Tuesday, April 1, 2014

2014 Predictions: AL West

I’m a little behind with the start of the season, but I want to finish this. Let’s get this ball rolling and dive right in. Just a quick refresher, though: I’m looking at what happened last year both in Wins and Pythagorean Wins (which is the estimated wins total based on runs scored and allowed, which is often a better predictor of future wins than actual wins) and then looking at what’s different from last year.

AL West
A’s-96 Wins/96 Pythagorean Wins

What should be different:

Well, the obvious is that the A’s and Rangers will have difficulty getting back to those heights given their spate of injuries. The Rangers have Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison start on the 15-day DL and Derek Holland on the 60-day. The A’s, meanwhile, start the year with A.J. Griffin on the 15-day DL and Jarrod Parker out for the season.

Let’s move on from that, though. The big change for the A’s was that last year’s ace Bartolo Colon left for the greener pastures of…Queens (okay, maybe this expression doesn’t work in every situation). They brought in Scott Kazmir to replace him, which seems like a small step down maybe, but not too bad. The rest of the rotation seems a little shallow given those injuries, although the rotation was not that exactly the strong point last year. They brought in Jim Johnson to replace Grant Balfour, which is admittedly probably not that big of a change.

The offense was pretty solid, with an effective use of platoons and a great season from Josh Donaldson. I’d expect Donaldson to step back a little bit after his breakout 2013 (I’d like a little bit more of a track record before predicting him to be one of the top-five players in the league), but the rest of the team looks solid. Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, Jed Lowrie, the John Jaso/Derek Norris platoon behind the plate…all of them look to be solid contributors. On of the benefits of the “solid cast of players” model is that no individual player can make or break you with their season. I mean, maybe the chances all of those players to be in the 3-5 win range is extreme, but at the same time, it doesn’t look outrageous for any individual one.

The Rangers, meanwhile, have done a lot more shuffling. Looking at it now, though, I’m not positive that they’ve made as many steps forward as I first thought. They lost Craig Gentry and Ian Kinsler, both of whom were worth around 3 wins (Gentry was 3.4 per Fangraphs, while Kinsler was 2.5), on top of the slightly less valuable (but not useless) A.J. Pierzynski and Nelson Cruz. However, the did add Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, and top prospect Jurickson Profar will be taking over at second base when he returns from the 15 Day DL. I’d add in a full season from Alex Rios and a predicted bounce-back/step-forward from Elvis Andrus for additional improvements around the margins. And even with the injuries, I still like the Rangers’ rotation a lot. If Colby Lewis can return and be a solid starter (which I think he can), when the top three all return from injuries, this will be a formidable group. I’m really not sure which team is better, between the A’s and the Rangers; Fangraphs seems to echo this view, having them less than a win apart in team Wins Above Replacement.

I think the Angels will be solid, and could make a good run at the playoffs, but there’s too much to be uncertain about. Thinking of them as an 81-team last year makes it much easier for me to predict them as a winning record this year. I think Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton are capable of being average-to-above-average players (2-3 WAR), which is both an improvement over last year and not out of the question (in my opinion). I think David Freese makes up for the departure of Mark Trumbo (although I do think they’ll regret letting go of Peter Bourjos, but that’s a different story). I think they have some good upside in the rotation, especially with the additions of Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago back-end arms, but it is still overall not great. Another question I face: should I dock them for Mike Trout at all? That sounds crazy; he is the best player in the game right now, after all. But is it fair to just expect 10 WAR seasons? I know he has two of them already, but they are still rare occurrences in the grand scheme of things, and he can still be the most valuable player in the league while losing a step or two (say, and 8 WAR season). Overall, I’d say they’re looking at a low-80s win total off the top of my head, but I’d want to see them in context before putting that as my final answer.

The Mariners fit right in with the division them, in that they looked a lot better before Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijun Walker hit the Disabled List. I feel like this is such a prevalent theme for the division that I just shouldn’t dock any of the teams for it. Anyway, I think the Mariners are a better team than they were last year; I’m just not sure where that gets them. I really like the infield of Kyle Seager-Brad Miller-Robinson Cano, and it’s a big improvement over last year (I’d guess at least 6-8 wins). There’s some good chance to exceed expectations here, too, between a wealth of pitching prospects, young catcher Mike Zunino, and converted outfielder Dustin Ackley (who I still had high expectations for after his great 2011 rookie season, but that’s getting further and further in the rearview mirror). I liked the Corey Hart pickup (and really wished the Orioles had made it). I’m a little confused that they didn’t trade one of prospects Nick Franklin or Miller, since they now have middle infielders than spots for them, and they could have used one more outfielder or a pitcher or something. I’m also confused about their “acquire every corner position player”, as there’s no optimal way to fit all of Hart, Logan Morrison, Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, and Dustin Ackley into the game, but you have to figure they’ll just try different combinations until something works. Felix Hernandez and Iwakuma lead a rotation that leaves me questioning its back half. Overall, this team picked up a lot in the standings, but I’m not sure it’ll even get them to .500.

I think the Astros will also be better, partly due to the best in the farm system starting to graduate to the bigs and partially due to cutting a lot of the dead weight from last year. For example, Fangraphs said they -12 WAR last year from an assortment of different player, but you have to think they won’t be giving as many at-bats to players like Carlos Pena or J.D. Martinez or Jimmy Paredes or Ronny Cedeno or... Now that they have young players with potential in place (like Robby Grossman or Jonathan Villar), they probably won’t be running out net negatives at a majority of positions. That alone could mean a multi-game improvement. Add in possible steps forward from players like Jason Castro, Jose Altuve, or Matt Dominguez (I think all are capable of it), the decent-ness of additions Dexter Fowler and Scott Feldman, and any high-ceiling call-ups, and a 10-20 game improvement isn’t out of the question in my mind. Granted, a 15-win improvement only gets them to 66 wins, but their play last year was closer to a 57 win team, so maybe a 70-win season isn’t too far off.

Final Prediction:

I could honestly see this division going any direction. The Rangers and Athletics are the best on paper, but the God of Ligaments has not been kind to them. If they continue to get bitten by injuries, the Angels or even Mariners might sneak in. As is, though, I’d peg the Rangers and Athletics for the low 90s, the Angels for just over 81, the Mariners for just under, and the Astros for mid-60s in wins. Like I said, though, it’s the one I am most prepared to see go incredibly against my prediction.

As for why the Rangers over the Athletics: more or less a coin flip. In the end, my reasoning was that regression to the mean hits pretty hard, so I expect the Athletics to get hit worse than the Rangers. That’s horrible reasoning and stinks of the gambler’s fallacy, but I have them so close that any distinction I’d make would be arbitrarily chosen. So at least I picked a method that was tangentially math-related.

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