a problem when you consider the lacking quality of the Indians’ team defense, notably at the hard to fill positions of centerfield, and shortstop.  Former Red Sox prospect Justin Masterson still has some potential to help the rotation, but the rest of the help may still be a year away.  The race for worst pitching staff in the AL Central between the Indians and Royals could be as fascinating as the farm-arms race that will occur between the two clubs in years to come.

4) Kansas City Royals (projected finish: 71-91)

Its going to be just one more year of bad baseball in Kansas City, although the real question is whether or not the product that follows 17 years of bad baseball was worth waiting for.  That’s hard to say.

The Royals could have competed in 2011, but would have needed to hold onto RF David DeJesus, and RHP Zack Greinke to do so, and probably would have needed to add a pricy bat or arm in free agency, and even then, the Royals would only have been a fringe contender for the AL Central.  That would have been more costly when you factor in the additional cost of keeping Greinke happy: holding on to veterans signed last year instead of shedding salary at the trading deadline of a non-competitive team.  Instead the team made the wise “money” move, and traded DeJesus and Greinke for whatever they could get, essentially ending the team’s hopes of competing this year before spring training started.  On the bright side, payroll is down under $35 million this year (thanks to the unexpected retirement of Gil Meche and his $12 million), and only Billy Butler has a guaranteed contract beyond this season.

The teams best player is closer Joakim Soria, but the real reason to expect the Royals to be better than last year despite losing their top position player and best pitcher is the quality of the teams defense.  The Royals were horrid last year at preventing runs in games not started by Greinke or Bruce Chen, and they were horrid despite some defense-independent pitching improvement from third starter Kyle Davies.  Brian Bannister has been jettisoned to Japan, Chen has been resigned, and the Royals added former Rockie left-hander Jeff Francis to replace Greinke.

The team defense will be the reason for improvement in the run prevention unit.  Going from Yuni Betancourt to Alcides Escobar at short is a two or three win upgrade, essentially the difference between Greinke and Francis.  Third base will be a defensive strength, at least until Mike Moustakas arrives in the majors (a day which no Royals fan is dreading), as will second with a continuation of a Chris Getz/Mike Aviles platoon.  First base will be average at best, but an Alex Gordon, Mitch Maier/Melky Cabrera/Lorenzo Cain, Jeff Francouer outfield has the potential to be the best defensive outfield in years for KC.  And that’s without stalwart defender DeJesus.

No matter what, an offense with Francouer, Jason Kendall, Melky Cabrera, Getz, Escobar, and possibly even Pedro Feliz is going to struggle to simply not be the lowest run producing offense in the AL (but thanks for trying, Seattle), and the bats the Royals will rely on this year don’t have a particularly impressive MLB track record (exception: Butler).  That’s why its a minority prediction to suggest the Royals will actually be closer to .500 than to 100 losses.  But improved team defense will make the rotation look better, and as long as Joakim Soria is healthy, the Royals will win a disproportional amount of close games, making this a justifiable prediction.

3) Detroit Tigers (projected finish: 79-83)

There’s plenty of optimism coming out of Lakeland this spring, if for a moment, we can ignore the fact that the team’s best player Miguel Cabrera has a serious issue with alcohol.  The latest bout isn’t career threatening, necessarily, but while similarity scores view him as a player who will be a star into his late thirties, that’s the kind of projection that could be cut short by alcohol abuse.  Cabrera was named the best hitter in baseball by LiveBall Sports last July, in the midst of Albert Pujols’ one seemingly human season in the last eight.  Cabrera hit better than Pujols in 2010, though not quite better than AL MVP Josh Hamilton, although their batting runs above average were practically identical.

The argument is not that Cabrera is the best player in baseball, as he’s a well below average defender at a non-premium position.  Pujols is a great defender, and a far superior baserunner as well.  Cabrera is the most dangerous player in baseball with a bat in his hands.  And alcohol threatens to shorten his run of dominance with the bat.

The Tigers will enter 2010 with the division’s best rotation, including Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Brad Penny, and Max Scherzer, and they will have plenty of firearms in the bullpen as well.  Whether they actually finish the year with the best rotation in the division depends on the quality of work of White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, and the health of all these flamethrowers the Tigers employ.

The team’s biggest offseason acquisition was Catcher Victor Martinez, a legitimate middle of the order bat, if not the best defensive catcher on the team (that would be second year man, Alex Avila).  Both figure to see more than 350 PAs this year.  CF Austin Jackson and RF Magglio Ordonez will make up two thirds of the Tigers starting outfield, and Brandon Inge returns as the regular third baseman, but the rest of the lineup will be a series of unimpressive platoons and week-to-week sketch ups by manager Jim Leyland.  Inge and Jackson are both excellent defenders, and supersub Don Kelly’s glove will play at any position, but this is not a great defensive team, and Martinez won’t do anything to solve those issues.  Put simply, the bats must rank near the top of the AL for Detroit to win the AL Central.

2) Chicago White Sox (projected finish: 86- 78)

The White Sox should be better than last year for the same reason the Royals should be better than last year.  They made one huge improvement at the weakest position on the team.  Some of the plate appearances that were engulfed by Juan Pierre this year will belong to Adam Dunn, who should make his home nicely in the bandbox that is US Cellular Field.  A second improvement should come from rookie 3B Brent Morel, who if not an offensive improvement, will certainly provide defensive improvement to Mark Teahen and Dayan Viciedo.

The rotation of John Danks, Mark Buerhle, Gavin Floyd, Jake Peavy, and Edwin Jackson offers the deepest rotation in the AL, with the most potential upside of any rotation west of Tampa/east of Oakland.  Peavy, Floyd, and Jackson all offer value that is more speculative than the established contributions of Buerhle and Danks.

Unquestionably, however, the strength of the White Sox in the infield gives way to one of the thinnest outfields in the majors.  Left to right, the starters are Pierre, Alex Rios, and Carlos Quentin.  Quentin can’t play the field very well, but the Dunn acqusition makes him a full timer out there.  Rios was above average in center last year, but is still stretched kind of thin in center.  He’d offer more defensive value in a corner.  Pierre at least won’t be playing any DH this year, and played a good left field last season, but it’s not a position his bat can handle.  Teahen should see playing time in both left and right field.

If the staff and bullpen goes through the expected development and has the Sox competing near the top of the league in most pitching candidates, the Sox could be big-name buyers at the deadline on an outfielder.  They should be in this race longer than the Tigers, but without additional help in the lineup, the White Sox are destined to come up short, and in a worst case scenario, could find themselves selling at the deadline.

1) Minnesota Twins (projected finish: 90-72)

The Twins remain one of the best teams in baseball.  They were able to retain key contributors Jim Thome and Carl Pavano from their free agent class.  There are only two troubling things about this Twins team: first, that Justin Morneau still isn’t asymptomatic from a concussion suffered last July.  Secondly, that without Morneau, the Twins will play a very, very watered down group of infielders, one that will be tough to win with.

The Twins have had a long standing issue with outfield defense.  Last year, the trio of Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Delmon Young combined to produce -29 UZR (runs), a staggering figure for guys playing in three positions.  The trio is back this year.

Minnesota was able to mitigate that a bit with excellent infield defense from JJ Hardy, Danny Valencia, Nick Punto, Orlando Hudson, and a great first half with the glove from Morneau.  Of the five names, only Valencia is likely to be good to go on opening day.  Gone are Hardy, Punto, and Hudson.  Japanese signee Tsuyoshi Nishioka will take over at the keystone.  Alexi Casilla is sliding over to shortstop, the only position on the diamond where his bat profiles.  His glove may project there after all, but the Twins ask so much out of their infield defenders to make up for that outfield defense.  They also must rely on Denard Span to have another strong year with the glove in center.

The Twins might have jettisoned their role contributors while holding onto dead weight, such as Cuddyer.  That’s the concern with them.  But an offense that produced enough runs to be at the top of the AL last year — led by all-world catcher Joe Mauer — should pull off the same feat again with even greater ease this year.  The Minnesota pitching staff is unimpressive on paper, but very underrated as a group.  Joe Nathan returns in the closer role this year, strengthening the entire bullpen.

My Twins projection is depressed a bit not because the team won’t be improved at all, but because the White Sox, Royals, and Indians are all improving, and part of the effect of 94 wins by the Twins last year were simply poor in-division competition from teams that weren’t the Detroit Tigers.  The four game margin of victory in the AL Central probably understates how the Twins won’t have to make a deadline trade to win this division comfortably.