Tuesday, March 25, 2014

2014 Predictions: AL East

We’re fast approaching Opening Day, so I may as well make my predictions. They’re sure to be wrong, but they’ll be fun if nothing else. I’ll keep the introduction short so I can get right into the predictions, but first, a short description of my methods: basically, I’m going to look at how teams did last year (both in wins and Pythagorean wins, which are based on runs scored and allowed) and what should be different this year. The latter is a broad category that can cover anything from newly-acquired players to injuries to just straight regression to the mean (always an underrated force, but always prevalent).

AL East
Last year: Red Sox-97 wins/100 Pythagorean wins
Blue Jays-74/77

What should be different:

The Red Sox saw a lot of turnover for a World Series winning team. AJ Pierzynski takes over for Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Xander Bogaerts takes over at shortstop for Stephen Drew. Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Grady Sizemore (apparently back from the dead) take over for Jacoby Ellsbury. Meanwhile, Jake Peavy more or less takes the half-season vacated by Ryan Dempster. The Red Sox should be a good team again, but there’s a lot to worry about. Ellsbury was the team’s most valuable player, by Fangraph’s WAR. Drew and Saltalamacchia were both 3 and a half win players, and while Bogaerts at least has upside, it might be too much to expect from the 37-year old Pierzynski. It’s also fair to wonder whether David Ortiz (38) and Victorino (34, second most WAR last year) can put up more years like 2013 at their ages. The same goes for the bullpen-will Koji Uehara really be a 3+ WAR reliever again? (almost certainly not, given reliever volatility).

Still, this is a strong core coming off a good year, and they should have upside and a solid pitching staff. They’re almost certainly going to be a winning team-the only question is how winning?

The Rays were much more quiet. They brought on Ryan Hanigan to catch, Logan Forsythe to…utility infield (?), and installed Matt Joyce as DH (which was a bit of a disaster spot last year). Also, late season additions David DeJesus (trade) and Wil Myers (call-up) will get full seasons. Meanwhile, hopefully they don’t lose David Price for a few months like last year. James Loney will probably regress some (although he wasn’t even worth 3 wins last year, so there isn’t as much room to fall), and Ben Zobrist is getting a little older (turns 33 mid-year, although he’s been pretty consistent the last few years). In theory, they have youth on their side as well, but players don’t always improve linearly. On paper, I think they’re about at the same level as the Red Sox, and I think injuries might have the final say on who takes the division.

The Orioles were about level with the Rays last year talent-wise, but I think there are a few more worrisome things about their season. For one, can we expect Manny Machado and Chris Davis to be that good again? Machado is probably the surer bet, but he is coming off an injury at the end of last year. There may be some regression there. Also, Nate McLouth and the Danny Valencia-Steve Pearce-Chris Dickerson hydra are gone (well, Pearce is around, but will probably see less action), and while neither was amazing, they were at least competent. It’s unclear how David Lough, Nolan Reimold, Nelson Cruz, and Harry Urrutia will be as their replacements. However, there seem to be enough spare parts to cobble something useful together (which seems to be the Orioles’ specialty lately).

The rotation actually seems to have an ace now in Ubaldo Jimenez, and Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters were both below their career norms last year, so both of those might help balance some of the negatives. I’m not sure what’s going on at second base, where the team seems to be going with some combination of Jemile Weeks, Ryan Flaherty, Steve Lombardozzi, and prospect Jonathan Schoop. Speaking of, that might be the X-factor for the O’s; their top prospects right now (Schoop, Kevin Gausman, and Dylan Bundy) all play at areas that the Orioles are most desperate for help and could serve as late-season pick-me-ups. Also, I liked the Johan Santana signing, even if he seems to be out of gas.

You’d think the Yankees would improve given their offseason, but seeing how lucky they got last year, I’m less sure. Brian McCann is definitely an improvement over their catching situation last year (which netted them maybe 1 WAR, if we’re generous). They also shored up their outfield from last year (which was Brett Gardner, an Ichiro that could nicely be described as overripe, an injured Curtis Granderson, and a cast of the living dead starring Vernon Wells), adding Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. Although it is fair to question how much they’ll get out of the 37 (in a month) year old Beltran at this stage in his career-he was only a 2 win player last year thanks to his declining fielding. They also get a full year of Alfonso Soriano at DH, which is…a thing, I guess. They did bring in Masahiro Tanaka as well.

The downsides? Well, they might have the worst infield defense ever. In fact, just admire this infield: Mark Teixeira-Brian Roberts-Derek Jeter-Kelly Johnson/Scott Sizemore. That’s quite a drop from last year, which at least had Cano and (for a little while) a decent Alex Rodriguez. If Jeter and Teixeira are slowed by last year’s injuries, that infield might not crack replacement level. Both were already declining for a long time before last year anyway. They also lost the solid Andy Pettitte and legendary Mariano Rivera on the pitching side of things, and CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda began to look their ages at times last year. This is a confusing team to decipher.

Let’s just look at it this way: in terms of WAR, what did they for sure lose from last year?

Robinson Cano (6.0), Curtis Granderson (1.4 in 61 games), Alex Rodriguez (0.5 in 44 games), Andy Pettitte (3.2), Mariano Rivera (1.5)

So this is a slightly-under .500 team losing about 12 and a half wins of value for the next season. Do the contributions of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Masahiro Tanaka, Carlos Beltran, and whatever they get out of Texeira and Jeter add up to 12-13 wins this year? I’d say it’s feasible if they’re all healthy (which is a major hang-up, with this group). That only gets them to maybe .500, though. Where do the other 10-15 wins come from to get them to October?

That just leaves the Blue Jays. I’d argue that they had some really bad luck with health and such last year. A lot of the players they lost didn’t contribute much either, so they didn’t have a lot they needed to replace. They didn’t really improve much either, though. Health will probably work in their favor, seeing as Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ, Colby Rasmus, Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Brett Lawrie, and Melky Cabrera all missed significant time with injuries. But even with better health for all of them, plus better luck for R.A. Dickey, I’m not sure where that leaves them. Overall, though, I’d probably rather be in their spot than the Yankees, given contracts and age, and if they had gotten a pitcher like Ervin Santana or Scott Kazmir or someone with this roster, I’d be even more optimistic.

Final Prediction:
Red Sox
Blue Jays

This has a lot of room to go wrong. In the end, though, I went with the Rays mostly because they finished second last year. That sounds counter-intuitive, but regression to the mean plays into records more than anyone would care to admit, and the Red Sox have more room to regress than the Rays do. I would not be shocked to see the Orioles competing too, maybe even taking one of the top two slots, but I’d feel more comfortable about that with a better idea of what to expect from certain players. I’ll almost certainly regret the Yankees prediction now, but whatever.

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