Thursday, March 13, 2008
Monday, March 10, 2008
What can I say about the American League in 2008? The Junior Circuit went 137-115 against the N.L. in 2007, continuing the A.L.’s dominance of recent history. This has all been well-documented: since the Cincinnati Reds upset the Oakland A’s in the 1990 World Series four games to zip, the A.L. team has won eleven of the last sixteen World Series. I note, additionally, that the last three N.L. victories were all considered upsets: Diamondbacks over the Yankees in ’01, Marlins over the Yankees in ’03, and the Cardinals over the Tigers in ’06. Each of the four A.L. playoff teams last year won more games than any other N.L. team: the Indians and Red Sox won 96 games and the Angels and Yankees won 94. The N.L.’s best record in 2007 belonged to the Diamondbacks, who went a measly 90-72. The talent lays in the A.L. and if you had to bet on who will win the World Series, bet on an A.L. team, although with Santana journeying to Queens and the N.L., perhaps the talent flight has abated?
Good so far? Okay, here are the stats I refer to with respect to fielding stats: Zone Rating (ZR): Is a stat which measures a player’s defensive ability by measuring plays they should have made. Admittedly, this is a stat left open to subjective opinions. Fielding Percentage: (Putouts + Assists) / (Putouts + Assists + Errors). How often the player successfully handled the ball. Range Factor (RF): (Putouts + Assists) * 9 / IP. Essentially measures how much a player is involved in defensive plays. Unearned Run Average (UERA): (Unearned Runs Allowed * 9) / IP. Basically how many unearned runs a defense allows.
Not too confused? Okay, here are the stats I refer to defined with respect to pitching stats: Earned Run Average (ERA): Runs Allowed * 9 / Innings Pitched = What a pitcher would give up if they hurled a nine-inning game. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP): (((13 * HR) + (3 * BB) – (2 * K)) / IP) + League Factor. Basically a measure of how a pitcher would have done if he had an average defense behind him. Home Runs per 9 Innings: (HR/9): (HR * 9) / IP. Walks per 9 Innings (BB/9): (BB * 9) / IP. Strikeouts per 9 Innings (K/9): (K * 9) / IP.
Survived that? Okay, let's move along to the actual predictions. Does the A.L. Rule? That’s the party line and I’m not entirely convinced. N.L. teams are a lot better than people think. Still, there is a lot of talent in the American League and we begin with the …
1. Boston Red Sox
2. New York Yankees
3. Toronto Blue Jays
4. Tampa Bay Rays
5. Baltimore Orioles
The A.L. East. Ho-hum, another year and the same story basically that we’ve seen for the last decade or so. The Red Sox and Yankees battle it out for the top spot, the Blue Jays bring up the rear and the Rays and Orioles never even sniff .500 … Stop me if you’ve heard all of this before … The Boston Red Sox are loaded. They basically are returning the exact same team that went 36-16 by June 1, spent 172 days in first place last year after capturing it on April 18th, and won the A.L. East in a walk on their way to their second World Series title in four years, and just their second since Babe Ruth joined the Yankees. Their Opening Day roster ought to have 22 of their 25 players from the World Series team on the roster. Win the World Series? There is no reason to believe that the Red Sox can’t do it again in 2008. And 2009. And 2010. This is a fearsome team without any weaknesses. You want pitching? Their team ERA of 3.87 was the best in the A.L. Fielding? Their team DER of .706 tied for the best in the A.L. Offense? They were third in runs scored. Their .362 team OBP was only bettered by the Yankees. Worried because the Red Sox missed out on Santana and might lose Curt Schilling? Don’t be. The Red Sox have Josh Beckett (20-7, 3.27 ERA), Dice-K Matsuzaka (15-12, 4.40 ERA), Tim Wakefield (17-12, 4.76 ERA) and the highly touted Jon Lester waiting in the wings. If they get deep into a game with a lead, it is in the bag: the Red Sox bullpen of Jonathan Papelbon (37 saves, 1.85 ERA) and Hideki Okajima (2.22 ERA) is nearly unbeatable. Defensively the Red Sox are exceptional, and that’s with Manny Ramirez in leftfield. At the plate the Red Sox return Mike Lowell (21 home runs, 120 RBI), Kevin Youkilis (16 home runs, 83 RBI, .390 OBP), and Manny (20 home runs, 88 RBI), as well as David Ortiz. Ortiz is an exceptional hitter. His .445 OBP was the best in the A.L. in 2007. Despite being a DH, he is a legitimate MVP candidate because what he does with the bat. Great team, could win 100 games, ought to win the division in a walk … 2007 was the first time in ten years that the New York Yankees failed to capture the A.L. East crown. It was really a stunning development, as the Yankees had pretty easily cruised to nine consecutive division titles between 1998 and 2006. This off-season the Yankees underwent big changes at the top as the Bronx management bid good-bye to Joe Torre and installed Joe Girardi as manager. This is part of a larger trend within the Yankees management towards getting the team younger and building the team’s farm system. The Yankees reluctance to deal Joba Chamberlain and Philip Hughes must be seen in the context of the team wanting to get back to their successful 1996-2000 teams, which featured grinders at the plate like Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez as opposed to their more star-studded teams that flamed out in the playoffs. Those teams were sound fundamentally, played tough defense and boasted formidable pitching. The Yankees of recent vintage have been loaded with bats but struggle to prevent runs. I like the direction the Yankees are moving in - they could be great in '09 - but I wonder if ’08 will be an off-year for them. While teams like the White Sox and Tigers made big strides and the Indians and Red Sox have superior pitching and defensive alignments, while the Yankees comparatively did little, I can’t see the ’08 Yankees doing any better than the wildcard … Someone argued recently that if the Toronto Blue Jays played in the N.L. East rather than the A.L. East, they’d easily win the division. Maybe, maybe not (the 2008 N.L. East will be pretty good), but the Blue Jays would definitely be a playoff contender. Instead they seem cursed to sit in third place, in the shadow of the Red Sox and Yankees. The thing that most impresses me about the Blue Jays is their impressive pitching and fielding. The Jays tied the Red Sox for the best Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER) in the American League at .706, meaning that they converted 70.6% of the balls put into play by their pitchers into outs. John Dewan’s Plus / Minus system rated them the best defense in baseball last season, making 92 more plays than the average team would have made. As for pitching, the Blue Jays 4.00 ERA was second to just the Boston Red Sox. Leading the way are Roy Halladay (16-7, 3.71 ERA) and A.J. Burnett (10-8, 3.75 ERA), two of the better starting pitchers in the American League. The Jays problem is that they don’t score many runs – just 753 last season. J.P. Riccardi, the former Billy Beane disciple, has built a terrific pitching and defense team, but the Blue Jays can’t figure out how to score runs and they need to do so if they are going to contend. Want to know why Toronto won't contend? Well, the Blue Jays first baseman is Lyle Overbay, who hit a mere ten home runs (a mere .151 isolated power - ISO - at the plate) and had an OBP of just .315. Simply put, first base is not a position where you can afford to have a player hitting for neither power nor average. The Blue Jays two best hitters are Frank Thomas (26 home runs, 95 RBI, age: 40) and Scott Rolen (8 home runs, 58 RBI with the Cardinals, age: 33), who are both older and are probably in major decline. The fact that Thomas led the Blue Jays in homers with just 26 is pretty bad. Simply put, the Blue Jays need to add some hitters to their lineup to be competitive with the Red Sox and Yankees … I picked the Tampa Bay Rays to beat out – if you can use those words to describe finishing in fourth place – the Orioles and I think that the Rays might be one of the most interesting teams in baseball. The least successful of the four expansion teams created in the 1990’s (the Marlins have two World Series titles, the Diamondbacks have one, and the Rockies have a pair of playoff berths to speak of), the Rays are desperately trying to break through and make an impact. I’m not sure they’ll do it, but the numbers from their ’07 campaign are interesting. Did you know that the Rays had the worst ERA in the A.L. last year? 5.54. However, the Rays led the A.L. in strikeouts: 1,194. How bizarre is that? Let’s start with their pitching. How awful were the Rays? They allowed a whopping 944 runs in 2007, 76 more than the Oroles. They allowed an A.L.-worst 199 home runs, they converted just 57% of their save opportunities, and their FIP ERA was 4.78, second-worst in the A.L. James Shields and Scott Kazmir pitched well for the Rays (12-8, 3.85 ERA and 13-9, 3.48 ERA, respectively) but the quality of their pitching staff drops off tremendously after that. Some of the pitchers how struggled in a big way last year will be back: Edwin Jackson (5-15, 5.76 ERA) and Andy Sonnanstine (6-10, 5.85 ERA), for example. Troy Percival will attempt to anchor their leaky bullpen. In order for this team to be competitive, they need to dramatically improve their pitching staff. Dramatically improve it. Defensively the Rays also need to make some strides. They were awful. While John Dewan’s Plus / Minus system rated the Blue Jays as the top team in the majors, it ranked the Ray the worst. Their -107 Plus / Minus rating was awful, as was their .657 DER. They also committed 117 errors, second worst in the A.L. Their leaky defense is a big reason why their pitchers struggled. The .648 DER behind Kazmir hurt his performance badly. Offensively the Rays have some talent, but that has been something people have been saying for years. Their hitters struck out 1,324 times in 2007, but the real problem is that their hitters, while having some power at the plate – .165 isolated power – had no table-setters: .336 OBP. The Rays have a lot of talent at the plate but they aren’t maximizing it. I say fourth place and not fifth, but only because the Orioles are more messed up than the Rays … I’ve been reading a lot of late about the Baltimore Orioles teams of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is astonishing to me about how dominant those teams were – year-in and year-out they had power at the plate, great pitching and terrific defense – and now you look at the current Orioles and you understand how fans who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s must be furious at the decline of the team. Since they went to the playoffs in ’97 the Orioles have been consistently bad, posting one losing season after another. Unable to spend like the Red Sox and Yankees, they’ve also been unable to find a niche and exploit it like the Blue Jays have in managing to finish third for most of this time. No, the Orioles have finished fourth because they’ve managed to be incompetent in building their team. They’ve brought aging players in to bolster the team, squandered young talent, and have generally enraged their loyal fans. Perhaps now the Orioles are turning over a new leaf: the team’s decision to ship Miguel Tejada to the Astros and Erik Bedard to the Mariners for prospects might herald a new dawn for the Eastern Shore Birds. Losing Bedard will hurt in the short-term (his 3.33 FIP was the third-best in the A.L., and he struck out 221 batters, or a major-league leading 30% of the hitters he faced), but it was the right thing to do. Losing Tejada won’t hurt the Orioles a bit either: he is clearly in the declining portion of his career. Will the Orioles struggle in 2008? No doubt. They might be the worst team in the A.L., but there are better days on the horizon, Orioles fans.
1. Cleveland Indians
2. Detroit Tigers (Wildcard)
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Kansas City Royals
The A.L. Central … The conventional wisdom is that the baseball team in Motown vastly improved themselves in the 2007 – 2008 off-season and that the Cleveland Indians, the 2007 A.L. Central champs, are going to be left in the dust. Sure the Indians kept their roster intact (23 of their 25 Opening Day guys played for the Indians in the ALCS) and didn’t make any splashy moves (signing Jamey Carroll doesn’t qualify). They also didn’t lose anyone either. The Indians return with a team that is both young and good and promises to do even better this season than it did last. The key to the Indians is their pitching staff. Last year’s Cy Young Award winner, C.C. Sabathia (19-7, 3.21 ERA), anchors the rotation and is the best individual pitcher in the A.L. with Santana gone. Sabathia’s 3.27 FIP was the second-best in the A.L., and his 1.5 walks per nine innings (BB/9) was also second-best. Sabathia is a strikeout pitcher with terrific control. His 5.65 K/BB ratio in 2007 was the best in the A.L., better than a strikeout over Santana (4.52). Right after Sabathia is Fausto Carmona (19-8, 3.06 ERA), who had the highest groundball / flyball ratio of any pitcher in the American league last year: 3.47. That G/F ratio helped Carmona induce a whopping 1.34 double plays per nine innings pitched. The .352 slugging percentage against Carmona was the third-lowest in the American League. Right after Carmona is Paul Byrd (15-8, 4.59 ERA), whose 1.3 BB/9 was the best in the A.L. This is a tough rotation to get through and a major reason why the Indians had arguably the best pitching staff in the A.L. in 2007 along with the Red Sox and Blue Jays. While their 4.05 team ERA was third in the A.L. behind the Red Sox and Blue Jays, their Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) ERA was actually better than the Red Sox: 4.12 vs. 4.24. In terms of preventing runs the Indians just need to get a little more solid in their glove work. Their 0.28 Unearned Run Average (UERA) was pretty low, but they were the league average in terms of John Dewan’s Plus / Minus and Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER). Offensively the Indians weren’t overwhelming at the plate like the Yankees, but they were very, very solid. Indians hitters were very disciplined at the plate, working counts and getting on base. Their 3.94 pitches per plate appearance was second-best in the A.L. after, you guessed it, the Red Sox. Travis Hafner (24 home runs, 100 RBI, .385 OBP) and V Martinez (25 home runs, 114 RBI, .374 OBP) paced the Indians attack, but their most valuable player was Centerfielder Grady Sizemore: .390 OBP, 33 steals in 43 tries, 24 home runs, 118 runs scored, 34 doubles, 101 walks. Power, speed, defense, Sizemore has it all. Sizemore’s 123 Runs Created and 124 Base Runs (BR is a little like RC) ranked him sixth and fourth in the American League respectively. If Sizemore plays anything like what he did in 2007, the Indians are going to be difficult to beat. First place again, until someone persuades me differently … I always try and resist being enamored of teams that make big moves in the off-season because moves that look good on paper rarely turn out in the regular season. Remember the ’02 New York Mets? Well, the ’08 Detroit Tigers could be a great team, but they have a real potential to disappoint. I tend to think that they’ll be a good team, but they could also struggle. The ’07 Tigers scored 887 runs. Now the ’08 Tigers return with basically the same lineup except they now have Miguel Cabrera (34 Home Runs, 119 RBI, 38 Doubles, .966 OPS) playing third base. Yikes. The Tigers scored a lot of runs thanks to timely hitting in 2007 (.311 BA/RISP, about eighteen points higher than the Yankees) and now will have some additional power in their lineup. However, I would be nervous, Tigers fans, over the fact that seven of their nine position players are over the age of 32:
CF – Chris Granderson: 27
LF – Jacque Jones: 33
RF – Magglio Ordonez: 34
1B – Carlos Guillen: 32
2B – Placido Polanco: 32
3B – Miguel Cabrera: 25
SS – Edgar Renteria: 32
C – Ivan Rodriguez: 36
DH – Gary Sheffield: 39
In particular, Ordonez and Sheffield – critical cogs in their offense – are due for major declines in 2008, in my opinion. Don’t be surprised to see Cabrera hitting home runs in droves and for the Tigers to still struggle at the plate. Their .311 BA/RISP is not going to be repeated in 2008. The key to the Tigers play in 2008 is going to be whether or not Granderson can repeat what he did in 2007: 23 home runs, 23 triples, 38 doubles, 26 steals in 27 tries, .361 OBP, 122 runs scored. With Granderson’s speed and power pacing their attack, the Tigers are deadly at the plate. Fielding: Granderson played well in centerfield, with a .921 Zone Rating (ZR) and 85 plays on balls outside of his zone. Second baseman Placido Polanco also had a fielding percentage of 1.000 in 2007. That’s right: 1,209 innings of work, 294 putouts, 389 assists, and not a single error. Nice work. But even with glove stars like Granderson and Polanco, the Tigers defense was substandard in 2007. They need to do better and might actually be worse with Brad Inge sitting on the bench. Pitching-wise, Dontrelle Willis might be the bigger addition for the Tigers, however, helping to stabilize a rotation that was actually below-average in 2007 (4.57 ERA). Willis, who had an off-year in 2007 (10-15, 5.17 ERA), will benefit from the change in scenery and will do well paired with Justin Verlander (18-6, 3.66 ERA). Jeremy Bonderman needs to do better than his 5.01 ERA. Their bullpen is weak too. Don’t be surprised to see the Tigers try and pry Joe Nathan off of the Twins, or Joe Blanton from the A’s. I look at the ’08 Tigers and I see a team that might be better in 2008, but it also might not … I was sorely tempted to rank the Chicago White Sox first in the A.L. Central and make them a playoff team, but I am wary about making such a bold prediction. I’ll play it safe and say 83-86 wins and third place for the ChiSox, but the truth is that the ’08 White Sox might be very, very good. They made a lot of good moves in the off-season. Nothing as flashy as the deals made by the Mets and Tigers, but ones that will pay off in the long run. Goodbye Darin Erstad (4 home runs, 32 RBI, .310 OBP), Jon Garland (10-13, 4.23 ERA), and Scott Podsednik (2 home runs, 11 RBI, .290 OBP). The elimination of Erstad and Podsednik alone qualifies as addition by subtraction. In their place the White Sox bolstered their bullpen by adding Scott Linebrink (3.80 ERA) and Octavio Dotel (4.11 ERA, 11 saves in 15 tries in 2007). Orlando Cabrera, gained in the Garland deal, bolsters a bad defense (-76 plays according to John Dewan’s Plus / Minus system) with his glove work (4.42 Range Factor, .983 Fielding Percentage). Finally, the White Sox stole Nick Swisher from the Oakland A’s. After the Tigers, the White Sox might be the most improved team in baseball. (Yes, more improved than the Mets.) I noticed that nearly all of these moves made by the White Sox basically flew under the radar of the baseball establishment. The only thing that would worry me is the fact that, like the Tigers, the White Sox have some older key players, such as Jermaine Dye (34), Jim Thome (37), and Paul Konerko (32). Catcher A.J. Pierzynski and Third Baseman Joe Crede are 31 and 30 respectively. The play of Dye will be key in 2008. He slumped badly in ’07, hitting 28 home runs and 78 RBI with an OBP of just .317. With Dye went the White Sox offense. As a team they ranked dead-last in the A.L. in OBP at .318. The White Sox lineup has some pop – second in the American league in home runs – but they hit a lot of solo home runs. Despite hitting 190 homers, the White Sox finished last in the A.L. in runs scored with 693. White Sox hitters hit the fewest singles in the A.L.: 882, and the fewest doubles: 249. The teams decision to re-emphasize “small ball” in 2007 was a tragic mistake. The team’s 41 sacrifice bunts squandered outs they could ill afford, and the 45 times they were caught stealing hurt too. They need to hit more consistently and set the table more in 2008. They also need to get more consistent play from their starting pitchers to get the team into position to hand off their leads to strong bullpens. I look for former Phillie Gavin Floyd to have a good season for them to have success. That weakness in their pitching staff is the only reason why I am not ranking them ahead of the Tigers. That, and their defense was terrible in 2007 … Here is the reason why the Minnesota Twins won’t do worse than their 79-83 record from 2007. They signed Adam Everett. ‘Nuff said. Adam Everett, as sabremetricians know, is one of the finest defensive players in all of baseball. Not as flashy or as adored by the media like the Yankees Derek Jeter, but a great player. Between 2005 and 2007, Adam Everett rated a whopping +92 under John Dewan’s Plus / Minus system, meaning that Everett made 92 more plays than an average player would have made in that time. Assuming that a play equals half a run, that’s 45 or so runs Everett saved with his glove over the last three years, phenomenal work on his part. And yet Everett attracted scant attention on the free agency market, allowing the Twins to scarf him up. This team is going to be fine, Johan Santana or no Johan Santana, because they make moves like that. This is, in my estimation, a young team that is going to be able to win baseball games. Francisco Liriano, who went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA in 2006 before being injured and missing 2007, will be able to pick up the slack. The team also has star closer Joe Nathan (37 of 41 saves, 1.88 ERA in 2007), who is available to nail down victories, or the ability to snare prospects when the Twins ship him to a team like the Angels or Mariners, desperate to win. At the plate the Twins may miss Torii Hunter’s bat, but they’ve got terrific weapons in Joe Mauer (.382 OBP in 2007), and Justin Morneau (31 home runs, 111 RBI, .343 OBP). The Twins will have to win a lot of 3-2 games, but they have the ability and guys like Mauer and Morneau can help them squeeze out the runs. Losing Santana will hurt, but this team can do .500 … When thinking about the Kansas City Royals I am reminded of the line from Rounders when Matt Damon said if you look around a card table and can’t pick out the sucker, then you’re it. I wonder if the Royals approach their season the same way. Look around the table: the stacked Indians, the improved Tigers and White Sox, the still-dangerous Twins. The Royals are the suckers. Sadly, once upon a time (okay, it was 1975 – 1985) the Royals were actually a pretty good team. Just a few years after their creation in ’69, Whitey Herzog led them to a 91-71 finish in ’75, then three consecutive division titles (and three consecutive ALCS losses to the Yankees), becoming the Phillies victim in the ’80 World Series, more near-misses in ’81 and ’84 before stunning the Cardinals in the ’85 World Series. Since then there have been few highs for Royals fans: 100+ losses four of the last six seasons and the strengthening of the division from being a collection of doormats to real contenders. The Royals have some talent on the roster – Third Baseman Alex Gordon and Leftfielder Mark Teahan stand out – but the team needs to expand their payroll and build their farm system. I will note that the teams decision to award Gil Meche a $55 million-dollar deal, much maligned at the time, doesn’t look so crazy when you consider that Meche posted a respectable 3.67 ERA in 2007. Maybe the Royals are moving in the right direction after all …
1. Anaheim Angels
2. Seattle Mariners
3. Texas Rangers
4. Oakland A’s
The A.L. West … Basically, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (or whatever the heck their name is) cannot fail to make the playoffs. It’s virtually impossible. It is very possible that none of the other teams in their division will have a winning record, so the Angels could waltz into the playoffs with a 82-80 record quite easily. I’m not a huge fan of the Angels, that collection of small ballers that led the American League in sacrifice hits and was second in stolen bases in 2007. I don’t like the way they play baseball and I don’t think the team is particularly good. The sad fact is that the Halos are poised to dominate the A.L. West for years to come because the division is so weak now and management has very deep pockets. The ’08 Angels feature a solid pitching staff consisting of John Lackey (19-9, 3.01 ERA, but a 3.66 FIP), Jered Weaver (13-7, 4.30 ERA) and new addition Jon Garland (10-13, 4.23 ERA). The below-average defense is sapped by the team’s decision to ship Orlando Cabrera to the White Sox in the Garland deal. Any team featuring Vlad Guerrero and Torii Hunter in the outfield won’t be totally bad, however. Speaking of Hunter, he was the Angels big acquisition in the off-season, as the team forked out $90 million over six years for the declining star. Hunter hit .287 with 28 home runs and 107 RBI in 2007 for the Twins, but he also was caught nine of the twenty-seven times he tried to steal, grounded into 17 double plays, and struck out 101 times. Hunter turns 32 this season and the Bill James Handbook projects a decline. Certainly this is a deal that the Angels will regret – as they regretted their decision to sign Gary Matthews, Jr. the previous year – as Hunter gets into 2010, 2011 and 2012. The Angels lack of power is the reason why they aren’t likely to get past the first round of the playoffs and probably won’t do better than third or fourth in the East or Central divisions. You can’t always move the ball with bunts and steals and clutch hitting. The Angels wait for the perfect bunting situation and they are still waiting. The sad fact is that the rest of the division is so weak that the Angels are a near-lock to make the playoffs … I’ve always liked the Seattle Mariners. The ’07 team was a major surprise, actually challenging the Angels for the division before fading down the stretch. They were an absurdly lucky team last year, winning 88 games despite being outscored by 19 runs! Their Pythagorean win-loss record ought to have been 79-83. In case you are wondering how the A.L. West would have looked:
1. Anaheim: 94-68
2. Seattle: 88-74
3. Oakland: 76-86
4. Texas: 75-87
“Pythagorean”: (Games Under / Over)
1. Anaheim: 90-72 (-4)
2. Oakland: 79-83 (+3)
3. Seattle: 79-83 (-9)
4. Texas: 78-84 (+3)
That doesn’t auger well for 2008. Unfortunately the Mariners decided to bet their farm system on a playoff push in 2008 by sending loads of prospects to the Orioles for Erik Bedard (13-5, 3.16 ERA), so the Mariners can team him with Felix Hernandez, the phenom who stunned the Red Sox by out-pitching Dice-K Matsuzaka in his TV debut before settling into a mediocre 14-7 with a 3.92 ERA. The Mariners are hoping that Bedard and a rejuvenated King Felix can give the team a big one-two punch in 2008. The Mariners also made the bone-headed decision to give millions to Carlos Silva (13-14, 4.19 ERA), one of the few decent – and by that I mean better than awful – arms on the free agency market. I think the Mariners real problem is that they don’t muster much offense (794 runs scored, exactly the A.L. average) and their fielding is surprisingly poor – a .675 DER, thirteenth in the A.L., higher only than the Tampa Bay Rays. Ichiro Suzuki will continue to be a hitting dynamo (.351 batting average, second-best in the A.L.), but the Mariners can’t score runs unless Adrian Beltre re-discovers what made his 2004 season with the Dodgers so amazing (48 home runs, 121 RBI, 120 Runs Created). Since ‘04, Beltre has been a bust:
Perhaps the Mariners should have realized that Beltre’s 2004 season was a big anomaly compared to his career between 1999 and 2003:
I’ll stop beating up on the Mariners, but their massive contract to Beltre has a major blunder that the team is going to be paying for years to come. I see the Mariners winning 75-80 games at best and second place … Lots of former Phillies on the Texas Rangers roster. Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, and Robinson Tejada are likely to be three of the Rangers five starting pitchers, while Marlon Byrd patrols their outfield. The ’07 Rangers struggled through a difficult season but seem like they are headed in the right direction finally. Even without Mark Teixeira, the Rangers are going to hit a lot of home runs at the Ballpark at Arlington. Their problem is that they need to improve their pitching staff – their 4.89 FIP ERA was the worst in the A.L. – and they need to play better defense. Their 0.56 UERA was worst in the A.L. The Rangers need to be more technically sound before they can think about contending … The Oakland A’s are in the midst of a rebuilding project after their sputtering 76-86 finish in 2007. Gone are pitcher Dan Haren (15-9, 3.07 ERA) and outfielder Nick Swisher (22 home runs, 78 RBI, .381 OBP), as well as Mike Piazza, Mark Kotsay and Shannon Stewart. Look for Billy Beane to deal Joe Blanton (14-10, 3.95 ERA) to a contender (White Sox?) before the season is done. Swisher and Blanton, of course, were major figures in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball (see, pages 113-114), so the 2007-2008 campaigns are a major turning point for the A’s. Can the A’s compete in the A.L. West even with their depleted roster? Anything is possible, but I am a skeptic. Even with Jack Cust, the A’s are unlikely to even equal their 76 wins from last season. This is a 70-72 win team. In the long run, however, the future is bright for the A’s.
The Playoff Race … will go along with a fierce race in the A.L. East between the Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox that sees the Red Sox pull away in August to capture the A.L. East crown, while the Angels have the West locked up around Labor Day. Meanwhile, in the Central, the White Sox, Indians and Tigers hold a spirited battle, all the while looking in their rear-view mirror at the Blue Jays and Yankees. When the season shakes out, the Indians narrowly take first place, the Tigers shift their attention in time and take the wildcard and the Yankees sit out the post-season for the first time since 1993.
Dark horse team: Minnesota Twins. Remember when Alex Rodriguez fled the Seattle Mariners and they ended up winning 116 games the next season? I’m not saying that the Twins are going to do that, but shedding the aging Torii Hunter and losing Johan Santana might not be the catastrophe that everyone seems to believe that it is. They seem to be stout defensively with Everett and might be as good with Liriano on the mound as Santana. Maybe a wildcard contender?
The playoffs …
Boston over Detroit, 3-1
Cleveland over Anaheim, 3-0
The Tigers improved hitting is no match for the Red Sox pitching, as the Tigers fall in four. Meanwhile, the Indians make swift work of the Angels, who lack a real offensive threat to challenge the Indians robust pitching staff.
Cleveland over Boston, 4-3
In an upset, the Indians manage to stave off the Red Sox and win the series in four games, with C.C. Sabathia out-dueling Beckett to win the critical seventh game. This will be a dramatic series and the most memorable in baseball since the ’04 ALCS.
A.L. MVP: David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox. The great hero of the ’04 ALCS, the tremendous presence at the plate that he is, Ortiz is the best player in the A.L. who does not pitch. Yes, he doesn’t play defense, but no team expects more of Ortiz and he’s always delivered the clutch hits, he’s always hit the big three-run bomb when the Red Sox need him. Ortiz will probably club 40+ home runs, 120+ RBI, draw 110-120 walks, 50+ doubles, and lead the A.L. in most offensive categories. Runners up: Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees; Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers, and Grady Sizemore, CF, Indians.
A.L. Cy Young: C.C. Sabathia, Starting Pitcher, Indians. I actually think a pretty good argument can be made for Sabathia for MVP, but pitchers never get considered. That said, with Johan Santana gone the path for Sabathia to take his second consecutive Cy Young is pretty clear. Runners up: Dice-K Matsuzaka, Starting Pitcher, Red Sox; Jonathan Papelbon, Closer, Red Sox; Fausto Cardamona, Starting Pitcher, Indians.
A.L. Rookie of the Year: Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays. Longoria will enter the Rays lineup and hit 30 Home Runs and 80-90 RBI. Runner up: Mike Costanzo, 1B, Baltimore Orioles.
More on the N.L. next Monday …