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American League Two-a-Days: Toronto Blue Jays

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Toronto Blue Jays

2013 record: 74-88
2013 runs scored: 712
2013 runs against: 756
2013 pythag. record: 77-85

Toronto moved “all-in” in 2013, acquiring SS Jose Reyes and pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle from the Miami Marlins, before turning around and acquiring R.A. Dickey from the Mets.  It didn’t exactly work out for the Jays, who finished last in the AL East in 2014.  For an encore, Toronto is more or less the same team in 2014 that they were supposed to be in 2013.  Johnson has moved on, but the rest of the Blue Jays are back to give it another go, and there should be a lot of positive regression to help this team.

Toronto could have made a move or two to improve on last year’s team, but mostly stood pat in the offseason.  As such, they are a fringe contender for the AL East crown, and a mild contender for an AL Wild Spot in 2014.

Who is having a good spring?

Outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista, with the former having a team leading 13 hits and the latter leading the team with 3 spring homers.  1B/DH types Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind have combined for 36 total bases this spring.  Top pitching prospect Drew Hutchinson is having a sensational spring, striking out 16 while walking run.  He is in the mix for a spot in the rotation.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Blue Jays

This can’t go as badly as last year did for the Jays.  The rotation figures to be a strength, with RHP Brandon Morrow joining Buerhle and Dickey as a nice front three.  The key is for this group to stay healthy and in rotation, as depth is limited.  The Blue Jays ran out a fantastic bullpen a year ago and figure to produce something similar in 2014.

All of those players who are hitting in the spring make up the middle of the lineup for the Jays, and every one of them hit last season.  Toronto’s lineup offers a variety of power and patience.  They will work a lot of walks, drive the ball for extra base hits, and they are a strong baserunning team.

The starting lineup is fairly versatile and gives manager John Gibbons a lot of flexibility to get the best players in the lineup.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Blue Jays

The trades with the Mets and Marlins drained the organization of it’s depth and the Blue Jays have had a real issue keeping the players on the 25-man roster healthy for a full season, ranking at the top of the league in DL days the last two seasons.  At some point, Toronto is going to have to lean on injury prone pitchers like Kyle Drabek and Morrow to win games.   They’ll have to rely on injury prone SS Jose Reyes to give them a full season.

Beyond Reyes, the infield is an area of weakness.  Brett Lawrie had a fantastic rookie year in 2011, but hasn’t managed to improve since then.  He plays 2nd and 3rd if necessary.  The options to play second are Ryan Goins, and Maicer Izturis, the latter is on the second of a three year contract.  The Jays may need to upgrade at second base, and should consider working out a deal with the Royals for Johnny Giavotella, who is crushing the ball in spring training, but will be passed on the organizational depth chart by Christian Colon shortly.

Defensively, the Blue Jays are a bad team.  This will not help very much with the high rates of contact allowed by Buerhle and Dickey, even though both field their own positions fantastically.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Blue Jays is 37.5, 9th in the American League.  Their 23.2 Batters WAR projection is 5th in the AL. Their 14.3 Pitchers WAR projection is 9th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Blue Jays to win 82 games, an 8 win improvement over last season.  Jose Bautista is the Blue Jay with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 4.4.  R.A. Dickey is the pitcher with the best average projection at 2.6 WAR.

The Blue Jays 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, because the Red Sox and the Rays are the class of the AL East this year.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays didn’t quite get it correct last season, but might get some better fortune this year on the way to an 84-78 record, and a third place finish in the AL East.  This is right on the fringe of being able to run with Boston the most of the year.  That’s going to be a tall task.  But they’ll be in the ballpark of teams like Kansas City, Cleveland, Seattle, Texas, Oakland and the Angels for the second wild card.  When they dealt for all those established veterans a year ago, they didn’t do so with the idea that they might be able to scrap together a single playoff game in two seasons, but that’s one of the better case scenarios for a team that won only 74 games a year ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blue Jays rotation, having taken the Royals route:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2013 Major League Baseball Mega-Preview: the American League

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

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

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

The American League Central

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

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

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

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

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

The American League East

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

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

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

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

The American League West

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

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

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

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

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

2013 AL Predictions

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

The 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.

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.

Halladay, Lee Worth the Obscene Price Tags

July 28, 2009 1 comment

I’ll preface this by saying that I don’t believe that either Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee is likely to be traded before the July 31 deadline.  It’s one of those things that just makes too much sense for the self respecting people who are involved to get done.

To start, we’ve got two teams in the very rare situation of being able to afford to deal their aces for a package of prospects without really hurting their short-term forecasts.  The Blue Jays can’t feel like they will be competitive in the AL East next season with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays all at the height of their power.  The Jays missed their opportunity to strike with Halladay when the AL East was just Boston and New York, and when they didn’t compete in 2007, it turned out to be the last realistic chance they had at making the postseason with Roy Halladay.

flickr.com/firebrandal

flickr.com/firebrandal

And for the Indians, they’re now looking at two consecutive seasons gone wrong in which Cliff Lee was the only bright spot.  Unlike the Jays, they won’t be dead in the water next season on opening day, but there’s little doubt that based on where the team is now, if you can turn Cliff Lee into a package of prospects, then you do it.

So the ball is in the court of the rest of the league.  Just last year, the Brewers made a bold move when they took Matt LaPorta and some lesser hyped prospects, and put together a package for CC Sabathia.  It’s a move that took a team that had little business talking playoffs, and it got them into the postseason.

Both Lee and Halladay are more valuable to teams, especially teams in weak divisions, because both are prospectively under team control for the 2010 season.  If you are the San Francisco Giants, or the Milwaukee Brewers, or St. Louis Cardinals, or California Angels, or Minnesota Twins, or Colorado Rockies, you have to do everything in your power to acquire these talents.  It might put you over the top this year, and you might end up winning your division next year.

The package that the Blue Jays, reportedly, are asking for in exchange for Halladay involves 3 prospects including 2 who are near the top of the organizational charts.  From the Phillies, they asked for OF Dominic Brown and P Kyle Drabek, as well as P J.A. Happ.  Forget the fact that the Phillies are going to win their division this year without Halladay.  Forget that they have legitimate reasons to protect their farm system for a minute.  A package like that would steal Cliff Lee, and Halladay is the better pitcher of the two.  The Blue Jays absolutely should be asking for the farm, and while the Phillies shouldn’t necessarily give in, it brings up the big question: where are all the other teams?

Those teams that can afford a package should do so.  Roy Halladay brings instant credibility to your franchise.  While the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies do not need this credibility boost, those are the names you are getting around Halladay.  In my opinion, the two teams that absolutely need to get in on this are the Minnesota Twins, and the Tampa Bay Rays.  The Rays have more prospects than they can possibly fit in a major league lineup, and they can absolutely blow away the Indians with a package aimed at getting Cliff Lee.  The Minnesota Twins had Johan Santana and traded him for prospects, but if they want to win the AL Central, Roy Halladay would make them the instant favorite.

flickr.com/Edward Willett

flickr.com/Edward Willett

Of course, a recent MLB Trade Rumors report suggests that Roy Halladay will not waive his no trade clause to be traded to the Twins, and all I can say about that is: this is good for the Indians.  Halladay’s no trade clause has effectively driven up the price of Lee.  Halladay’s value is already every bit as high as it’s ever been, but last year, it was Lee who won the Cy Young (over Halladay), and Lee’s been just as good this year.

If neither of them get traded, it’s a terrible, terrible day for fans of a majority of teams in baseball.  Your team, whoever you root for, should be putting together an offer for one of the best pitchers in the American League.   Instead, too many teams are content to stand pat, and try to win over the next two years with what they already have.

If you aren’t planning on competing in 2010, or you already are out this year or have your division locked up, it excuses you.  But at least half the league doesn’t fall into that category, and too many teams are being hesitant on Halladay and Lee when they should be seizing the opportunity.