Saturday, March 30, 2013

A-Rod Out-earns Astros

Alex Rodriguez will make more money than all the Houston Astros combined.

That's crazy. One player is going to earn more than an entire team, and considering that baseball teams field 25-man rosters, that is quite impressive.

A-Rod is no longer a superstar, but he still gets paid like one. He's set to collect $29 million in 2013, making him the sport's highest paid player for the 13th straight season. The lowly Astros, by comparison, have trimmed their payroll to $25 million, equal to Cliff Lee's salary and easily the lowest in baseball. They've lost more than 100 games in each of the past two seasons and aren't expected to do much better after moving to the American League West.

Rodriguez's outlook isn't much brighter. He's expected to miss the entire first half as he works his way back from offseason hip surgery, and Brian Cashman acknowledged it's possible that the three-time MVP won't play at all this year.

 A-Rod isn't the only pricey player opening the season on the Disabled List, though. Teammate Mark Teixeira (price tag: $23.1 million) is on the mend until May with a strained wrist. Johan Santana ($24.6 million) might never pitch ago after going under the knife for a second shoulder surgery. Rodriguez's injury is serious, but the Yankees and their fans should be thankful (or not) that at least it isn't career-threatening.

But even if he comes roaring back with a monster second half, he still won't do enough to earn his paycheck. The market rate for a win above replacement is about $5 million these days, meaning Rodriguez would have to be worth six wins to justify his earnings. He hasn't had a season that good since 2008 and has averaged 3.6 bWAR per year since. Given his age (37), eroding skills and inability to stay healthy, it's safe to say he will be grossly overpaid until the day he retires.

Kyle Lohse Finds a Home

After months of hand-wringing, Kyle Lohse has finally found a home just in time for Opening Day. Lohse landed a three-year, $33 million deal from the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers hope he can help anchor a pitching staff that finished near the bottom of the league last year.

Lohse, who is represented by Scott Boras, didn't find a long line of suitors willing to overpay him for a career year. Though plenty of teams displayed interest in him, he refused to sign a one-year deal because he wanted to match or exceed Ryan Dempster's reasonable contract (two years, $26.5 mil from Boston).  Call me crazy, but I don't see how a man who's gone 30-11 over the past two seasons with a 3.11 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 3.18 K/BB ratio had to wait until the week before Opening Day to secure a job. Surely someone out there could use a pitcher like that.

At 34 he's a bit on the old side, but he doesn't have quite as much mileage on his arm as fellow 34 year-olds Barry Zito, Johan Santana and Mark Buehrle. He doesn't strike many guys out, but neither does Tim Hudson. He doesn't have much of an established track record, but that didn't stop C.J. Wilson from signing a five-year, $77.5 million dollar deal. Lohse may not be the ace his statistics suggest he is, but he's a great rotation stabilizer behind Yovani Gallardo with an uncanny ability to limit his mistakes and locate his pitches. Lohse finds a way to overachieve and is a lot like Ryan Vogelsong in that sense.

I get that he has red flags, like BABiPs that are screaming to be corrected, but which pitcher doesn't? CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez have all taken on big workloads. Stephen Strasburg's mechanics makes him seems like an injury waiting to happen. Tim Lincecum, Josh Beckett, and Jon Lester have all lost some zip on their fastballs. Starting pitchers are inherently a risky bunch, but the hate with Lohse went too far. At worst, he's merely an average starting pitcher/mid-rotation innings eater. At best, he's All-Star caliber hurler worthy of Cy Young consideration. What's so bad about that?

He's not a difference-maker but still amounts to a nice addition for Milwaukee. He looked good in his first start of the spring on Thursday and should be good to go in two weeks. His first start will likely come against the St. Louis Cardinals, his former team, the weekend after next.

NL East Preview

1st Place--Washington Nationals
2012 Record: 98-64
2012 Pythagorean: 96-66
2013 Projected: 102-60
Tom Verducci showed how 100-win teams are dying out in the modern game, but if any team has the potential to crack the century mark in the win column, its the Nationals. Washington posted the best record in baseball last year and returns fully intact (minus Mike Morse), another year older and wiser. This is a team that has to be considered World Series favorites because it has no holes. The Nats have quality bats top-to-bottom, speed, power and on-base ability. The only weak spot is catcher (Kurt Suzuki), but hopefully he hits so poorly that Wilson Ramos earns a chance to win the job back. Their rotation (Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Dan Haren, Jordan Zimmermann, and Ross Detwiler) is the best in baseball, and their bullpen is just as filthy with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen setting up Rafael Soriano. Full seasons from Strasburg and Bryce Harper (and hopefully Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth) will push this team over the top.

2nd Place--Atlanta Braves
2012 Record: 94-68
2012 Pythagorean: 92-70
2013 Projected: 91-71
The Braves boast a young, exciting lineup loaded with tons of speed and power. Justin Upton and B.J. Upton are the key additions that will balance out Atlant's southpaw mashers with their righthanded pop. Jason Heyward took a big step forward last year to get back on the Ken Griffey Jr. track scouts predicted him to follow. Dan Uggla must improve after submitting the worst season of his career last year. Freddie Freeman should get better after putting his eye issues behind him. Gerald Laird will be forced to catch on a regular basis until Brian McCann returns, and even then there's a chance that McCann won't be the perennial All-Star we're used to seeing. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons plays stellar defense but will be tested in his first full big league season. However it's important to remember that Michael Bourn, Chipper Jones and Martin Prado and their combined 14 bWAR will not return in 2013. The rotation looks good on paperwith the timeless Tim Hudson leading the way, flanked by Mike Minor, Paul Maholm, and budding ace Kris Medlen. Medlen pitched like Sandy Koufax in a dozen starts last year, but it remains to be seen how he'll hold up over the course of a full season. The staff will get a nice boost if/when Brandon Beachy returns from Tommy John, probably near the end of the summer. Atlanta has what is arguably the best bullpen in baseball with Jordan Walden joining Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Eric O'Flaherty. The Braves are going to be tough to beat in the late innings of close ballgames and shouldn't have much of a problem making it back to the postseason.

3rd Place--Philadelphia Phillies
2012 Record: 81-81
2012 Pythagorean: 81-81
2013 Projected: 87-75
The Phillies were massive disappointments last year, when injuries ruined their roster and resulted in a .500 season. It's easy to write them off as too old and injury-prone (like the Yankees), but don't forget that they're just one year removed from a 102 win season. Philadelphia is still a dangerous, if not top-heavy, ballclub loaded with veteran talent. The offense is an interesting mix of aging stars and unproven youngsters. The infield triumvirate of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins are all past their primes, but if they all stay healthy then they're going to be productive. Carlos Ruiz will return from his suspension at the end of the month to provide an offensive lift behind the plate, even if there's no chance he replicates his sensational 2012. Everybody's saying this is the year Domonic Brown breaks out, and one look at his spring training numbers confirms the hype. The outfield (Brown, Ben Revere, and Laynce Nix) is going to miss Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, though Revere provides a heavy dose of speed and defense as a homeless' man's Michael Bourn. Don't expect much out of newcomers Michael Young and Delmon Young. Philly's rotation is still a three-headed monster with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee all capable of winning a Cy Young award, though Halladay is coming off a poor season and hasn't looked the same in spring training. His age and heavy workloads may have finally caught up to him. Lee pitched much better last year than his 6-9 record indicates and should see his win total bounce back in 2013. Jonathan Papelbon was terrific in his NL debut, but Charlie Manuel needs to deploy him properly. I don't think Philadelphia will make the playoffs, but one has to acknowledge that the talent is there for a 90 win season and a postseason berth.

4th Place--New York Mets
2012 Record: 74-88
2012 Pythagorean: 75-87
2013 Projected: 75-87
As bad as the depleted Yankees look right now, they'll still be better than their crosstown rivals. The last half-decade has not been kind to the team in Flushing, and this season doesn't figure to be any different. The Mets have a nice infield and several premier prospects, but that's not going to cut it in a loaded NL East. 23 year-old Ruben Tejada held his own as the everyday shortstop last year, but his lack of power makes him Elvis Andrus without the wheels. David Wright returned to form last year after a down 2011, but his health woes in spring training lead me to believe he might struggle again in 2013. Slugging first baseman Ike Davis is one of baseball's best kept secrets and should have better luck after posting a .246 BABiP last year. Now if he can just figure out how to hit lefties... He and Lucas Duda are coming into their primes and will be counted on to support Wright in the meat of New York's order. Without Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey, the rotation lacks a true number one. Jonathan Niese was great last year, but he's no ace. Neither is the ever-underrated Shaun Marcum, who missed time with an elbow strain last year and will open the season on the Disabled List. Young power-pitcher Matt Harvey needs to step up and fill the void, though he'll likely face an adjustment period at some point this season. He could be the best pitcher on the Mets this year, or he could just as easily go bust when big league hitters start figuring him out. I can't say I like New York's bullpen, not that it's going to make much of a difference either way. the Mets have the talent to be a .500 team at best, but I see them enduring a fifth consecutive losing season. At least they don't have to worry about finishing in last place.

5th Place--Florida Marlins
2012 Record: 69-93
2012 Pythagorean: 68-94
2013 Projected: 57-105
There's no way this team doesn't lose at least 100 games. Less than a year after spending money like a drunken playboy in a Vegas casino, the Marlins dismantled their roster piece by piece, trading away all their talent Harry Frazee-style. Now, all that's left is the wildly inconsistent Ricky Nolasco, a disgruntled Giancarlo Stanton (who may not see a decent pitch to hit again for the rest of the decade), and Twittaholic Logan Morrison. I envision many solo home runs in Stanton's future, for the basepaths will be just as empty as the seats in Miami's shiny new baseball stadium. The mass exodus began during the summer when the losses began to mount and it became clear the Marlins weren't going to contend for a playoff spot. Hanley Ramirez took his fading star to Hollywood. Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante packed their bags for Motown. A struggling Gaby Sanchez got dumped on the Pittsburgh Pirates. After the season ended Heath Bell was banished to the Arizona desert. Ozzie Guillen got canned. Then, to top it all off, the Fish pulled off a fire sale that rivaled Boston's late summer housecleaning. Miami jettisoned its remaining stars--Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle--north of the border in a blockbuster 12-player trade that rocked the baseball world and ignited a media firestorm. It's no wonder Stanton wants to be traded, too.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Heat's Streak by the Numbers

James and the Heat took flight (Boston Globe)
Unless you've been living under a rock since Groundhog Day, you probably heard how the Miami Heat put together an insane winning streak that reached 27 games. That's the second longest such stretch in NBA history behind only the 33-gamer submitted by the 1971-'72 Los Angeles Lakers. Those Lakers, coached by Bill Sharman and led by Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Pat Riley, were a team of destiny that won 69 regular season games and the NBA Finals. Four decades later, the Heat have crafted a modern day parallel to LA's legendary run, needing only another NBA title to cement their status as one of the greatest teams of all-time.

This was the kind of dominance Riley, LeBron James, and millions of basketball fans envisioned when King James declared he was taking his talents to South Beach three summers ago. From February 2nd through March 26th, a span of 53 days, the Miami Heat were undefeated. That's nearly one-third of the season. The streak began with a routine win over the Toronto Raptors to close out a four game road trip.  More than seven weeks later, the Heat's streak continued to grow. They had beaten just about every team in the NBA over that span. No matter where they went, no matter who they played, the outcome was always the same.

That is, until the Chicago Bulls stopped the streak by beating the Heat, 101-97 last night. The Bulls were without Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Richard Hamilton, and Marco Belinelli due to injuries, forcing Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer to pick up the slack. They did, combining for 49 points and 24 rebounds to lead Chicago past Miami. The Heat fell behind early, as they so often did during their winning streak, only this time they did not recover. Miami had not lost since February 1st, when the Indiana Pacers trounced them 102-89.

Here are some key facts and figures from Miami's epic winning streak:
  • This winning streak marks the longest of the three-point era, surpassing the 22 game winning streak compiled by Tracy McGrady's Houston Rockets during the 2007-'08 season
  • The Heat were 29-14 (.674) before their streak began. They held a half game lead over the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference and had the fourth-best record in basketball. They are now 56-15 (.788), own the NBA's top record and hold an 11.5 game cushion over the Knickerbockers
  • Miami's previous longest winning streak of the season lasted just six games andwas achieved twice (from 11/15-12/1 and 12/15-12/26). The longest streak of their Big 3 era had been 12 games from 11/29-12/18 in 2010
  • The Heat averaged 105.3 points per game and allowed 97.1 per game during their winning streak
  • The most points they scored and allowed came in the one game during their streak that extended beyond regulation; their 141-129 double-overtime triumph over the Sacramento Kings on February 26th
  • The fewest points they scored and allowed were 86 and 67, respectively, in their February 21st win over Da Bulls
  • Only three of Miami's wins were decided by one possession (three points or less).  Their margin of victory exceeded ten points in 17 of their wins
  • Their closest win was by one point over the Orlando Magic, of all teams, on Wednesday, March 6th. Miami rallied from a three-point deficit with 40 seconds remaining to win 97-96 and extend the win streak to 16
  • Miami's most lopsided victory was a 32-point pasting of the Charlotte Bobcats (who else?) last Sunday
  • LeBron James played all 27 games and averaged 27 points (how fitting), 8.1 rebounds and 8 assists per game, earning the slight edge over Kevin Durant in the MVP race. King James shot 57.5 percent from the floor, 37.4 percent from downtown and posted an average GameScore of 25.5. He also enjoyed a pair of triple-doubles on top of 13 regular double-doubles. LBJ logged at least 30 minutes in all 27 wins and had just four games in which he failed to make at least half his field goal attempts
  • Dwyane Wade missed two games but played his best ball of the season during the streak, averaging 22.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. He drilled 53.6 percent of his field goal attempts and posted an average Game Score of 19.4
  • Chris Bosh also missed two games, but his numbers pale in comparison to the aforementioned dynamic duo. With Wade and James at full strength, Bosh was once again relegated to third-wheel status. He averaged 15.6 points and 6 rebounds per game while converting 52.4 percent of his field goal attempts and recording four double-doubles
The Heat try to launch a new win streak tomorrow night in New Orleans when they take the court against the hapless Hornets.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

AL West Preview

1st Place--Los Angeles Angels
2012 Record: 89-73
2012 Pythagorean: 88-74
2013 Projected: 92-70
After starting last year 7-15 with Mike Trout toiling in the minors and Albert Pujols mired in the worst slump of his career, the Halos dug themselves out of an early hole and produced the best record in baseball from that point forward. Though their wretched April cost them a playoff berth in 2012, the Angels are poised to make the postseason after inking Josh Hamilton--the most coveted position player on the free agent market--to a five-year, $125 million deal. Though the former MVP is on the wrong side of 30 and will likely regress and/or get hurt following a career year in 2012, he'll provide a heavy dose of lefthanded power LA so desperately craves. That said, don't be surprised if Hamilton goes bust and Torii Hunter, now with the Tigers, produces more value in 2013. Mike Scoscia will have the pleasure of filling out a lineup card that features baseball's best all-around player (Trout), baseball's most exciting player (Hamilton) and one of the best hitters of all-time in Pujols. Trout figures to slide a bit following his historic season, but at least his talent won't be wasted in the minor leagues. Pujols shrugged off a slow start to bat .312/.374/.589 from May 15th onward, proving talk about his decline to be premature. Expect similar numbers in year two of his gargantuan contract. Slugger Mark Trumbo has been a mess since the end of July, but I think he reverts to his mashing ways in his age-27 season. I could also see Peter Bourjos breaking out. Jered Weaver, the only American League pitcher to finish in the top five of the Cy Young voting in each of the past three years, is a bona fide ace even though his strikeout rate has plunged from 9.3 K/9 in 2010 to 6.8 K/9 last year. C.J Wilson will improve upon his first season with the Angels when he takes advantage of the run support boost and friendly home ballpark. Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson are intriguing additions to the starting rotation, though I'm guessing most Angels fans would rather have seen their team keep Dan Haren and Zack Greinke. However, I don't think they'll miss Ervin Santana and Vernon Wells too much. The bullpen should get a nice boost from Ryan Madson, but it remains to be seen how effective he'll be after sitting out all of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery. Given how much worse the Rangers got over the winter, the AL West is theirs for the taking.

2nd Place--Texas Rangers
2012 Record: 93-69
2012 Pythagorean: 91-71
2013 Projected: 88-74
As if blowing their division lead on the regular season’s final day wasn’t miserable enough, the Texas Rangers followed up their late-season collapse with a lean winter. They waved goodbye when sluggers Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli signed with new teams. They parted ways with veteran leader and fan favorite Michael Young. They winced when Nelson Cruz‘s name surfaced in the latest PED scandal. They whiffed on Justin Upton. Talk about a rough offseason. Faced with limited options and suddenly short on offense, the Rangers turned to Lance Berkman out of desperation. Five years ago that would have been a great get for them, but Big Puma is 37 and doesn't appear to have much left in the tank after needing four separate DL stints last year. He's just one of many Rangers at risk for disappointing seasons. Texas paced the American League in runs and hits last year, and while their lineup is still formidable there's no way that happens again this year. Adrian Beltre is their best hitter, and he'll be 34 two weeks from now. Ian Kinsler is on the wrong side of 30, too, and second basemen age horribly. Cruz will turn 33 and his best days are probably behind him. At 36, A.J. Pierzynski can't possibly repeat his career year and will probably wear down over the course of a long Texas summer. The offense will probably be fine, but there's a lot of downside risk here and not much upside. Yu Darvish made adjustments toward the end of last year and is going to have a big sophomore season (like Daisuke Matsuzaka did). He needs to cut down on his walks, but could win 20 games and the Cy Young award even though the Ballpark in Arlington will likely suppress his numbers. He anchors a strong rotation that also features Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, and Alexi Ogando. Joe Nathan proved he's still an elite closer in his Texas debut last year, making the All-Star team and saving 37 games. Joakim Soria, a former All-Star closer with the Kansas City Royals, will set him up. The Rangers certainly have enough talent to win 90+ games again and challenge the top spot in the division, but I see them taking a small step back in 2013.

3rd Place--Oakland A's
2012 Record: 94-68
2012 Pythagorean: 92-70
2013 Projected: 83-79
I still can't believe these guys won the AL West last year, especially since they ended May seven games below .500. Maybe that's why I can't shake the feeling that they just got red-hot for four months and will probably fall back to earth in 2013 (not quite like the Orioles, but similar). The A's are woefully short on offense without Chris Carter, Stephen Drew, and Jonny Gomes, though the middle of the order has some potential. Yoenis Cespedes is a Vladimir Guerrero-type who can hit the ball out of a canyon and is an MVP-candidate-in-the-making, but I'm not totally sold on Josh Reddick as an All-Star caliber player just yet. Chris Young brings a nice power/speed combo, but it's worth noting that he's a .224/.311/.409 hitter away from Chase Field. Jemile Weeks is almost guaranteed to bounce back from a miserable year in which his BABiP cratered at .256. The bottom half of their lineup is a disaster, so runs will be in short supply. That means Oakland will have to rely on its elite pitching staff, which ranked second in ERA last year. With Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, and Dan Straily all poised to build off successful 2012s, the young rotation is brimming with upside. Brandon McCarthy will be missed, but Oakland is hoping Brett Anderson can finally stay healthy after averaging just 13 starts per year over the past three. He's demonstrated the ability to pitch like an ace, so a full season from him would go a long way towards boosting his team's playoff chances (but I wouldn't count on it). The bullpen looks stellar on paper, and the defense is solid, too. The A's could be a great team again if the starting pitching improves and Cespedes makes the leap to superstardom, but I see them settling into the 80-85 win range and missing the postseason.

4th Place--Seattle Mariners
2012 Record: 75-87
2012 Pythagorean: 77-85
2013 Projected: 73-89
The Mariners have lacked adequate firepower for quite some time now--you'd have to go back to the end of the Bush administration to find the last time Seattle didn't finish last among AL teams in runs scored. That's going to change this year after taking on veteran hitters Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez, and Jason Bay. Ibanez and Bay are bench players at this stage in their careers, but Morales and Morse add much-needed pop to the middle of the order. As the cornerstone of Seattle's lineup, Jesus Montero must (and will) improve upon his disappointing 2012 (.685 OPS, -0.2 bWAR). He's just 23 and still has room to grow, as do Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak. Moving in Safeco's fences will help these young hitters, but not enough to make much of a difference. The Mariners have one of the best pitchers around in Felix Hernandez, but he seems to be at risk for a down year after receiving a mammoth contract extension and throwing more innings than any other hurler since 2009. Seattle's rotation is a mess with him and would be downright unwatchable without him. M's are stocked with young pitching talent that could arrive in the Show later this year, but by the time they're ready to contribute it will too late to improve Seattle's non-existent playoff chances. They're still rebuilding and at least another year or two away from making a serious run at one of the wild card spots.

5th Place--Houston Astros
2012 Record: 55-107
2012 Pythagorean: 59-103
2013 Record: 58-104
Welcome to the American League, boys. It's going to eat you alive.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

AL Central Preview

1st Place--Detroit Tigers
2012 Record: 88-74
2012 Pythagorean: 87-75
2013 Projected: 92-70
The reigning American League champs should have no trouble winning their third straight division title in 2013. On paper, they're clearly the best team in the division and only got better over the offseason. Victor Martinez returns from a lost 2012 to join Motown mashers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the heart of the order. Letting Delmon Young walk is addition by subtraction, whereas signing Torii Hunter is simply pure addition (unless the 37 year-old falls off a cliff). Austin Jackson quietly blossomed into one of the sport's top center fielders after adopting a more patient approach at the plate and could have an Andrew McCutchen-kind-of-year. I think Alex Avila bounces back after hitting .243 with nine home runs last year, but don't see him returning to 2011 form (neither will Jhonny Peralta). The Tigers have the best pitcher on the planet in Justin Verlander and a strong rotation to back him up. Max Scherzer got off to a rocky start last year but still posted the best strikeout rate in the majors last year. What's more, he compiled a sparkling 2.53 ERA after June 13th, better than Verlander's 2.61 mark over the same stretch. I say it every spring, but this might be the year he finally takes the leap. Detroit re-upped with Anibal Sanchez for five years and $88 million, which is a bit pricey for a number three but not bad considering he's pitched about as well as Zack Greinke (who got much more than that) over the past three seasons. Don't worry about Doug Fister's spring training woes--he'll be fine. Overall, the Tigers are deeper and more balanced than last year, so I'd be shocked if anyone else wins the AL Central.

2nd Place--Chicago White Sox
2012 Record: 85-77
2012 Pythagorean: 88-74
2013 Projected: 83-79
Robin Ventura's White Sox spent most of the season in first place, only to falter at the finish line and cough up the division in the season's final week. Chicago had a quiet offseason, letting Kevin Youkilis and A.J. Pierzynski walk but keeping the rest of their roster intact. Youk will be missed at the hot corner, esepcially since his replacement (Jeff Keppinger) offers little power and average defense at best. Pierzynski's departure opens the door for Tyler Flowers to play behind the plate everyday and infuse some youth into a veteran lineup. 37 year-old Paul Konerko has shown no signs of slowing down and should continue to be a force in the heart of Chicago's order along with Alex Rios and Adam Dunn, both of whom rebounded from miserable 2011s. In the outfield, Dayan Viciedo has 30-homer potential and Alejandro de Aza is a rock solid leadoff hitter/center fielder. The rotation is headed by two aces--2012 breakout Chris Sale and former Cy Young winner Jake Peavy--both of whom must sustain their success if Chicago is going to have any chance at keeping up with the Tigers this year. The oft-injured Peavy, 31, is hardly a sure thing given that he averaged just 17 starts per year from 2009-2011. Sale, soon to be 24, is a Verducci effect candidate after approaching 200 innings in his first full season as a starter. John Danks, Gavin Floyd, and Jose Quintana round out the rest of the rotation with Hector Santiago ready to step in if needed. The bullpen looks good for the most part, but Addison Reed needs to be more consistent if he wants to hang on to his closer's gig.

3rd Place--Cleveland Indians
2012 Record: 68-94
2012 Pythagorean: 64-98
2013 Projected: 80-82
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Tribe last year, but they enter 2013 with significantly more talent. They upgraded their outfield outfield by signing Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, signing slugging corner infielder Mark Reynolds to a cheap one-year deal and trading for Trevor Bauer, who projects to be a future ace. Cleveland is stacked up the middle: catcher Carlos Santana is primed for a breakout in his age 27 season, Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera are a great double-play tandem, and Bourn is the best defensive center fielder in baseball not named Mike Trout. All four could be All-Stars this year, and it seems safe to say the Indians won't finish second-to-last in runs scored like they did last year. Of course,  it doesn't really matter how many more times they cross home plate if Cleveland finishes dead last in ERA again. I can't say I love their rotation, which lacks a true number one and two, but the good news is that Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Tomlin have nowhere to go but up. If they can at least pitched as well as they did in 2011, then Cleveland will be in much better shape. Zach McAllister showed some promise as a rookie last year and could be a nice boon if he continues to develop. With veteran skipper Terry Francona at the helm, Cleveland now has one of the best managers of the past decade at the reins. The Indians aren't talented enough to surpass the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central but have the pieces to move above .500 for the first time since 2007.

4th Place--Kansas City Royals
2012 Record: 72-90
2012 Pythagorean: 74-88
2013 Projected: 77-85
Kansas City is loaded with young talent but made a critical blunder in trading future superstar Wil Myers for James Shields, a number two pitcher with a career 4.67 ERA pitching outside of a dome. He's not going to be the difference-maker GM Dayton Moore is expecting, so KC will have to rely on continued growth and maturity from its young core of position players. Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Salvador Perez, and Eric Hosmer in particular all need to be better than they were last year (so does Jeff Francoeur, who followed up his strong Royals debut by reminding everyone just how bad he really is). Billy Butler and Alex Gordon just have to keep doing their thing. Whereas the Royals' starting lineup is teeming with potential and upside, their starting rotation is staffed by so-so veterans like Bruce Chen, Ervin Santana, and Jeremy Guthrie. Shields is a lock to provide 220 quality innings, but I see him taking a substantial step back after moving out of the pitcher's haven known as Tropicana Field. Kansas City boasts a bullpen full of live arms, none of whom seem capable of developing into usable starting pitchers. The Royals could have a winning season if everything goes their way, but that's not going to be enough to snap their 27-year playoff drought.

5th Place--Minnesota Twins
2012 Record: 66-96
2012 Pythagorean: 68-94
2013 Projected: 67-95
The Twins were the Junior Circuit's worst team in 2011 and 2012, but lucky for them the Houston Astros switched leagues and will spare them from claiming that dubious distinction for a third straight season. Thanks to a  Harmon Killebrew-type year from slugger Josh Willingham and rebounds from Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Ryan Doumit, the Twins fielded a decent lineup last year. Speedy outfielders Denard Span and Ben Revere will be missed, especially on defense. The Twins are never going to put up big offensive numbers so long as their playing half their games at Target Field. They need to be built around strong starting pitching, an asset that was in short supply last year. Breakout Scott Diamond was the only hurler to make more than 20 starts or complete more than 110 innings. Ron Gardenhire is counting on Diamond to be the ace of the staff, but Diamond is a mid-rotation starter at best. Furthermore, his complete and utter inability to miss bats (4.7 K/9 last year) makes him a likely bust candidate. Unlike last year, he figures to have some help in the rotation. GM Terry Ryan acquired Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey, and Kevin Correia to fill out the staff, and while none of those names are exciting at least they are all capable big league pitchers. That's not saying much, but it represents a clear upgrade over last year's soft-tossing crew of Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing, and Carl Pavano. Minnesota fans might as well start thinking about football season, because their baseball team isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Friday, March 22, 2013

AL East Preview

1st Place--Toronto Blue Jays
2012 Record: 73-89
2012 Pythagorean: 74-88
2013 Projected: 94-68
It's been 20 years since Joe Carter crushed one of the most memorable moon shots in baseball history. In the two decades that followed, Toronto hasn't made a single postseason appearance or won more than 88 games, falling from its perch atop the AL East into the middle of the pack. That's about to change. A pair of blockbuster trades brought All-Stars Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey north of the border to join two of the league's top power hitters (Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion), the next Ryan Braun (Brett Lawrie), and a budding ace (Brandon Morrow). In the span of a few short weeks, GM Alex Anthopoulos transformed his ballclub from also-rans into World Series favorites. Toronto's rotation boasts five frontline starters and its lineup is loaded, putting the Jays in a great position to take advantage of their weakened division rivals. That said, they haven't won anything yet. After what happened to the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Angels last year, it's important to remember that winning the winter doesn't always translate to winning the regular season. Anthopoulos raided his farm system to acquire established big league talent, so the moves better pay off.

2nd Place--Tampa Bay Rays
2012 Record: 90-72
2012 Pythagorean: 95-67
2013 Projected: 92-70
With plenty of pitching and just enough offense to scrape by, the Rays are like the Junior Circuit's answer to the San Francisco Giants. Even without "Big Game" James Shields, Tampa Bay still has an incredible starting rotation headed by AL Cy Young winner David Price. Price is flanked by 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson and two promising arms (Alex Cobb and Matt Moore) looking to build on strong rookie showings. The bullpen and defense is just as strong, but the Rays will be a bit short on offense again this year, especially after losing B.J. Upton to free agency. A full season from Evan Longoria will help, but bringing in the likes of Yunel Escobar, James Loney and Kelly Johnson doesn't figure to add much pop. They could really use a breakthrough from Desmond Jennings, but he looks like the second coming of Upton in that he's a toolsy outfielder who strikes out a lot. Tampa does have Wil Myers waiting in the wings, and he's good enough to provide a Bryce Harper-type impact if/when they promote him to the Show. Joe Maddon is one of the best managers around and will find a way to guide Tampa Bay to another 90-win season.

3rd Place--Boston Red Sox
2012 Record: 69-93
2012 Pythagorean: 74-88
2013 Projected: 87-75
I've talked extensively about the Red Sox in this space before, and at this point I don't have too much more to say. GM Ben Cherington had his work cut out for him after dumping Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett on the Los Angeles Dodgers last August, but he's done more than enough to help Boston get back to its winning ways in 2013. As always, the Red Sox have assembled a potent lineup that will probably rank at or near the top of the league in runs scored. There's a nice blend of speed (Shane Victorino and Jacoby Ellsbury, who's going to have a monster year) and power (David Ortiz, Will Middlebrooks, and Mike Napoli, who was built for Fenway Park). Ryan Dempster is a solid addition to John Farrell's starting rotation, which should get bounce back years from Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and (dare I say) John Lackey. The bullpen is sneaky-good, especially if Andrew Bailey avoids the Disabled List and Alfredo Aceves can get out of his own head.  Some see 2013 as a bridge year, but with good health and positive regression to the mean, Boston has a decent chance of contending for one of the two Wild Card berths this year.

4th Place--New York Yankees
2012 Record: 95-67
2012 Pythagorean: 95-67
2013 Projected: 82-80
The Yanks sure got old in a hurry. The season hasn't even started yet, and they're already stretched thin because of injuries to Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson, meaning runs are going to be hard to come by this spring. Their catching situation (Ian Stewart and Francisco Cervelli splitting time) is laughable. Derek Jeter couldn't defend his position before fracturing his ankle. The rotation consists of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and a bunch of question marks named Andy Pettitte (old), Phil Hughes (injury-prone)and Ivan Nova (just plain bad). Mariano Rivera and Ichiro Suzuki are on their last legs. The Yankees are going to start slow as they always do, only this time they'll be too old and banged-up to make a full recovery. Given New York's lack of depth and minor league talent, I wouldn't be surprised to see Joe Girardi penciling Bleacher Creatures into his lineup card come August.

5th Place--Baltimore Orioles
2012 Record: 93-69
2012 Pythagorean: 82-80
2013 Projected: 76-86
Baltimore stunned the baseball world by snapping its 15-year playoff drought last year, but I predict a return to mediocrity in 2013. I didn't buy their fluky success last year, and even though they proved me wrong I'm not buying their success this year. Call me stubborn if you will, but the Orioles won an ungodly amount of one-run games last year. That's not going to happen again. Furthermore, GM Dan Duquette failed to improve his team over the winter, unless you believe signing Jair Jurrjens makes a rotation better (I don't). Much like the Kansas City Royals, Baltimore is banking on continued improvement from its young core of stars: Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Manny Machado, and Dylan Bundy. While I like their lineup a lot (Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy and Nick Markakis are good, too), their lack of accomplished starting pitching is a cause for concern. Buck Showalter has just one hurler--Wei-Yin Chen--who won more than nine games and threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title last season. Chen enjoyed a solid rookie campaign but hardly qualifies as an ace, something the O's desperately need but haven't had since Mike Mussina signed with New York. Bundy has that kind of potential, but the 20 year-old needs more season and will begin the season Double-A. The bullpen was phenomenal last year but is going to be overtaxed if Showalter can't squeeze enough quality innings out of his rotation.