Welcome to Grantland’s 2015 MLB division previews. From now through next week, Jonah Keri and I will analyze each team in each division, focusing on offseason triumphs and failures, roster strengths and weaknesses, telling projections, revealing stats, and off-field story lines, and wrapping up with our over/under verdicts on each team’s projected record. As always, all overly pessimistic opinions should be blamed on the well-known grudge we bear your team, and only your team, because of that thing it did to us that one time that we’re still extremely bitter about.
No division is more emblematic of baseball’s newfound parity than the AL East, which gets to go first to facilitate accusations of East Coast bias. Formerly home to a lopsided assortment of baseball’s big hairy monsters and the pushovers who helped pad their records, the East is now, from top to bottom, the most difficult division to call. All five teams are projected to win between 80 and 87 games — which, given the imprecision of preseason projections, puts them all more or less within the margin of error. In other words, the East is an enigma, but we’ll give you plenty of factors to consider while we wait for the season to settle some of the uncertainty.
Programming notes: Projected lineups and rotations come from RosterResource.com. Projected player stats and team records come from FanGraphs and combine ZiPS/Steamer-projected performance with playing-time estimates from the FanGraphs depth charts. Projected player improvements and declines are restricted to hitters with at least 300 plate appearances in 2014 and 2015 (projected), and pitchers who threw at least 50 innings in 2014 and 2015 (projected). Finally, injury projections for hitters and pitchers are provided by Rob Arthur and Jeff Zimmerman, respectively.1 Teams are ordered according to our personal, infallible forecasts of the final regular-season standings, so stop reading right now if you don’t want the next six months spoiled.
1. Boston Red Sox
The starting pitcher DL projections were created with a process outlined in this article. The formula was derived from established starters who threw at least 120 innings in the previous season; for this preview, the same formula was applied to any pitcher projected to start in 2015. The estimates may be less dependable for pitchers who didn’t meet the 2014 innings threshold.
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images
|Red Sox Projected Starting Lineup|
|1||CF Mookie Betts||R||.276/.343/.418||114||567|
|2||2B Dustin Pedroia||R||.281/.345/.399||108||623|
|3||DH David Ortiz||L||.277/.363/.509||136||595|
|4||LF Hanley Ramirez||R||.281/.354/.462||128||539|
|5||3B Pablo Sandoval||S||.285/.337/.458||119||595|
|6||1B Mike Napoli||R||.242/.352/.440||124||560|
|7||RF Rusney Castillo*||R||.274/.324/.404||103||245|
|8||SS Xander Bogaerts||R||.261/.321/.411||103||616|
|9||C Christian Vazquez||R||.247/.307/.340||80||384|
|*Shane Victorino will start in place of Castillo if Castillo needs to begin the year on the DL or in the minors, but the plan is for Castillo to be an everyday outfielder before long.|
|Red Sox Projected Starting Rotation|
|1||RHP Clay Buchholz||4.13||4.08||180.0||6.9||2.9|
|2||RHP Rick Porcello||3.79||3.70||196.0||6.3||2.1|
|3||LHP Wade Miley||4.03||3.93||173.0||7.2||3.0|
|4||RHP Justin Masterson||4.26||4.15||167.0||7.3||4.0|
|5||RHP Joe Kelly||4.35||4.37||140.0||6.1||3.5|
Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Allen Craig, 2.9 WAR/600 PA; Justin Masterson, 1.7 WAR/200 IP
Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Hanley Ramirez, minus-0.2 WAR/600 PA; Junichi Tazawa, minus-0.7 WAR/200 IP
Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Shane Victorino, 48 days
Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: Clay Buchholz, 52 percent
Best Offseason Move: Hoarding youth. The offseason started amid speculation that the Sox could trade Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, or top prospects Blake Swihart and Henry Owens in exchange for a no. 1 starter. Instead, the Sox sold off complementary pieces and players who were blocked by better options, including Yoenis Cespedes, Will Middlebrooks, Allen Webster, and Rubby De La Rosa. The downside: The Sox still lack a top starter. The upside: They kept their quartet of talented, cost-controlled 22-year-olds, and there’s still a chance for them to pry away an ace. More on that in a moment.
Worst Offseason Move: Signing Justin Masterson. For a team with Boston’s resources, the real risk isn’t a player who’s not quite worth his contract; it’s a player who consumes innings or plate appearances without making the Red Sox better. Masterson, whose average fastball velocity fell by 3 mph last season and hasn’t recovered this spring, might not clear that bar, since a one-year, $9.5 million commitment is easily swallowed compared to the multiyear moves the Sox made this winter. Still, considering the steep penalties pitchers pay for lost speed, a slow-motion Masterson threatens the team in the short term in a way that the Hanley Ramirez deal, however dangerous, won’t for a few years.
Greatest Team Strength: Offense. If this doesn’t turn out to be the best-hitting team in baseball, something will have gone wrong. The Sox effectively bat-blocked their competitors in a weak market for hitters by adding the winter’s two highest-priced free-agent position players, Pablo Sandoval and Ramirez, to a lineup that already included more talent than last year’s woeful stat lines would suggest. DH David Ortiz, who’ll turn 40 in November, remains a monster whose relatively low batting average last season was probably a mirage, and the team’s deep cast of second-tier sluggers makes the middle of John Farrell’s lineup thicker than most managers’. Catcher is the only position where the Sox aren’t projected to have an above-average bat — at least until Swihart matures — and that’s only because they’ve doubled down on elite defensive backstops.
Greatest Team Weakness: The rotation. After being outbid for Jon Lester, the Sox decided not to splurge on the most expensive remaining free agents. Instead, they economized, adding Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, and Masterson in such quick succession that all three pitchers fit in one post. A team that excels in other areas can win with an endless supply of mid-rotation starters, but Boston doesn’t have the rotational depth that excuses a low ceiling. Porcello and Miley are among the most dependable pitchers in baseball — ranking 234th and 239th in DL probability among the 240 projected starters on FanGraphs’s depth charts — and the Red Sox got them for players who were of relatively little value to them. But between Buchholz, Masterson, and Kelly, who’s been hampered by arm soreness this spring, the Sox will have to reach beyond their front five before long. That’s good news for fans of the knuckleball, but it might be bad news for Boston.
Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: Betts. After Bogaerts’s rookie stumbles and Jackie Bradley Jr.’s rookie header down six months’ worth of stairs, we wouldn’t blame Bostonians for being wary of highly touted prospects who supposedly have high floors. But unlike Bogaerts and Bradley, both of whom showed some signs of weakness in the quick call-ups that preceded their everyday debuts, Betts looked ready right away, displaying a Matt Carpenter–esque combination of selectivity and contact. Unlike Carpenter, though, Betts plays center, which explains why the projection systems see him as a three-plus-win player as soon as this season.
Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: Red Sox nonpitchers produced a minus-91 wRC+ last season, which tied for 27th in the majors. Expect a big rebound: Weighting each current player’s projected performance by his projected playing time in 2015 yields an expected team mark of 110, which would be a 19-point improvement. During the wild-card era, only eight teams have pulled off a 20-point improvement or better from one year to the next:
|Team||Year 1||wRC+||Year 2||wRC+||Change|
On average, those teams improved by 16.4 wins after upgrading their lineups. If the 2015 Red Sox add 16 wins to their 2014 total, they’ll finish with 87 — which is exactly what the projection systems foresee. Sometimes, statistics have a pleasing symmetry.
Off-Field Story Line: Thanks to their mercurial records in recent years, the Red Sox combine the present-day benefits of being a good team with the talent-acquisition advantages of having recently been a bad one. The Sox have the sixth-largest bonus pool in this summer’s international spending period, but because they exceeded their budget last year, they’re restricted to individual bonuses of $300,000 or below. That gives them the option of using bonus slots as trade chips, making it easier to fortify the roster without robbing the farm. They also have the seventh overall pick in the amateur draft, the highest of any team projected to finish above .500 this year.
Projected Record and Over/Under: 87-75 — OVER. Asked to project the team’s win total on the Red Sox preview episode of Effectively Wild, Providence Journal beat writer Tim Britton said, “There’s what I think this team as currently constituted would do, and there’s what I think this team, if they show a small weakness and try to fix it at the deadline, would do.” That’s a potentially important distinction. To the extent that a buyer’s market can exist in an era when anyone can win, this summer figures to be a favorable time to shop for top-of-the-rotation starters, several of whom will hit free agency at the end of the year.
Even if the Sox can’t sublet a starter, though, their staff won’t be as big a vulnerability as it seems on the surface. Run prevention isn’t all about pitching: The Sox project to have the AL’s second-best defense, by both DRS and UZR,2 and slick fielders — like Dustin Pedroia, whose glove makes him one of the game’s best second basemen even when hand problems sap his power at the plate — make contact-prone pitchers look good. And that’s without accounting for the full impact of Christian Vazquez, whose defensive DNA appears to be Molina-esque. Vazquez projects to save 28 runs thanks to pitch framing over a full season, according to Baseball Prospectus’s Called Strikes Above Average, which puts him one run off the pace for the major league lead. He’s also superb at controlling the running game: In 55 big league games last year, he led all catchers in another BP defensive stat, Basestealing Attempts Above Average. After accounting for pitchers, baserunners, and game states, Vazquez reduced base stealing attempts by 9.2 percent.
With catcher framing, blocking, and throwing included.
In a division full of flawed teams, the Red Sox’s unmatched offense, solid defense, and deep pockets make them the favorite.
2. Toronto Blue Jays
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
|Blue Jays Projected Starting Lineup|
|1||SS Jose Reyes||S||.284/.333/.410||107||595|
|2||C Russell Martin||R||.239/.338/.404||109||518|
|3||RF Jose Bautista||R||.266/.380/.513||149||630|
|4||1B Edwin Encarnacion||R||.268/.357/.512||141||560|
|5||3B Josh Donaldson||R||.265/.339/.470||126||630|
|6||LF Michael Saunders*||L||.246/.322/.420||107||560|
|7||DH Dioner Navarro||S||.264/.315/.398||98||265|
|8||2B Maicer Izturis*||S||.254/.305/.346||82||175|
|9||CF Dalton Pompey||S||.237/.295/.352||80||455|
|*Kevin Pillar and Ryan Goins will initially start in place of the injured Saunders and Izturis, respectively.|
|Blue Jays Projected Starting Rotation|
|1||LHP Mark Buehrle||4.19||4.17||204.0||5.3||2.2|
|2||RHP R.A. Dickey||4.08||4.34||209.0||7.1||2.8|
|3||RHP Drew Hutchison||4.14||4.02||167.0||8.5||2.9|
|4||RHP Aaron Sanchez||4.46||4.55||96.0||7.4||4.7|
|5||LHP Daniel Norris||4.26||4.29||139.0||9.2||4.0|
Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: None; Marco Estrada, 1.7 WAR/200 IP
Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Russell Martin, minus-2.5 WAR/600 PA; Brett Cecil, minus-1.4 WAR/200 IP
Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Maicer Izturis, 52 days3
Good call, projection system.
Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: R.A. Dickey, 45 percent4
Unless you count new Jay Johan Santana, who leads all projected starters at 62 percent.
Best Offseason Move: It wasn’t nearly as high-profile as the Josh Donaldson trade, nor as significant of an immediate upgrade, but the straight-up swap with Seattle of J.A. Happ for Michael Saunders was easy to like for Toronto. Saunders, if healthy, is at least an average outfielder; Happ, if healthy, is a below-average starter. Saunders is four years younger, costs less than half as much, and comes with twice as many years of team control. He also has injury issues, which makes this something less than a steal. Still, an inexpensive, potentially 2-3-win left-handed addition to Toronto’s righty-heavy lineup was a strong pull in exchange for an impending free agent who’s barely hovered above replacement level since his fluky rookie season. Honorable mention goes to the Anthony Gose–for–Devon Travis trade, which might eventually drive a stake through the heart of the Ryan Goins/Munenori Kawasaki experiment at second base.
Worst Offseason Move: Not encasing rising star starter Marcus Stroman in carbonite until Opening Day; hibernation sickness is quicker to come back from than a torn ACL. Otherwise, it’s tough to quibble with any moves Toronto made. The Jays paid for the 2014 Pirates model of Russell Martin, which won’t be what they get, but given that they’re in their competitive sweet spot, it was an understandable splurge.
Greatest Team Strength: Lefty-mashing. The Blue Jays might be the AL’s best-hitting team besides Boston, and they’re particularly well configured to destroy southpaws. Saunders is the club’s only everyday left-handed hitter; some of the team’s switch-hitters (like Dioner Navarro) prefer facing lefties, and dedicated lefty-killer Danny Valencia lurks on the bench, longing to pinch hit for Goins or Josh Thole in high-leverage spots. The righty-heavy Brewers made the fewest left-on-left plate appearances last season (105), but Toronto sabotaged Ron Roenicke’s 2015 total by sending him Adam Lind. With Milwaukee out of the way, the Jays will compete with the Padres for southpaw-avoidance-supremacy.
Greatest Team Weakness: Pitching. Only the Rockies and the Yu Darvish–deprived Rangers have a lower total projected pitching WAR than the Jays. Losing Stroman, who virtually tied Mark Buehrle for the staff WAR lead last season (in far fewer innings) and was projected to have the highest WAR among Toronto pitchers in 2015, is a big blow for the rotation. But the bullpen, projected for a 29th-place 0.4 WAR, is the bigger unknown. Estrada pitched well in 40-plus innings out of the pen for the Brewers last season, but beyond Cecil, this group is short on sure things. On the plus side, Buehrle’s fellow Jays follow his lead in taking the big leagues’ least time between pitches, so at least they won’t draw out the suffering.
Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: Aaron Sanchez. The right-hander’s 97.6 mph average velocity ranked fourth among 225 pitchers who threw at least 200 sinkers last season, and his 66 percent ground ball rate ranked fourth among 400-plus pitchers who threw at least 30 innings. However, his success in relief tells us little about how he’ll fare in the rotation he now shares with the last-place finisher in sinker velocity, Buehrle. Sanchez’s pitch usage doesn’t scream “starter”:
The 22-year-old threw one changeup after his debut outing last season. In seven of his last nine outings, he didn’t throw any off-speed pitches, and on September 6 against Boston, he threw 27 pitches, all of them four-seamers. We know he has a hard sinker; now we’re waiting to learn whether he has the ability to miss bats, make it through a lineup multiple times, and throw strikes as a starter, which he struggled to do in the minors.
Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: By one measure, the Blue Jays — who range from fearsome sluggers like Jose Bautista to easy outs like Goins, Kevin Pillar, and (for now) Dalton Pompey — have the most unbalanced offense in baseball. I determined that by taking the 10 hitters projected to make the most plate appearances on each team and calculating the standard deviation of their projected Weighted On-Base Averages, which told me how closely clustered each club’s hitters were around their collective mean. Because higher-offense teams tend to have higher standard deviations, I then divided each team’s standard deviation by the average wOBA of its 10 most frequent hitters, producing a measure of dispersion called the coefficient of variation (CV). The higher the CV, the more uneven the hitters. Here are the five teams at the extreme ends of the lineup-balance spectrum, ordered from least balanced to most:
Does having the least balanced lineup hurt the Jays? Does having the most balanced lineup help the Rays? No, not really: Neither type of lineup construction helps a team exceed its predicted runs scored or predicted record. However, it’s not as difficult to go from weak to average as it is to go from average to good, which means that a lineup with glaring soft spots should be easier to improve.
Off-Field Story Line: Toronto is a candidate for some serious turnover in the front office and field staff. If the Jays don’t at least win a wild-card spot, whoever replaces lame-duck team president Paul Beeston might prefer his own people, which would put manager John Gibbons and GM Alex Anthopoulos in what my podcast cohost Sam Miller and I, in our search for a “hot seat” synonym, have taken to calling the “wobbly chair.”
Projected Record and Over/Under: 81-81 — OVER. If you thought Boston’s pitching was shaky, avert your eyes from Toronto’s relief corps. The rotation has promise, though, even without Stroman. As others have observed, Drew Hutchison’s slider seemed to take on new life late last season, which coincided with a dramatic rise in strikeout rate. Maybe he’ll sustain some of that bump. Dickey and Buehrle have historically been locks to eat innings. Rookie Daniel Norris has come a long way in a short while, and could take time to adjust, but he’s more than the classic quirky lefty: He throws 96, and he’s missed bats at every level. And if Sanchez fails as a starter, he’ll become an instant solution to the bullpen problem. The Jays can’t quite rival Boston’s best-in-show offense, but their bats and gloves are good enough to keep them close.
3. Baltimore Orioles
Mark Cunningham/Getty Images
|Orioles Projected Starting Lineup|
|1||LF Alejandro De Aza||L||.262/.321/.395||101||511|
|2||3B Manny Machado||R||.279/.320/.443||113||595|
|3||CF Adam Jones||R||.277/.313/.468||117||644|
|4||1B Chris Davis*||L||.241/.325/.485||124||560|
|5||DH Steve Pearce||R||.266/.346/.471||129||525|
|6||C Matt Wieters*||S||.249/.311/.423||104||486|
|7||RF Travis Snider||L||.251/.320/.428||109||315|
|8||SS J.J. Hardy||R||.254/.296/.386||89||560|
|9||2B Jonathan Schoop||R||.233/.274/.392||85||525|
|*Davis’s 25-game suspension from 2014 will conclude on April 7. Wieters may begin the year on the DL or as the DH while continuing to recover from 2014 Tommy John surgery, in which case Caleb Joseph will catch.|
|Orioles Projected Starting Rotation|
|1||RHP Chris Tillman||4.10||4.41||197.0||7.0||3.0|
|2||LHP Wei-Yin Chen||4.01||4.15||175.0||6.8||2.2|
|3||RHP Bud Norris||4.13||4.29||122.0||7.5||3.1|
|4||RHP Miguel Gonzalez||4.42||4.87||133.0||6.3||2.8|
|5||RHP Kevin Gausman||4.07||4.09||160.0||7.4||3.0|
Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Chris Davis, 2.0 WAR/600; Ubaldo Jimenez, 0.3 WAR/200 IP
Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Steve Pearce, minus-4.2 WAR/600; Kevin Gausman, minus-1.6 WAR/200 IP
Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Everth Cabrera, 33 days
Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: Miguel Gonzalez, 48 percent
Best Offseason Move: There aren’t many moves to choose from; GM Dan Duquette made more news by almost becoming Toronto’s new CEO than he did by acquiring players for Baltimore. Almost by default, I’ll choose the Travis Snider trade, which gave the O’s an approximation of departed right fielder Nick Markakis for a small fraction of the financial commitment.
Worst Offseason Move: Settling for the acceptable. The Orioles were wise to fold when other teams offered four years to Nelson Cruz, Markakis, and Andrew Miller, but they could have helped themselves in other areas. In a tight race, an above-average corner outfielder or a starting pitcher somewhere just below the Scherzer/Lester level could have helped their odds. As we’ll see in a second, though, the O’s may have restricted their spending for a reason.
Greatest Team Strength: Power. Without Cruz’s league-leading 40 home runs, and with Pearce projected to drop the most production per plate appearance of any hitter who made at least 300 PAs last season, one might expect fewer offensive fireworks from the Orioles than they showed last season. Instead, the O’s are projected to out-homer the other 29 teams for the second straight year, with a projected tally (209) that’s only two off their 2014 total. Increased playing time for Matt Wieters, Manny Machado, and Davis (plus Pearce) is the obvious explanation, but this is a true team effort: Every member of the regular lineup (plus bench bat Delmon Young) is projected for double-digit dingers. Contrary to common belief, a reliance on homers helps teams in October, which will add another feather to the Orioles’ plumage if they make the postseason.
Greatest Team Weakness: The rotation. We went over this last year, when the Orioles’ rotation had baseball’s second-biggest gap between its FIP and ERA, indicative of a staff that outperformed its peripherals. Some of the difference was attributable to defense, an area in which the Orioles are still strong, but some was attributable to a major league–leading 53.5 runs of cluster luck: Baltimore pitchers excelled with runners in scoring position last season, but that isn’t a repeatable skill. Duquette brought the same staff back, and the projection systems expect its fortuitous timing to regress, which explains why the Orioles’ projected pitching WAR is just barely higher than the Blue Jays’. The rotation isn’t terrible, but the upside of most of its members is “average.” The O’s are above average at everything else, so their staff is comparatively poor.
Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: Kevin Gausman. Despite going back and forth from the minors four times, making only 20 major league starts, and getting glasses that reduced his intimidation quotient by a factor of five, Gausman was worth almost as much as the mainstays in 2014. The righty is easily the hardest thrower in Baltimore’s mostly soft-tossing rotation — or, for that matter, on the entire staff, as he showed when he added another three ticks to his four-seamer while working out of the pen in October. He’s still heavily fastball-reliant and not yet adept at missing bats, but he’ll blossom as soon as he harnesses his slider. He’s already fun to watch, so in this case, the waiting game won’t suck.
Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: As Jeff Sullivan noted last October, the Orioles have been among the best at “avoiding the awful” during the Duquette era, amassing the sixth-lowest sum of negative WAR over that three-season span. (The Rays had the lowest.) Last year, Baltimore was even better than usual at steering clear of sub-replacement production:
|Group||% of IP by -WAR Pitchers||% of PA by -WAR Hitters|
That’s why it’s difficult to come up with a list of moves the O’s should have made: Even their weakest links — Alejandro De Aza, Snider, Bud Norris, Gonzalez — are competent enough that making major improvements at those positions isn’t easy.
Off-Field Story Line: Baltimore, meet the free-agent market:
Twelve of the Orioles’ 21 highest-paid players will qualify for free agency at the end of this year. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the end of an era, but Duquette will have to be busy behind the scenes, prioritizing players and laying the groundwork for more buzzer-beating extensions like the one Hardy landed last October. Adding extra intrigue: The MASN dispute between the Orioles and the Nationals might affect how much the O’s have to spend, but the case could drag on past the point of no return for Baltimore’s free agents.
Projected Record and Over/Under: 80-82 — OVER. Your eyes don’t deceive you: A sabermetric sympathizer is taking the over on an Orioles projection. This isn’t a “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” decision or an endorsement of Oriole luck as much as it is a recognition that the O’s do (almost) everything competently, albeit very little so well that one could confidently forecast them to finish far above .500. The O’s rank fifth and sixth, respectively, in projected team UZR5 and DRS, and while that doesn’t distinguish them from their rivals in what’s shaping up to be baseball’s best defensive division, it does paper over their pitching flaws. It would have been nice to see some more late-winter magic from Duquette, but the returns of last year’s disabled/suspended stars should give the O’s enough juice to contend again.
4. Tampa Bay Rays
Including catcher powers.
Brian Blanco/Getty Images
|Rays Projected Starting Lineup|
|1||LF Desmond Jennings||R||.242/.318/.380||104||525|
|2||DH John Jaso||L||.249/.338/.387||113||509|
|3||SS Asdrubal Cabrera||S||.244/.309/.383||101||595|
|4||3B Evan Longoria||R||.255/.331/.443||121||630|
|5||1B James Loney||L||.273/.323/.378||103||525|
|6||RF Steven Souza||R||.237/.308/.408||107||560|
|7||2B Nick Franklin*||S||.234/.304/.362||94||525|
|8||CF Kevin Kiermaier||L||.251/.303/.385||99||595|
|9||C Rene Rivera||R||.227/.280/.354||82||416|
|*Logan Forsythe will start the year in place of the injured Franklin.|
|Rays Projected Starting Rotation|
|1||RHP Chris Archer||3.68||3.78||183.0||7.9||3.4|
|2||RHP Jake Odorizzi||4.05||4.19||178.0||8.1||3.3|
|3||RHP Alex Cobb*||3.35||3.41||155.0||8.0||2.8|
|4||LHP Drew Smyly*||3.38||3.63||112.0||8.4||2.6|
|5||RHP Nate Karns||4.10||4.24||115.0||8.4||3.8|
|*Matt Andriese and Mike Montgomery will likely start the year in place of the injured Cobb and Smyly. Matt Moore will regain a rotation spot once his recovery from 2014 Tommy John surgery is complete.|
Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Evan Longoria, 1.7 WAR/600 PA; Drew Smyly, 0.1 WAR/200 IP
Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Kevin Kiermaier, minus-3.4 WAR/600 PA; Jake McGee, minus-2.1 WAR/200 IP
Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: David DeJesus, 36 days
Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: Matt Moore/Alex Cobb/Alex Colome, 43 percent6
All three will likely start the season on the DL.
Best Offseason Move: Signing Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera isn’t exciting: He’s a below-average fielder with a league-average bat. In the middle infield, though, that’s a formula for league-average overall production. Compared with other free agents who settled for one-year contracts in the same salary range, Tampa Bay got good value.
|Player||Salary ($ Million)||Projected WAR|
Worst Offseason Move: Assuming waving good-bye to Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon when they finally left to pursue higher profiles and bigger paydays doesn’t count as a move, most of the team’s transactions require reserved judgment. Like the A’s, the Rays spent the winter trying to strike a difficult balance between competing now and restocking for the future to make up for a string of unsuccessful drafts. None of the sell-offs was an unmistakable misstep, so the proof will be in the prospects.
Greatest Team Strength: The rotation, potentially. At midseason, the Rays could be lining up Moore, Chris Archer, Cobb, Smyly, and Jake Odorizzi, which would more than match up with any other AL East team. In a darker timeline, though, they could still be counting the days until some of those guys can throw. Smyly, Cobb, and Colome have all dealt with injury or illness this spring, with Cobb’s nebulous forearm soreness the scariest complaint. It’s the latest in a series of hurdles that the perennial breakout candidate has had to clear, but unlike last year, when the rotation had enough padding to soften the impact of multiple early injuries, the quality of the current crop tails off quickly. If the Rays have to hand the ball often to someone further down the pitcher hierarchy than Karns, they won’t hit the high end of where their true talent could take them.
Greatest Team Weakness: There is some evidence that the old cliché about strength up the middle actually matters, and on defense, the Rays are weaker there than they have been historically (save for Yunel Escobar’s statistical implosion at shortstop last season). Cabrera at short for a full season is a frightening prospect, but Nick Franklin’s arm isn’t cut out for the left side of second. With Ben Zobrist in Oakland and Sean Rodriguez in Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay doesn’t have any attractive alternatives, so new manager Kevin Cash will have to hope the options he has hit enough to make up for missed ground balls.
Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: Steven Souza. Souza, the centerpiece (along with Rivera) of the Wil Myers trade, is about to be a 26-year-old rookie, a phrase that usually spells “low ceiling.” In Souza’s case, though, the projections say it spells a 20-20 season with walks and adequate defense in center, which would be enough to overcome his contact issues. The recently born-again Christian once was lost but now is found, as far as scouts are concerned, and one of the team’s most compelling stories will be the slow reveal of how his gaudy .350/.432/.590 Triple-A line from last season translates to Tampa Bay.
Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: In November 2011, the Rays made a starting catcher out of then-36-year-old career backup Jose Molina, giving him one of the strangest career trajectories of the expansion era. In November 2014, they released him, following a miserable offensive season and a knee injury that could end his career. So what did they do after wringing every run from Molina? They found another thirtysomething journeyman with the same receiving skill. Rivera is eight years younger than Molina, more capable at the plate, and better at blocking. In the Red Sox section, I mentioned that Vazquez was a run off the pace of the projected leader in framing value. That leader is Rivera, who tied Astros backup Hank Conger with a forecast for plus-29 runs per season. Rivera gives the Rays the biggest benefit of Molina with fewer of the drawbacks: Despite the middle-infield mess, UZR creator Mitchel Lichtman projects the Rays to be plus-48 in the field after factoring in Rivera’s contributions, which gives them the best projected defense in baseball.
Another stat to keep in mind, particularly before McGee fully recovers from elbow surgery and reclaims his closer role: Reliever Brad Boxberger had a 13.2 mph gap between his four-seamer and changeup last season — the third-biggest gulf, behind Mike Morin’s and Scott Kazmir’s. Big gaps and good fastballs lead to lots of whiffs, and Boxberger has delivered in that department. The righty has also shown a large reverse split in his small-sample career, holding lefties to a .239 wOBA but allowing a .322 mark to righties.
Off-Field Story Line: Aside from the team’s constricting payroll and owner Stu Sternberg’s constant maneuvering to escape an endless lease, there’s the watch for fallout from the end of the Friedman-Maddon era. Thus far, we don’t know how Cash will do things differently, aside from his preference for stable lineups, but once real games begin, we’ll be able to tell whether his tactical creativity measures up to Maddon’s. And once we’ve seen Matt Silverman work a full season, we’ll get a feel for whether Friedman’s knack for trades was transferrable to his closest confidantes.
Projected Record and Over/Under: 81-81 — UNDER. The Rays have almost aggressively grown boring since last summer. It’s not just the colorful manager who’s missing, but also the dominance of David Price, the all-over excellence of Zobrist, and the mystery of Myers. Boring isn’t necessarily bad, though, especially when the stands are empty regardless of the team’s entertainment value. The Rays didn’t make any obviously brilliant moves or any instantly regrettable ones this offseason. Nor are their strengths and weaknesses as obvious as those of the East’s other teams. They’re average-ish everywhere — sort the projected leaderboards in ascending or descending order, and the Rays barely bob one way or another, suspended between borderline irrelevance and borderline contention. If their rotation stays healthy, they’ll make a run; if it doesn’t, expect another slow start and another trade or two.
5. New York Yankees
|Yankees Projected Starting Lineup|
|1||CF Jacoby Ellsbury||L||.277/.333/.421||110||595|
|2||LF Brett Gardner||L||.258/.330/.399||105||630|
|3||RF Carlos Beltran||S||.256/.316/.434||108||455|
|4||1B Mark Teixeira||S||.229/.319/.422||107||525|
|5||C Brian McCann||L||.250/.315/.437||109||518|
|6||3B Chase Headley||S||.255/.341/.417||113||595|
|7||DH Garrett Jones||L||.245/.304/.447||108||350|
|8||2B Stephen Drew||L||.216/.290/.362||81||455|
|9||SS Didi Gregorius||L||.246/.304/.364||85||385|
|Yankees Projected Starting Rotation|
|1||RHP Masahiro Tanaka||3.39||3.37||190.0||8.3||1.8|
|2||LHP CC Sabathia||4.14||3.96||189.0||7.6||2.3|
|3||RHP Michael Pineda||3.73||3.79||170.0||7.4||2.1|
|4||RHP Nathan Eovaldi||4.39||4.25||159.0||6.5||2.6|
|5||LHP Chris Capuano*||4.36||4.26||37.0||7.3||2.9|
|*Adam Warren will likely start the year in place of the injured Capuano, while Ivan Nova could return midseason after rehabbing from 2014 Tommy John surgery.|
Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Stephen Drew, 3.4 WAR/600 PA; None
Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Chase Headley, minus-0.9 WAR/200 IP; Andrew Miller, minus-2.8 WAR/200 IP
Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Mark Teixeira, 44 days
Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: CC Sabathia, 57 percent
Best Offseason Move: I reserve the right to publicly pretend that I said something different, pending the progress of Nathan Eovaldi’s splitter, but for now I’ll say signing Headley. He’s projected for 4.0 WAR to Sandoval’s 3.4, in the same number of plate appearances. Headley is older, and his value is more dependent on defense, so no, he’s probably not better than Pablo. Still, for four years and a little less than half the money Sandoval got over five, Headley could be a relative bargain, particularly if Yankee Stadium continues to prop up his offense from his stronger left side.
Worst Offseason Move: Letting Brandon McCarthy leave. McCarthy wanted to re-sign with the Yankees — potentially at a discount — but New York deemed him to be out of its price range (as strange as that sounds). Instead, he went to the Dodgers, who in some respects are operating like the Yankees used to. New York’s inevitably injury-riddled depth chart would look a lot better with McCarthy’s name where Warren’s is.
Greatest Team Strength: In the past, one might have said “money,” but these days the Yankees aren’t spending as extravagantly, except on the margins. So while I hate to be a broken record, defense is the answer (followed by the Dellin Betances–Andrew Miller back of the bullpen). The Yankees slugged their way to wins for most of the millennium’s first decade, ranking below average on defense in every season from 2002 to 2009.7 Lately, they’ve made fielding a higher priority, which is reflected in this spring’s projected plus-35 rating from Lichtman. Correlation, causation, etc., but a spike in fielding skill immediately after Derek Jeter’s retirement probably isn’t a complete coincidence.
In 2005, the (95-win!) Yankees recorded a minus-142 UZR (and minus-115 DRS), almost 80 percent worse than the second-worst team in UZR’s 13-year history. That number deserves its own article.
Greatest Team Weakness: Age and injuries. Like a long-dormant plant putting out new roots, the Yankees are beginning to show signs of life: the fruits of the Didi Gregorius and Eovaldi trades; homegrown infielders Jose Pirela and Robert Refsnyder; 24-year-old reliever Chasen Shreve; and a couple of catchers. For now, though, and for the foreseeable future, this is still an old roster, with only one regular younger than 31. According to the BP injury database, the Yankees lost the fifth-most games to injury last season, the most in 2013, and the fourth-most over the last 10 seasons. For teams of a certain age, downside risk rises. And for the Yankees, injuries and sudden declines are an institutional hazard.
Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: Alex Rodriguez. (I’d say Tanaka, but the constant Russian roulette–like testing of his partially torn UCL is too stressful.) If the Yankees were grooming even half the intriguing young players currently in day care at Cubs camp, the last gasp of Rodriguez wouldn’t rate. On a team with almost nothing but players who are past their primes, though, the oldest of them all is fascinating. It’s not just the remote chance of a long-hoped-for heel turn, or the possibility that he’ll play well enough to silence the most sanctimonious sportswriters. It’s that a decade ago, during his Yankees MVP years, Rodriguez was Mike Trout with slightly fewer secondary skills — the most talented athlete I’ve ever regularly seen play in person. Here’s hoping his encouraging spring presages a season that will give us a few glimpses of that guy before he’s gone for good.
Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: Garrett Jones, the left-handed 1B/DH acquired in the Eovaldi trade to platoon with Teixeira and Rodriguez, is baseball’s reigning king of playing much more than he has any right to, given his stats and his skills. Here’s a list of every non–switch hitter who’s made at least 600 plate appearances over the past two seasons and had the platoon advantage in at least 85 percent of them:
|Name||Total PA||Platoon PA||Platoon %||wRC+|
Jones, you’ll notice, has the most PA of anyone on the list. He also has the lowest wRC+: Despite the fact that he’s facing opposite-handed pitchers almost exclusively, he’s been a below-average batter, overall. And he’s also a well-below-average first baseman and baserunner. To recap: Jones hasn’t done the one thing he’s paid to do — crush righties — since 2012, but he’s made almost 1,000 plate appearances anyway. For that, we salute him, and we hope he hits enough short-porch homers to keep his great gig going.
Off-Field Story Line: The possibility of a post-Jeter attendance crash. In my essay for Baseball Prospectus 2015, I wrote that the Yankees, by all rights, should have drawn far fewer fans in 2014. Historically, their fan base — accustomed to a steady supply of October adrenaline — has abandoned its luxury boxes at the first sign of adversity. True to form, the team’s 2013 attendance fell by 3,000 fans per home game, baseball’s sixth-biggest drop, despite Mariano Rivera’s retirement tour. But even though last year’s team never reached a 40 percent probability of winning the AL East — and fell below the 50 percent playoff odds point for good on June 22 — the Yankees bucked a leaguewide drop in attendance to rebound by 2,000 fans per game. That’s the Jeter effect: Whatever the 40-year-old Captain’s failings on the field, he was minting money for the franchise.
Without another well-timed retirement tour to mask their mediocrity, the Yankees are trying to ward off an attendance disaster by holding nostalgia-swathed ceremonies for every Yankee from the dynasty years, up to and including Luis Polonia Night. (Tickets on sale for September 21!) It will be fascinating to see whether their strategy works — and, if it doesn’t, whether they’ll stick to their new spending restraint any longer than they did their $189 million false ceiling.
Projected Record and Over/Under: 82-80 — UNDER. If the Yankees had players of the same skill but no-higher-than-normal injury risk, they’d deserve a higher spot. A rotation of Tanaka, Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and Eovaldi, rounded out by a combination of Capuano and Nova, could be the best in the division. But the odds of that group staying intact for any significant stretch are infinitesimal. Consider this: The Yankees have nine hitters projected to miss 25 games or more. By comparison, the Braves — a much younger team with only one regular age 31 or older — have none.
We can’t count on the new, fiscally conservative Yankees to pick up players at midseason, either. So we’re left with what we see: a team that would be better if we could roll back its collective odometer to a point several years in the past.