Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Replacement Level AL East Preview 2013

For the second straight year, I’ve been asked to participate in Replacement Level’s AL East Preview on behalf of the Baltimore Orioles. I participated last year, but the resulting piece was sadly lost in a tragic fire on the Internets, and I’m certainly not avoiding linking to it to cover up the fact that I gave the Orioles close to no chance to finish with even a winning record, let alone a Wild Card birth.*

*But seriously, it’s here.

To be fair, I had no way of knowing that the Orioles would be historically good in one-run games. The real question, though, is can they do it again in 2013?

Probably not. But there are other ways for them to win, other than never blowing a lead again.

First Question: What is the Orioles’ ceiling? What has to go right for them to win the AL East?

Well, the AL East will be tough. Baltimore could win the East, but it’ll likely come through a combination of them hitting their ceiling and the some of the other teams disappointing.

First, the other teams, since that’ll be quicker. The Yankees would have to be hit by their age pretty hard. Derek Jeter, Kevin Youkilis, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ichiro (or some large combination of that group) all start to look really old and/or get hurt. That’s actually a fairly believable scenario, I think. Maybe not certain, but definitely reasonable.

The Blue Jays would have to disappoint, but looking at their roster, it could happen. They do need to make up 20-odd games in the standings, at least based on last year’s finished. Maybe Josh Johnson and Jose Reyes get hurt, like they frequently do. Maybe Jose Bautista gets injured again. Maybe RA Dickey, Melky Cabrera, and Edwin Encarnacion aren’t as good as they were last year. I wouldn’t call all of that likely, but they are working with a thinner margin of error, and it’s all very much in the realm of possibility.

The Red Sox’s downfall is pretty easy to see, too. They finished 26 games out last year, but like the Blue Jays, they’ve overhauled their roster. But is the set of Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino, and Joel Hanrahan really the place to go looking for a 20-win improvement? I mean, sure, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, and David Ortiz will all probably pick up some value lost to injuries and lost effectiveness too. But the team will also be without half a season of Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis, and their rotation is currently Lester-Buchholz-Dempster-Felix Doubront-John Lackey. That’s...not at all inspiring, to say the least.

I’m actually very high on the Rays right now. Losing B.J. Upton and James Shields will hurt, but they are getting a full season of Evan Longoria, and Wil Myers and the rotation comes with a lot of potential. Still, there are definitely question marks still present. The rest of their infield is Jose Molina, James Loney, Kelly Johnson, and Yunel Escobar. Luke Scott is their DH. Again, there’s potential here, but it definitely looks less solid than I first thought.

So what about the Orioles? Where might they improve? Adam Jones and Matt Wieters started strong last year, then fell off a bit. They could keep it up for a full season, maybe with a MVP-type season for one of them. Manny Machado will be up for a full season-maybe he has an All-Star-type year in him. Maybe Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold, or Brian Roberts can put their injuries behind them. Jason Hammel might play at his level from last year, but make ten more starts. Chris Tillman showed promise after his call-up. Zach Britton showed promise the year before that. Maybe Miguel Gonzalez or Steve Johnson are for real. Failing that, maybe Kevin Gausmann or Dylan Bundy gets the call late in the season. There are a lot of maybes, but if those go right, it could lead to an Orioles team that more than makes up for the drop-off in the bullpen.

Second question: What’s the floor for your team this season? What has to go wrong for them to miss the playoffs?

There’s the obvious answer of the bullpen imploding. The team went 29-9 last season in one-run games, a .763 winning percentage. For a team that only got in to the postseason as a Wild Card, that’s an incredibly small margin of error to be working with. Even winning two-thirds of their one-run games (as still impressive 25-13) would have dropped them out of October. With as volatile as bullpens can be, that is a very real possibility.

What else could go wrong? A lot is riding on maybes going right, if you haven’t noticed yet. Maybe Matt Wieters and Adam Jones have MVP-type years, but maybe they fall back to where they were before last year. Maybe holes in Manny Machado’s game become exposed and he has a sophomore slump. Maybe Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold, and Brian Roberts are all hurt and/or awful. Same goes for Jason Hammel; or, even worse, maybe last year was a fluke. Maybe all of the other pitchers I mentioned are flukes as well.

In all honesty, I don’t think all of that will happen, but it can. And really, I feel that way about all of those maybes turning out as their earlier-mentioned best case scenarios; maybe some of them will happen, but almost certainly not all of them. This looks like a middling team with the chance to go to extremes either way, but my instinct is to say that they’re probably around an 81-win team.

On a related note, the final question: How do you see the division playing out?

Like I said, my first thought is to call the Orioles a middling team with potential. I think that will make them a fourth-place team though, as there are three teams in the division that I would say are better at this point in time.

I see the Blue Jays as the favorites. This is the type of prediction that is designed to blow up in my face halfway through the year, and you can tell by it’s preface: I know they finished 22 games out of first place last year. But, with all of their additions, plus some shakiness in the Rays, Yankees, and Orioles, I think they are the team to beat.

I think the Rays finish second. I may be leaning too heavily on their youth and potential, but again, I expect big things from Ben Zobrist, David Price, a full season of Evan Longoria, and the rest of Tampa Bay. I think Wil Myers will make an immediate impact, too, and I expect one of Matt Moore or Jeremy Hellickson (probably Moore) to take over as team co-ace. Those might be overly optimistic, but that still my thinking. I can see them as a 90-win team or so, more or less where they finished last year.

The Yankees led the division last year by 2 games, but I think age will finally catch up to the form of a winning record but a missed playoff spot. I mean, they do have some good players, with Robinson Cano and CC Sabathia chief among them. People have been predicting that the Yankees will have their age catch up with them for years now, and I think it will technically happen this just probably won’t be as bad of a fall as some people seem to think.

I still see the Red Sox finishing last. They’re sort of the opposite of the Jays; they finished 26 games out last year, and made a lot of changes, but those changes just don’t seem like the big upgrades Toronto made. The rotation still seems very patchwork, too. In the end, I think they’ll be a middling-to-bad team (say, mid- to low-70 wins), thanks in part to their tough division.

So there you have it. I’m officially going with Blue Jays-Rays-Yankees-Orioles-Red Sox. Now that I’ve done that, hopefully I’ve jinxed the other teams enough for the Orioles to take the division. And if that doesn’t work...then I actually got the prediction right. I’ll take that too. Either way, I’m set for 2013.

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