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American League Two-a-Days: New York Yankees

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: New York Yankees

2013 record: 85-77
2013 runs scored: 650
2013 runs against: 671
2013 pythag. record: 79-83

The hard truth is that the Yankees are one of the five worst teams in the AL.  They were last year, and they are going to be again this year.  It’s the Astros, White Sox, Orioles, Twins, and Yankees at the bottom of the league.

The Yankees separated themselves this year by spending a lot of money.  They have Masahiro Tanaka on the mound, Jacoby Ellsbury patrolling center, Carlos Beltran in right, and Brian McCann behind the plate.  Those may well be the four best players on the team, and none was here last year.

But none of it matters, because they were unable to retain one of the best players in the AL, Robinson Cano.  He’s replaced with Brian Roberts and the Yankees just aren’t much better than last year.

Who is having a good spring?

McCann and Francisco Cervelli, back from suspension and injury, give the Yankees the top 1-2 catching punch in the AL.  They have almost identical numbers this spring, combining for 2 HRs and 20 total bases.  3B Kelly Johnson was the team’s value signing, and he adds another 10 total bases this spring.  Tanaka has been as advertised, and Hiroki Kuroda, who faded badly at the end of last season, is off to a nice start.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Yankees

The Yankees do not get enough credit for their superb advanced scouting and analytic approach, perhaps as good as any in the game.  If you watch the Yankee defensive positioning over a long time, it’s clear they are more prepared to play than a lot of other teams.  This seems to be a fairly repeatable skill for them, and helped the Yankees into the top four in the AL in terms of run prevention last season.

The Yankees should be above average at preventing runs again this year.  This rotation is stronger than it was a year ago, and they have enough live arms to replace Mariano Rivera in the bullpen.  Replacing a legend isn’t going to be the easiest part of David Robertson’s career, but he’s going to get a lot of help from starters going deep into games.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Yankees

The offense was terrible last season, and even with all the shiny new pieces the Yankees have added this year, there are out-makers throughout the lineup.  The players with above average OBP projections in the lineup are: McCann, Ellsbury, Gardner, Teixiera, Beltran, and whatever PAs you can get from Derek Jeter this year.  Not one player in the lineup is projected to do better than .340 in on-base percentage.  By comparison, the Kansas City Royals have four players with projected OBP above .340.  Having Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro, and Roberts rotating between DH and the bench isn’t going to help matters.

It’s not like this Yankee lineup is power-heavy either.  You take the list above, subtract Jeter but add Soriano, and that’s all the above average power in the Yankee lineup.

This lineup should be more productive than last season, but it’s not much support for the pitching staff.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Yankees is 39.7, 5th in the American League.  Their 20.9 Batters WAR projection is 11th in the AL. Their 18.8 Pitchers WAR projection is 3rd in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Yankees to win 83 games, a 2 win decline over last season.  Masahiro Tanaka is the Yankee with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 4.7.  Jacoby Ellsbury is the position player with the best average projection at 4.3 WAR.

The Yankees vs the rest of the AL East

The AL East is baseball’s strongest division in 2014.  The Rays and Red Sox are top seven teams, in the elite class of baseball teams, and the Yankees and Blue Jays are anticipated to be top-half teams.  The Orioles are probably the best team expected to finish in fifth this season.  The Blue Jays are a longshot contender, but the Red Sox and the Rays are the class of the AL East this year.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 New York Yankees

I see almost no way the Yankees can avoid going backwards in terms of win total in 2014.  This is a better team than last year.  But the more you dug into last year’s Yankees team, the worse they looked.  Frankly, on the offensive end alone, there’s about 50 runs floating around there that came by way of non-repeatable offensive skill.  Ellsbury, Teixiera, McCann, Beltran, and Jeter are good, but I don’t know if there’ s 50 offensive runs there total.  And that’s BEFORE you remember Cano isn’t in this lineup.

Offensively, that runs scored number could slide back from 650.  And that runs prevented number also has a good chance to slide backwards (although this team is stronger defensively).  And so the prediction here is that the Yankees will miss the 80 win plateau for the first (and last) time in the Jeter era, going 76-86.  Tanaka will not be a unanimous rookie of the year.  And the 2014 season will be a struggle in the way the 2013 season wasn’t, because there will be no easy answers.

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The Dallas Cowboys in 2014

If you are a baseball fan, you may have realized that the Yankees aren’t exactly running out a murderer’s row of hitters on opening day.  This is a problem first identified by Joe Posnanski nearly two years ago.  In this post, I will try to apply such wisdom to the Dallas Cowboys, and their precarious financial position.

A lot of source info in this post comes courtesy of OverTheCap.com  First things first: the Dallas Cowboys are going to make money in 2014.  They aren’t going to lose money.  The mismanagement described in this post is purely cap related.

Age is undefeated. That’s not true for some players. It’s true for all players. –Posnanski

Reading that line in May 2011 changed by focus as a sports analyst, probably shaping a lot of the analysis I do today.  You cannot bet on very much in sports.  You can, however, bet on age.

The Dallas Cowboys under Jerry Jones have never really tested the “age is undefeated” mantra.  They’ve never fielded a particularly old roster.  They will these next two seasons, because its unavoidable for cap purposes.

The projected ages of the oldest players on the Cowboys for the 2014 season:

QB Tony Romo (34) The Cowboys quarterback is the oldest key player on the roster and also now enjoys the security of the longest contract.

Romo is not getting released by the Cowboys at any time in the next four seasons, so long as he can play the quarterback position adequately.  Only severe decline in his performance will have the Cowboys looking for an out.  It will be costly whenever the Cowboys move on.

In the context of the payroll, this is the equivalent of the A-Rod contract.  It’s not that Romo (or A-Rod) was undeserving of an extension of this maginitude, it’s that the Yankees and Cowboys waited until the last possible second to make the decision to extend, well after the market had determined the absurd cost of business.  Neither team could walk away under the assumption of anything short of a roster overhaul and multiple (read: consecutive) losing seasons, so the teams paid out.

A quick word on market value: the market determines the price of a player.  It does not determine a team’s financial situation at the time of the contract.  The Yankees did not overpay for Alex Rodriguez any more than the Cowboys did for Romo.  But the market also determined in A-Rod’s case that the risk of a declining, injury-stricken player was a cost of doing business.  In the Cowboys case, it determined that the stigma of continuing on with the teams best player — saddled with the expectations and failures of the recent, dysfunctional Cowboy teams — at the market value of $17.5 million/year, was the cost of doing business.  Sometimes, teams aren’t in a position to pay market value for a superstar.  Sometimes, they do anyway.

Both teams had the option to rebuild and let their best player play elsewhere.  That happens sometimes, albeit rarely: the Colts let Peyton Manning walk, for example.  It’s not easy.  But let the Yankees and Cowboys be the example of what happens to teams that don’t make the tough decision in time.  And the Colts to be the example of the one that does.

NT Jay Ratliff (33) Ratliff is already past the point where his presence on the roster makes any fiscal sense.  The Cowboys just switched defensive coordinators and systems.  Ratliff had long been the point-man in the middle of the Cowboys three man defensive line.  But he’s 32 this year, right around the age where DTs begin to decline.

Thing is with Ratliff though that he was so good in his prime from 2006-2009, that he simply hasn’t been the same player these last three seasons.  If you want to argue that the Cowboys senselessly hold onto legacy players, Ratliff is a great example because he’s not exactly a legendary Cowboys player or lock for the Ring of Honor.  He doesn’t play a premium defensive position: defensive tackles are incredibly important to the success or failure of a play, but they are also abundantly available.  The Cowboys can replace Jay Ratliff in the fifth round of a draft.

Hell, they drafted Ratliff in the 7th round in 2005.

OLB/DE Demarcus Ware (32) Ware is already in decline, but unless the Cowboys follow the Colts example and move on with Anthony Spencer instead of Ware (another tough decision to extend Robert Mathis and not Dwight Freeney, though a pittance compared to the Manning decision).  If the Cowboys do that, then 2013 might be Ware’s final year in Dallas.  This would make contractual sense.  It’s also unlikely to happen.

Ware does play the position on defense that you can feel good not bad about having a lot of dead money tied up in.  Ware may still have multiple good years left as a transcendental type talent, but in the division sit Kyle Shanahan and now Chip Kelly, and those guys are learning how to use option schemes to make life living hell for defensive ends.

The practical value of Ware going forward is that he’s the kind of player who you can call the best defensive player in the division, while he plays on the 25th rated defense because offenses know how to marginalize defensive studs like Ware.

TE Jason Witten (32) Witten is probably the one guy on this list I would say that you pay and keep, no matter how bad the cap situation gets.  He’s a hall of fame tight end who is taking full advantage of the fertile offensive environment he lives in.  Witten is not an ascending player, but his numbers seemingly get better each season, and he’son pace to blast through all of Tony Gonzalez’ tight end records.  And, if it’s even possible to be a better player than that, he’s versatile and a quality blocker.

Tight end salaries are very reasonable and Witten transcends being a tight end in most cases.  Consistently Tony Romo’s best season would be an understatement — Witten is the league’s best tight end.

An $8.4 million cap number in 2014 is manageable, but he’s the kind of player you can keep extending and giving bonuses to: he’s just the best bet on the roster to be a quality player at age 35.

G Nate Livings (32) Livings was a free agent signing prior to last season.  He’s on a reasonable contract and is still a good guard, but he’s an excellent example of the kind of quality role player who gets the axe/replaced by a rookie because his team is mismanaging the cap.   A $4.1 million cap number for a 32 year old guard is manageable if he can play, but the Cowboys can’t pay hardly ANYBODY a $4 million cap number because of their deadcap.

T Doug Free (30) Free is a good talent paying a premium position at a premium price — the Cowboys have never been the best at this gauging the market thing — but his level of play is inconsistent.  The Cowboys didn’t think they could replace him this season, but the fact that he’s like the only veteran on the team that they haven’t slashed the base salary of means that they think his days are numbered.

Also: Doug Free will have an $11 million cap number next year, so he’s playing out his last season in Dallas this year.  Theres a small chance might not make the roster this year, but the Cowboys would have to fall face first into his replacement at no cost for that to happen.

WR Miles Austin (30) This is the big one.  Austin restructured his deal to stay with the Cowboys this year, but underachieved expectations (slightly) in 2012.  Austin’s spot on the 2013 Cowboys will be determined exclusively by his play this season.  An $8 million cap number isn’t that bad for a receiver, even for a team in the Cowboys’ cap situation.  But Austin is going to be an extreme dead cap contributor on the day he is released, and this only gets worse the further the Cowboys go with Austin.  At this point, the Cowboys will be paying Austin like a starter one year longer than he is on the roster.

With that said, he’ll be back if he’s productive.  But that age in the box says 30, which is what Austin would be in 2014.  And wide receivers are typically in decline at age 29, so there’s no guarantee he bounces back this season.  Only that he’ll be paid like a Cowboys starter each of the next two seasons, no matter who he plays for in 2013.

The bigger issue may be how small the core of the Cowboys is beyond 2013.  There are six cornerstone players on the Cowboys who will be 28 or younger in 2014: RB Demarco Murray (final year of contract), WR Dez Bryant (final year of contract), LT Tyron Smith, LB Sean Lee (scheduled unrestricted free agent), CB Brandon Carr, and CB Morris Claiborne.  Add a draft class to that, and it’s not a team that would be described as talent void in the future.  The Cowboys haven’t drafted poorly, and their 2010 draft was quite good, by any standard.

However, the Cowboys are going to be stripped of their ability to use the franchise tag by cap restraints for the foreseeable future, and here’s the big issue: the team is committed to $147 million in salary for 2014.  That’s 24 million over the cap.  That doesn’t include LB Anthony Spencer, who the Cowboys may still extend here shortly.  And it doesn’t include salary cap space for 1/6 of that young core, LB Sean Lee, perhaps the most important part.

It’s not that the Cowboys can’t sign Sean Lee here, they absolutely can, but from this point forward, a rule of thumb is that for every rookie contract the Cowboys want to extend, they’re going to have to release a veteran contract plus one.  As the dead cap hits pile up, the inefficiency of the cap management of the Cowboys will begin to swell.  Right now, they are unable to fill holes with quality free agents.  In the near future, they’ll have to cut large veteran salary just to extend their own players.  Eventually, the deadcap rollover will be such an ingrained part of the Cowboys cap culture that they will come to a decision that a rebuild is necessary.  During the time leading up to that decision, teams that are managing the cap better right now will be surpassing the Cowboys’ “talent” on the field.

The draft may also be affected.  The Cowboys are going to be hit with a significant mitigating factor in their draft classes.  If the Cowboys continue to draft the best players available, there is a high percentage chance that players they draft will spend their prime years elsewhere after signing away in free agency.  So rather than draft the best player and load the roster with talent as they have done in the past, significant incentive may be present to use the draft to fill roster holes cheaply instead.  This is a different variety of mortgaging the future.

And while Romo, Witten, and probably Ware are going to see this rebuild through to the end, second tier veterans like Jay Ratliff, Miles  Austin, Nate Livings, and Doug Free are all likely entering their last years in Dallas, as their contracts will need to be trashed so the 2014 Cowboys can continue business as normal.  Can the Cowboys use the 2013 draft to pick a right tackle, a guard, a defensive tackle, and a no. 2 receiver?  Sure.  You can conceivably get all of those pieces in one year if you have a great draft.  But the Cowboys are already deficient at safety and linebacker, and are likely looking to the draft to become less deficient at those positions — positions a team in a better cap situation would have addressed in free agency.  By releasing the contracts of those four veterans, the Cowboys can free up about $8 million.  But they will also start the dead cap cycle, creating $23.8 million in deadcap, or about 19.3% of the cap dedicated purely to contract inefficiency.  Or in other words, a 19.3% competitive disadvantage.

And $8 million isn’t nearly enough to merely get under the cap.  The rest will have to be done through restructurings (pushing more dead money into future years) and use of the June 1 cap designation (pushing more dead money into future years).  It is already too late for the Cowboys to avoid starting this cycle: that decision would have been made before starting this offseason.  And although owner Jerry Jones hinted at possibly going that direction with his “window is closing” statements from before the 2012 season, they decided that 2013 will be the pinnacle year of this core of talent.

So how dire is the cap situation?  It’s probably not dire enough to cost them Sean Lee, although if the Cowboys don’t win in the next two years, you can easily see Dez Bryant — currently the most cost efficient player on the Cowboys — playing the prime years of his careers in Philadelphia or Washington, against the Cowboys instead of for time.  It’s probably not dire enough to cost them Romo or Ware, but if Jason Witten reaches a point in his career where he values getting paid over loyalty, the greatest TE in Cowboys history could finish his career as a New York Giant or Tampa Bay Buc.  And that’s just 2014.  By 2016, the Cowboys could be choosing between Brandon Carr (running a $12 million deadcap) and Morris Claiborne (no deadcap).  They could be choosing between Lee and members of this draft class.  They could be choosing between Tyron Smith and multiple members of the rest of the O-line.

Romo is the only one who is likely above the mess, because he’s the one — even at ages 35-37 — who can keep the Cowboys winning.  But his supporting cast will likely consist mainly of first through fourth year NFL players, because those are the players who fit the Cowboys salary structure the best.  But when Tony Romo signed his monster extension this week, I don’t think he could fathom the kind of scorn he will be receiving from his own fanbase this far in the future because he won’t have enough talent around him to break the string of mediocrity the Cowboys are already in.

By all means, the New York Yankees decided now was as good a time as any to rebuild their roster, to promote youth, and prepare the roster for it’s future free agency acquisitions.  The Cowboys in 2014 & 2015 do not have the option to go back over the luxury tax that the Yankees do.  In 2014, the salary cap is going to start dictating the Cowboys roster moves.  I will be able to sit here at my desk and predict who the Cowboys will keep and not keep, based purely off finances.  The football operations department will be largely limited in it’s ability to do anything.

Rebuilding is the only logical option for the 2014 Cowboys.  It just can’t start any sooner than next year.

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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)

Girardi, Cashman deserve all the credit for 2012 Yankees Dominance

Brian Cashman has long been one of the better personnel guys in baseball.  He was hired in 1998 to one of the most fertile baseball environments in the sports history: a championship roster that was predominantly young and plays in baseball’s largest market.  Initial success for the 31 year old Cashman was practically guaranteed.  Sustained success over multiple decades was not.

Cashman, now 45, deserves a ton of credit now that the Yankees are still the premier organization in baseball all these years later.  Having a payroll of the Yankee’s size is an incredible advantage, but also works as a curse over time.  With large-market resources comes the large-market committment to winning.  Every. Single. Year.  Even with a market as large as the one the Boston Red Sox play in, Boston’s management was at least afforded an opportunity to declare a “rebuilding” season every now and then.  Cashman has missed the playoffs just once in his tenure, which is really remarkable.

The curse of a large market team is that albatross contracts are practically unavoidable.  A good small or mid market general manager always has the option to act in a financially prudent manner and can be incredibly judicious about what kind of player they give extensions to.  Let’s take a look at one of the smallest markets in baseball, the Kansas City Royals.  The last seven players to get long-term extensions from the Royals: RHP Zack Greinke, LHP Bruce Chen, OF Alex Gordon, 1B Billy Butler, SS Alcides Escobar, OF Jeff Francoeur, and C Salvador Perez.  Five of those contracts looked great when they were signed, and look even better today.  The remaining two (Chen and Francoeur) were relatively short term, managable deals to players who have enjoyed success in Kansas City already.  Neither deal looks good right now, but there is plenty of time left.

The Yankees have to deal instead with players like CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez opting out of their contracts at the peak of their value.  They have to deal with paying Derek Jeter like a top three MLB shortstop, even as they know he isn’t.  For the small and mid-market teams, they have the option of letting players like Sabathia and Rodriguez walk, and even in the case of a hometown superstar like Jeter, they at least have the option of taking the moral high ground by making a competitive offer and moving the responsibility to re-sign to the star’s side.

The point is that every team would have been wise to extend CC Sabathia, no one would have been wise to give an 8 year deal to Rodriguez, and the Jeter deal seems pretty fair for both sides.  If this was Dave Dombrowski in Detroit or Alex Anthropolos in Toronto, they have the autonomy to at least make those decisions.  Cashman, however, is stuck with the burden of having the Yankees win every year.  If Rodriguez wants 8 years, and Cashman needs him this season, Rodriguez is practically entitled to eight years.

This is why the Yankees’ payroll is in such dire straits.  But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the standings.

The Yankees have so much money and job security tied up in players like Jeter, Mark Teixiera, Rodriguez, and even players in their prime such as Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson.  I’m not asking for sympathy on behalf of the Yankees: they’ll live, but it is remarkable that they are this good relative to the rest of the league.

Holes in the Yankees’ roster next year are inevitable.  They’ll need a starting pitcher, a shortstop acquisition to replace Derek Jeter, a contract with C Russell Martin (or a replacement), payroll space to pay Cano and Granderson (meaning that Nick Swisher is unlikely to be in New York next season), and all of this is really going to tax the Yankees depth.

But thanks to their successes in 2012, they are so much better off as an organization than they appeared to be at this time last year.  Granderson’s power has actually gotten more impressive, which has helped them weather an injury to Brett Gardner.  Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova have pitched better, and Hughes is still a Yankee through 2013.  The bullpen has been better, despite missing Mariano Rivera.

The Yankees have enjoyed an extraordinary 2012 against the odds, and the bottom line is that their future payroll obligations will not look so dire as long as they are winning.  All the credit in the world goes to Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi for this development.

The best Shortstop in the American League

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

Derek Jeter

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

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

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

Asdrubal Cabrera

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

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

Alcides Escobar

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

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

Elvis Andrus

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

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

LBS 2011 MLB Preview: AL East

New York Yankees Derek Jeter reacts when Texas Rangers Elvis Andrus is picked off of second base in the seventh inning in game 5 of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium in New York City on October 20, 2010.  UPI/John Angelillo Photo via Newscom

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.

Cano’s ALCS performance shows he is the Yankees’ star

October 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Go through the Yankee lineup and you’ll see plenty of superstar names: Jeter, Teixeira, Rodriguez. Amongst all these great players Robinson Cano emerged this season as the Yankees best player, punctuated by his three home runs thus far in the ALCS.

Cano simply had a monster year. His triple slash line of .319/.381/.534 features the best batting average on the team, second best OBP to Brett Gardner and best slugging percentage. Getting deeper into sabermetrics, Cano’s .389 wOBA was .022 better than the next best player, Nick Swisher. Additionally, Fangraphs has him worth 6.4 WAR in 2010, 1.0 WAR better than Brett Gardner. All in all, it was pretty safe before the playoffs to say that the 27-year-old Cano had arrived.

Even before this year, Cano had a good playoff history. He started off this year with an .833 ALDS OBP and has since belted three homers and been the most dominant player in the series aside from Cliff Lee’s performance. While Jeter may still be the leader of the club, this is clearly a lineup where Cano is the most feared hitter and the biggest difference maker.

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