Wednesday, March 27, 2013

2013 Predictions: AL Central

Despite producing the AL pennant winner, the AL Central was pretty clearly the weakest division in baseball last season. It was the only division without a 90-game winner, and it had the lowest average record despite the only two 100-game losers both playing in the NL Central. And even then, one of those two teams (the Astros, of course) moved to the AL West, leaving the AL Central the far and away favorite for “worst team in the majors”.

And yet, the AL Central may again produce the AL Pennant winner. If you had to bet on any one team to make the World Series, the safest bet is usually to go with the team with the easiest path to the playoffs. Whether that’s good or not, it means the AL Central deserves as much attention as any other division. Do they actually deserve it this year though?

Detroit Tigers
Record Last Season: 88-74
Key Additions/Retentions: Torii Hunter, Anibal Sanchez
Key Losses: Delmon Young, Brennan Boesch
Anything Else: Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante are here to stay for a full season
Victor Martinez returns after missing all of last year to injury

I can’t really see any (basic) scenario in which the Tigers aren’t the best team in the AL Central. Miguel Cabrera, Austin Jackson, Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer are as solid a core as any. If any of them were injured, obviously, the team could expect a huge drop-off. But really, removing any team’s top players would do that to their expectations. The team has done such a solid job upgrading on top of that that they should be covered in the case of any regression. And even in the case of Cabrera, even with his Triple Crown 2012, he wasn’t noticeably better than he was in 2011-he was equally good both years, the league more or less just got worse (the same could be said about Justin Verlander’s 2011 and 2012-they were equally good, one just had better luck that made it appear even better).

As for the team’s upgrades? There’s Victor Martinez, returning to take over the designated hitter spot that was held mostly by Delmon Young. Young was one of the worst players in the game last year at an 89 wRC+* and -0.7 WAR (Fangraphs), while Martinez was more than solid in 2011 with a 131 wRC+ and 2.9 WAR. In right field, Torii Hunter replaces the even-worse-than-Young Brennan Boesch. While Hunter probably won’t repeat his career 2012 season, which saw highs in both wRC+ (130) and WAR (5.3) at the age of 36, he doesn’t need to best 2012 Brennan Boesch (77 wRC+, -1.3 WAR). Omar Infante will be back for a full season, as will Anibal Sanchez. Sanchez will be a much better fifth starter than Drew Smyly, presumably (last year, Symly: 3.99 ERA, 3.83 FIP; Sanchez: 3.86 ERA, 3.53 FIP). Infante, meanwhile, posted a 92 wRC+ while playing solid defense for a full-season WAR of 3.2. Every other second baseman the Tigers tried last year posted a negative WAR, “led” by Ramon Santiago (93 games, 53 wRC+, -0.3 WAR) and Ryan Rayburn (66 games, 28 wRC+, -1.5 WAR).

Really, no matter how you look at it, the Tigers should be improved. The one downside might be the bullpen, but compared to the other problems with their rivals, that doesn’t seem too huge.

*I feel like I’ve mentioned this before, but in case I haven’t, wRC+ is weighted Runs Created Plus. It works like OPS+, in that 100 is league average. The main difference is that wRC+ weights on-base percentage correctly in proportion to slugging percentage, to account for how important each one is in run scoring.

Chicago White Sox
Record Last Season: 85-77
Key Additions/Retentions: Jeff Keppinger
Key Losses: Kevin Youkilis, Brett Myers, AJ Pierzynski, Francisco Liriano
Anything Else: All of those key losses except for Pierzynski were mid-season acquisitions
Paul Konerko’s age might be a major concern
There’s a precedence for the White Sox exceeding their predictions
John Danks will probably be hurt to start the season
2012 was the first time in four years that Jake Peavy pitched more than 112 innings
Alex Rios and Adam Dunn both had mysterious bounce-back years after even more mysterious drop-offs the year before

It feel like I should be more optimistic about the White Sox. Chris Sale had a great first year in the rotation (192 IP, 9.0 K/9, 3.05 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 4.9 WAR). Jake Peavy was a great number two after several injured years. And there is precedence for the White Sox being better than expected.

I just don’t feel that excited about their chances, though. They lost their third best hitter last year (by wRC+) in AJ Pierzynski. He was probably too old to repeat his abnormally good numbers, though (as a 36 year-old catcher). Paul Konerko is going to be 37 and has seen his offensive numbers drop off sharply over the last two years. Even getting over his bizarre 2011, Adam Dunn still isn’t hitting at the levels he was back in Washington and Cincinnati. Alex Rios will be 32 and has been alternating good and bad seasons for the past few years (4.3 WAR, -0.8, 3.6, 0.3, 5.6 WAR the last five years) to the point where I don’t trust him to match his value from last year. Peavy will also be 32 and has an injury history. I think the biggest issue, though, is that the rest of the Central will be better. Chicago was one of only two teams with a winning record within the division last year, the other being Detroit (and even then, Detroit kind of lapped them in that field, 43-29 to 37-35). I think that the rest of the division has improved to the point where they’re better than the White Sox, which will make it hard for them to keep that edge.

Kansas City Royals
Record Last Season: 72-90
Key Additions/Retentions: James Shields, Wade Davis, Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie
Key Losses: Joakim Soria, Wil Myers and other prospects
Anything Else: Salvador Perez will hopefully play a full season
Eric Hosmer had an impressive rookie season in 2011, then a major sophomore slump

I’m sort of split on the Royals; I really disliked their offseason, but I like them for this year. James Shields is good, but they could have improved in much easier ways. They spent $18 million on 2013 alone just to get Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie; that money could have gone to actually getting a good pitcher, say, Anibal Sanchez or Edwin Jackson, without trading away top prospect Wil Myers. Meanwhile, just upgrading from Jeff Francoeur (77 wRC+, -1.2 WAR in right field) to Myers could have been an equally large improvement. Heck, if you really want to trade him for Shields, then use that money on Nick Swisher and somebody else. Or sign Melky Cabrera and Edwin Jackson and trade for Shields. I don’t care, there are just clearly better ways to invest that money and talent.

That said, I think the Royals will be good in spite of their questionable moves. At least, they’ll probably hit well. They’re loaded with young talent, between Salvador Perez (who had a great, under-the-radar debut), Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas (who needs his bat to catch up to his stellar glove), Eric Hosmer (despite his rough 2012), and others. On top of that, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon should be their usual solid selves. And for all the negatives about the Shields trade, they should have a better rotation than last year too, if nothing else. Shields and Guthrie will give them a good two-three punch...although they’ll be serving as the Royals’ one-two instead. They had a good bullpen too. I think the youth and potential gives them a very good chance to jump up ten wins from last year to reach a winning record.

Cleveland Indians
Record Last Season: 68-94
Key Additions/Retentions: Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, Brett Myers, Matt Albers, Bryan Shaw, Drew Stubbs, Prospect Trevor Bauer, Scott Kazmir
Key Losses: Travis Hafner, Jason Donald, Shin-Soo Choo
Anything Else: Bauer will start the season in the minors
Scott Kazmir is looking oddly impressive for a guy who’s been out of the majors for a while

The Indians quietly built up a really solid lineup. They lost their best hitter in Shin-Soo Choo (131 wRC+ in 2012) as well as Travis Hafner (119 wRC+, but in only 66 games), but they’re returning Carlos Santana (120 wRC+, 3.4 WAR last year), Asdrubal Cabrera (112 wRC+, 2.9 WAR), Michael Brantley (106 wRC+, 2.7 WAR), and Jason Kipnis (101 wRC+, 3.1 WAR) and bringing in Bourn (104, 6.4), Swisher (128, 3.9), and Reynolds (108, 0.5 thanks to poor defense). That’s a lot of youth and new players to replace zeroes from last year. The pitching was the bigger problem though, and I would have liked it if there was another solid starter in the mix (I really thought they would make a run for Kyle Lohse).

I’ve already written some stuff on the Indians improvements, actually. Overall, I really like what they’ve done, but ultimately, I think barring a huge jump in performance from Santana, Kipnis, or Justin Masterson (or an early call-up and fast start from Trevor Bauer, or a handful of players all exceeding expectations together), I think they’re not on the same level as the Tigers this year; maybe 2014 will get them there. A wild card this year, on the other hand, might not be too far out of reach.

Minnesota Twins Record Last Season: 66-96
Key Additions/Retentions: Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Correia, several prospects
Key Losses: Denard Span, Ben Revere, Scott Baker
Anything Else: Nominal “ace” Scott Diamond is hurt to start the year

Like all of the other rebuilding teams, the Twins aren’t terribly interesting this year. Joe Mauer had a good year, as did Josh Willingham (the two led the team with 5.0 and 3.9 WAR, respectively). Denard Span (also 3.9 WAR) and Ben Revere (3.4 WAR) were next, and both were traded this offseason. To be honest, Willingham should have probably been traded, too (can you imagine what the Yankees would have given up for him if they could have had him instead of Vernon Wells?). Really, I would say this season should be close to a fire-sale to speed rebuilding. Willingham should probably go, as should Jamey Carroll (a useful utility infielder who can reasonably start if needed), Justin Morneau (especially if he finally looks healthy this year), and anyone else of value (outside of Mauer, probably). Even their additions to their rotation probably won’t help much-the trio of Worley, Pelfrey, and Correia could best be summarized as “mediocre”. In the best case scenario for the Twins, though, some pitching-desperate team takes them at the deadline. Really, Minnesota is playing for 2014 and on.

Final Predicted Finish:
Detroit Tigers
Cleveland Indians
Kansas City Royals
Chicago White Sox
Minnesota Twins

Like last year, the Tigers are the clear front runners, and they’ve only improved. The Indians and Royals will also get winning records I think (although I’m very doubtful either will top 86 wins or so), with the White Sox just missing and the Twins running against the Astros and Marlins for the number one pick in 2014.

Maybe if the Tigers have a big injury or if the bullpen wildly underperforms, the Indians or Royals can make it a race. However, I would argue that the Indians and Royals have much more uncertainty about them than Detroit. Maybe a smarter offseason from Kansas City or an clear MVP-type player for Cleveland would make things more interesting, but right now, I’d still say it’s the Tigers’ division to lose.

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