March 28, 2014
AL West 2014 Preseason Preview
In the week leading up to Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus is conducting a division-by-division dialogue, asking and answering five questions about each team. Below, R.J. Anderson and Jason Wojciechowski discuss the American League West.
R.J. Anderson: Let the record show that I (perhaps foolishly) like Freese's chances of improving upon his 2013. At the same time, I think Pujols has the best chance of rebounding. His days of dealing with plantar fasciitis should be behind him, and that ought to lead to improved performance. Pujols didn't forget to hit. He was just dealing with some debilitating foot issues.
Jason Wojciechowski: I don't see any reason to disagree with R.J. on Pujols. He's 34 one way or another, but the foot problems had clearly turned him from “El Hombre” into “El Hamburguesa.” Forget running the bases or playing defense—how about having a solid base on which to plant as you take a mighty hack at the ball? Hamilton is at the other end for me, though less because I think he's awful or through (he still managed 2.6 WARP last year) than because I can't conceive of Freese managing to be even worse than he was. Maybe he won't “bounce back” in the sense of returning to his 2012 glory days, but I think the gap between 2014 and 2013 WARPs will be bigger for Freese than Hamilton.
2) Who is the Angels' starting right fielder come August 1?
R.J.: Right now, it's some configuration of Kole Calhoun and J.B. Shuck. The Angels don't have a prospect to put out there, or even one to part with for an upgrade. Besides, even if they did, wouldn't they use those pieces to upgrade the pitching staff? Unless a sweet offer falls into their hands (i.e. the Dodgers surrendering Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, or Carl Crawford for nada) then it's probably going to be Calhoun or some underwhelming veteran option.
JW: Mike Trout. By August, the Angels will have given up on the idea of fielding an outfield and will instead be playing Trout in right-center and Hamilton in left-center. Grant Green will be the first full-time starting fifth infielder in history.
I'm hearing the editors' yelling in my head. Fine. It's Colby Rasmus, who will reject a sizeable but not overwhelming contract offer from Toronto in June and be traded at the deadline for Grant Green and Cam Bedrosian.
R.J.: Trumbo. I liked the Skaggs and Santiago additions, and I'm a little apprehensive about Trumbo's defense in left field, but I think he's going to hit enough to be passable. The best-case scenario for Skaggs is a middle-of-the-rotation type, while Santiago is likely a back-end guy. At most that's, what, a 1.5-win average? Trumbo's topped that in each of the past three seasons. My guess is he'll make it four.
JW: It's the Trumbaco all the way. He's a low-average, low-OBP hitter, which limits his value more than his questionable defense does, but that's also been what he is for three years now. If pitchers haven't figured it out yet, when are they going to?
Given the attrition rate for arms, by the way, I might bet on Trumbo out-WARPing Skaggs and Santiago combined, forget average, at, say, 3-1.
4) Is Mike Trout the closest we can get to a baseball Teen Wolf?
R.J.: Not even close. Teen Wolf united everyone—even different species—toward a common goal. Trout has the potential to do that down the road, but the MVP arguments have been too divisive; he's closer to the loup-garou than he is Teen Wolf.
JW: R.J.'s Teen Wolf knowledge is sadly limited to the Michael J. Fox vehicle that was released at least 12 years before he (R.J.) was born. Factoring in the glossy beautiful-people-overload MTV series, it's clear that Trout is already light years beyond Teen Wolf. After all, can you name Trout's wolfsbane or mountain ash? American League pitchers sure can't.
5) Should this season fall apart like last year, do the Angels make a change at manager, GM, or both?
R.J.: Despite the blockbuster deals, I think Jerry Dipoto is a savvy guy who can run a successful team. He's more into advanced statistics than people realize, and I suspect that he and a new manager would be more likely to succeed than Mike Scioscia and a new GM. My guess is that the Angels would take that same gamble, particularly if ownership was behind the Pujols and Hamilton deals.
JW: General managers don't get fired anymore. (Hi Ruben!) Eighty percent of a manager's job is maintaining tranquility in the clubhouse, 15 percent is calling for the right reliever, and five percent is getting canned at the opportune moment. It would be sad to see Scioscia go, but the blow would be softened by the great fun of watching him work with Kevin Towers in Arizona for the next 10 years. Sadly for us all, especially beanball war profiteers, I think the Angels will do fine this year and Scioscia will outlast Towers in their present jobs.
PECOTA Team Projections
R.J.: The Exposure, you mean? It's hard to judge this because the A's have multiple pitching injuries, which has catapulted Tommy Milone and Jesse Chavez into the rotation. Those guys are what, no. 5s at best? Parker is a fair degree better than that, so I'll say this is a sizable downgrade.
JW: The bright side: Among the 145 pitchers with 100 innings or more last year, Milone ranked 71st in FRA; same stat, lower the sample to 40 innings (369 pitchers), and Chavez ranked 18th. Chavez' ratios were on point and his FIP outperformed his ERA by 0.88. This is apparently all thanks to a new cutter, which makes you wonder why I never learned to throw the damn thing. Milone, meanwhile, has apparently added a two-seam fastball to his extensive repertoire of indistinguishable pitches. All that said, the essentially healthy Jarrod Parker (in his middle 26 starts, cutting out his first and last three) had a 3.06 ERA in 2013, and even if you can dream on no. 3 (Milone) or no. 4 (Chavez) upside, you're still talking about probably a 1.0 to 1.5 runs per nine difference.
2) Is John Jaso a catcher? He cut his hair, you know.
R.J.: He's a bright dude. I had no doubt that he'd upgrade his appearance. I don't consider Jaso a great catcher, and the concussion stuff scares me—not just for baseball-related purposes, but also his long-term health. I will say that it's interesting that the A's, who so often set trends, have worked counterculture with catcher defense; first with Jaso, then with Stephen Vogt. What does that say (if anything) about their thoughts on the value of framing?
JW: It says they really like his bat. Actually, what it probably says is that with the team wanting to keep platooning Derek Norris, the choice for the other “half” was between Jaso and Vogt, and, while Jaso's framing numbers are significantly worse than Vogt's, he probably makes up the difference at the plate. In any event, no, he's not a catcher.
R.J.: 1) That's not a thing and 2) Nah. Otero had a good season in 2013, but he's a finesse guy without a standout secondary offering. How much different is he from, say, Burke Badenhop? Glancing through depth charts, I'd throw Chris Withrow or Jamey Wright and Joe Thatcher or Will Harris into the discussion as well, assuming they qualify. They're all useful arms, of course.
JW: Forget flexibility and fly-ball hitters. The market inefficiency the A's are currently working is “screw secondaries.” Bartolo Colon and Sean Doolittle are the obvious two, but Otero's 82 percent fastball usage should not be ignored, especially considering his six walks in 39 innings and zero homers allowed. I'd take him over Wright and Badenhop, but Withrow's mustache is formidable, as, if you push me on it, is his velocity. In any event, I'm voting for whoever the Cardinals' sixth guy is.
4) The hopeful spin on Josh Reddick is that last year's offensive struggles can be chalked up to an April wrist injury. He had surgery this offseason. Will he hit 30 homers again, or was 2012 just an early peak?
R.J.: Those 30 home runs came in 670 plate appearances. My guess is he doesn't reach that total again, so he'll need to have an even better rate of home runs per plate appearance. PECOTA has him hitting 19 homers in 551 trips to the plate, but I think that might be a little off, too. My guess is, provided he stays healthy, he lands somewhere around 25 home runs. Whether you want to call that an early peak or just life in a pitcher's park is up to you.
JW: There have been a lot of stories this spring about Yoenis Cespedes trying to make changes to his swing, shorten up, etc., but hitting coach Chili Davis recently said that the problems were never really with his swing mechanics—he just gets himself out too much by chasing garbage he should leave alone. It's hard not to get that same sense from Reddick after watching him flail his way to a .226 batting average last year, but he actually increased his walk rate and cut his whiffs in 2013, improvements backed up by upticks in his strike zone discrimination, as measured at Brooks Baseball. There's reason to think a healthy Reddick could maintain those gains while improving on his .255 BABIP and .153 ISO.
5) On a scale of 1-10, how much does your head hurt trying to put together all the moving pieces on the A's roster?
R.J.: My favorite GM is Kevin Towers.
PECOTA Team Projections
1) PECOTA has the Rangers winning 83 games. If they do that, does Ron Washington have a job in 2015? Does he have a job with the Rangers?
R.J.: He has a job, but probably with FOX Sports or some other team. Jon Daniels fired bench coach Jackie Moore last winter, and while he was reportedly Nolan Ryan's guy, that's generally not a good sign for a manager. There are two issues that I see: 1) Who do you replace him with? and 2) can we be sure that the replacement would be an upgrade? People like to point out Washington's flaws, but he's supposedly good with the players. Finding a better tactician won't be hard; you'd better be sure he can get through to the players, though.
JW: Washington is 61 already, and much as I abhor age discrimination, I wonder if the Rangers are his only real shot at managing given the Matheny-Ausmus-Redmond-type hires around baseball recently. (Davey Johnson would like to know why I don't think he exists, though.) Washington has personality and has gained exposure by leading a very good team the last few years, so I'm sure he'd do great on TV. All of which is to say that I'm pretty sure the Rangers won't beat that projection by enough to save his job. R.J. is right to suggest that this might not be the move that's actually correct in the sense of finding the best man for the job, but there seems to be a rhythm to manager employment, and it's worth wondering whether breaking from that rhythm, rational as it would be in a vacuum, just feels “off” enough to cause a distraction in the clubhouse. (Billy Beane as much as admitted that his reason for firing Bob Geren is because nobody would stop talking about whether he was ever going to fire Bob Geren.)
2) How many Rangers pitchers will start at least one game this year?
R.J.: Ten. I started with seven, but add in a spot start, a promotion due to a doubleheader, and a deadline acquisition, and that gets you to double digits.
JW: R.J., being diligent, wrote his answer before the Yu Darvish injury, so let's bump him up one to be kind. I see eight without question—the five currently in the rotation, and the three, Darvish, Matt Harrison, and Derek Holland, currently on the disabled list. I figure Alexi Ogando will get a start at some point, so that's nine. Add five more for various reasons and I'm going with 14. (It was 11 last year.)
R.J.: Let me use this space to say I'm all in on Fielder having a good year. People like to mock Fielder because he's fat, a poor defender, and well paid. But he's always been a quality hitter. Heck, last season, amid some personal turmoil, he still ranked ninth in first baseman True Average. We're talking about a guy who turns 30 in May and is going from a pitcher's park to a hitter's park. If Fielder isn't an all-star it would shock me.
JW: The American League first base universe has Cabrera, Pujols, Napoli, Encarnacion, Davis, Mauer (!), and a wild card in Jose Abreu, so I'm going to be something well short of shocked if Fielder doesn't manage to slide into the top three-ish of that group. Which is different from saying I don't think he'll be good! PECOTA has him Truly Averaging .315, an 18-point improvement from last year, and, jelly rolls or not, he's played essentially every one of his teams' games since 2006. I'm a little more worried about Choo, largely because I wonder about the walk (and HBP) spike. Should a guy with a .180 ISO really be getting 138 free passes? Will he continue to? This is also different from saying I don't think he'll be good! If he regresses all the way back to what he was prior to his Reds stint, he'll still be a well-above-average player.
4) On a scale of 1-10, how much does your soul hurt about Jurickson Profar?
R.J.: Somewhere on the bottom half of the scale. Look, I enjoy watching Profar play, and I feel bad for him. But he's ultra-talented, and he'll be back before summertime. For my soul to ache over a baseball-related injury it has to be along the lines of Kris Medlen, Daniel Hudson, Rocco Baldelli, or Mark Prior. If this is the worst injury Profar ever suffers, then he's in for a great run of health.
JW: You don't have a soul. Although to be fair, I've spent more time pouting over the unfortunate spate of spring injuries' effect on me than on the players themselves. I wanted to watch Profar, dammit, and now I won't get to for a few months. The question is whether the complete hilariousness of the Rangers' backup second base options makes up for the missing Profar—Donnie Murphy? Adam Rosales? Andy Parrino? Maybe Kevin Kouzmanoff can try it! (Every one of these players is an ex-Athletic. It's getting creepy, Jon Daniels.)
5) With Geovany Soto joining Profar on the shelf for 10 weeks, would you rather have J.P. Arencibia or Robinson Chirinos get most of the starts? Bring in Ramon Hernandez? Welcome the sweet embrace of death?
R.J.: Go to the John Jaso answer and replace his name with Chirinos. I'd lean toward Arencibia, because I think he's the better player on both ends. By the way, the Rangers brought in Chris Snyder before this was published.
JW: I'd call up Jorge Alfaro, BP's no. 41 overall prospect. Sure, he's 21, and sure, he's played all of three games at High-A, but he OPS'd .800 last year and PECOTA says that Arencibia would outhit Alfaro by only 18 True Average points this year, which is a shockingly small number given, again, that Alfaro is still in A-ball. Over 500 plate appearances, it works out to 10 runs. On the other hand, it seems likely, given the scouting reports and Arencibia's solidly above-average pitch-framing, that Alfaro isn't going to make up those 10 runs with the glove.
So Arencibia is, however much this will amuse Blue Jays fans, the Rangers' best option. I won't insult anybody by doing any math with respect to the other players on the roster.
PECOTA Team Projections
1) Given the injuries within the division, did the Mariners err by not acquiring David Price?
R.J.: It's impossible to say without knowing what it would have cost. Taijuan Walker and Nick Franklin? Perhaps they erred. Brad Miller, Walker, and Mike Zunino? Nah, I think they made the right call. It is amusing to consider that the Mariners might just be the favorites in the division right now had they traded for Price. Still, this team needs more than another very good starting pitcher.
JW: PECOTA has the Mariners seven wins behind the Angels. Price, by WARP, probably makes up half of that by himself if he's taking innings from the replacement level extra-pitcher types the Mariners have lined up to eat innings behind their normal crew of starters. So PECOTA wouldn't see the Mariners as the favorites with Price, even before considering whether that would have left the team minus a Zunino or a Miller and forced to run with an inferior player in that slot. And how about 2015?
Sometimes a team will appear to be hoarding prospects for a future that may never come when the present is perfectly within reach. I don't think any portion of that applies to Seattle, who have graduated prospects to major-league regular roles (and seen a number of them bust, unfortunately) and who, as I said above, wouldn't necessarily be within reach by doing a big cash-in.
2) Is this the year Dustin Ackley breaks out?
R.J.: The early reviews of Ackley are promising, but here's my issue: What qualifies as a breakout for him now? Is it a return to his 2011 numbers? Something more/less? Without seeing Ackley for myself I'm loath to say yes, so I'll couch my answer like so: If he performs to his PECOTA projection (a .265 TAv), then I'd consider it a successful season. That's not breakout material, but the M's don't need the star people thought Ackley could become. They need good players, and Ackley could become that.
JW: A .265 TAv would look a lot more palatable if Ackley weren't a corner outfielder now. He did, for whatever it's worth, rake in the PCL for 25 games before being called back up to Seattle at the end of June. From there, Ackley hit .285/.354/.404 in the majors, which, hey, that's essentially his 2011 stats, which translated to a .296 TAv. That you will take from your left fielder. I know the split-halves analysis isn't supposed to get us anywhere, but these ballplayers can be fragile eggs, and sometimes a light switch gets flipped. I pay closest attention to the A's, so my ready stock of examples is A's players, but Josh Donaldson essentially pulled this trick in 2012, hitting for garbage for a while, getting sent to Triple-A, and performing quite well on his return.
So to sum up: Dustin Ackley will finish fourth in the AL MVP voting in 2014.
3) How does this Justin Smoak-Logan Morrison-Corey Hart triangle work out?
R.J.: Poorly. I'm wary of Hart's health, skeptical about Smoak's bat, and unsure if Morrison's performance can atone for his off-the-field antics. There's disaster potential at every turn, and even though there's some upside with each, I don't feel safe betting on two, or even all three working out.
JW: You've got to be really secure in the foundations of your relationship to start getting into these triangle situations. Don't do it. Avoid them. They seem scintillating and exotic, but they tend to resolve into a tangle of limbs and recriminations. I'd expect more of the same here, though I'm less worried about Morrison's extracurriculars than I am his .241/.325/.422 line over the last three seasons, which is adequate-ish at best. He's come a long way for a 22nd-round pick, and he should be congratulated for turning himself from that into a top-50 prospect, but whether injuries have sapped his talent or pitchers have figured out why he was a 22nd-rounder in the first place, I'm not sure what's left of his star potential.
This group should have some sort of name. The Caveman, the Smoak Monsters, and the Guy Who's Sorta Dickish on Twitter.
4) If King Felix were a lion would he still be a king, or would he just be another pack lion? Also, is he the best pitcher in baseball?
R.J.: King lion. I'd give the nod to Clayton Kershaw right now, but if you want to argue for Hernandez, I'm not going to scrap with you over it.
JW: King Lion Felix's mane would probably be all off-kilter, shaven on one side and fluffy on the other. (This is a joke about his hat.) As a human, he's in a group behind Kershaw fighting for second-best. I do not like at all that Hernandez lost time due to injury last year for the first time since an ankle sprain in 2008. Or, for that matter, that Kershaw is hurt now. I wanted at least six more years of healthy, consistent, steady, Felix Hernandez. There's certainly an excellent likelihood that I'll get it (PECOTA, not the depth charts version but simply the algorithm, figures 226 innings this year), but every little blip highlights how much closer we draw to oblivion. (What, I go away for a few months and you think I'm going to stop being obsessed with death?)
5) Higher total as a Mariner this year: Nick Franklin's plate appearances divided by two, or Taijuan Walker's innings?
R.J.: This assumes, of course, that Franklin remains with the Mariners and Walker doesn't miss significant time due to an arm issue. My guess is that Walker's innings will be higher. Franklin probably gets around 200 plate appearances, but he's stuck behind Robinson Cano and Brad Miller. Walker can top 100 innings because the Mariners' Opening Day rotation includes Blake Beavan and Roenis Elias.
JW: The strong possibility of a Franklin trade would lead me to bang the Walker side of this question hard. (I learned that phrase from Bill Simmons. I have no idea whether real gamblers actually talk like this.) Figure if Franklin's on the team all year, the distribution of potential outcomes for him and the team probably leaves him with something like 250 PA. Even a conservative estimate of a 1/3 chance of a trade pushes that number down to around 170 PA, leaving Walker needing just 85 innings. That's half a year at a young-pitcher workload. I think Walker can be healthy for half a year.
PECOTA Team Projections
1) On which date does George Springer make his MLB debut?
R.J.: This is asking whether the Astros are more interested in gaining another year of team or control or avoiding Super Two status. Selfishly, I'd like to see Springer come May; go ahead, gain that extra year, then let him acclimate to the majors. Realistically, we'll probably see him in July.
JW: I'm an optimist. I think they'll call him up once we reach that point in May that R.J. alludes to that will leave Springer one day short of six years of service time come the 2020 offseason. I'm not an expert on the Astros' business/money situation (and I like it that way), but it's still the city of Houston and this is still a team that wants to be competing in 2016, so the extra couple million a year Springer would cost in 2016 and going forward might be worth a little extra excitement now, especially when the alternative is L.J. Area Codes.
There's also something of a credibility factor. Maybe it's just my circle, but it seems to me that the chatter about the Astros not trying has reached levels that might actually endanger the team's relations with its fanbase. Bringing up the first real product of all the agony and destruction (Robbie Grossman doesn't count) wrought in Houston at the earliest reasonable opportunity (even I do not consider it reasonable to expect a losing team to start a prospect on Opening Day given the service-time ramifications) might go a long way.
2) Which Houston reliever will we be congratulating on his new job as the closer?
R.J.: Chad Qualls. He's not an ideal closer candidate, but who on this roster is? Josh Fields lacks the command, Matt Albers lacks the sizzle, and Jesse Crain isn't physically able. Qualls hasn't closed in years, yet he gives Bo Porter a veteran option on which to lean.
JW: Crain isn't physically able to stay healthy, but he's so far and away the best pitcher in the group that I'll put my money on him even knowing I have to discount for his injuries. Although the real answer is probably to point out that this question should have been written in the plural. Eight different pitchers “earned” “saves” for the Astros last year, though one of those was that Erik Bedard three-inning relief appearance in a six-run game on (their) opening day.
3) Pick one player to extend.
R.J.: Jose Altuve, so that people will stop fawning over a player they probably wouldn't care about if he were a foot taller. Oh, you meant contractually? Excluding some oddball scenario where Carlos Correa signs his life away for the league minimum, I'll opt for Jason Castro. I like Castro more than I should anyway, and I think having a backstop familiar with the program is important when you're introducing so many young pitchers. Castro isn't the conventional franchise cornerstone, but he's a quality player at a tough-to-fill position.
JW: I want to say Castro on talent and on the fact that “Astro” is right there in his name, but I keep seeing the word “knee” in his injury history. That seems like a really bad thing for a catcher, particularly one on the larger side (6'3”) as catchers go. He smoked the ball last year, but can he survive a position switch? Will there be one available?
So I'm damning the torpedoes and trying to get Correa on one of those Matt Moore/Evan Longoria deals, except even earlier. What are the odds of flat-out failure for Correa, as opposed to “doggonit, he's not an immediate All-Star!”?
4) I'll give you 15-1 on 70 wins. Are you biting?
R.J.: Obligatory disclaimer: I don't gamble, and neither should you, kids. If I did, I would take the bet because those are fantastic odds. Mathematically, those odds mean there's a 94 percent chance that the Astros win fewer than 70 games. Plug PECOTA's projection into a binomial distribution function and you get a 23 percent chance they exceed 70 wins. (The breakeven point, by the way, is 61 wins.) Granted, the roster is bad, the division is tough, and the Astros might uh ... pull the plug in September. Even so, I'll take my chances.
JW: DISCLAIMER: I'm the one who offered the odds, so I guess that says something about what I'm thinking. R.J. is right, 15-1 is too extreme, so I'm changing the question after he already answered. At 8-1 (i.e. 89 percent chance of fewer than 70 wins), PECOTA would still take the bet, but I'd be much more comfortable giving it. While the “SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY EVERYTHING MUST GO” days may be over in Houston, the team is probably still more likely to subtract talent as the year goes on than to add it, and any talent subtracted will necessarily be actual talent (or else there'd be no trade value).
All of which, in the end, is really just cover for me being a terrible bookie. I'm going to lose my shirt.
5) Who will finish fourth on the Astros in WARP?
R.J.: What a great question to end things on. Assuming Castro, Dexter Fowler, and Jarred Cosart finish one-through-three in some order, that leaves Altuve, Chris Carter, Robbie Grossman, Jonathan Villar, Matt Dominguez, and Springer in the running for fourth. There's no great answer here; all the candidates have warts. I guess Altuve.
JW: I actually wasn't thinking of Cosart at all, because I (like PECOTA), am very much unsold with respect to his starting-pitcher bona fides. Database time! Cosart had more walks than strikeouts in his 60 major-league innings but finished with a 1.95 ERA (208 ERA+). So! Starting pitchers, at least 30 innings, more walks than strikeouts, 120 ERA+ or better. Remarkably, this gives 226 results. Less remarkably, 190 of them are before 1950. The five most recent before Cosart: Adam Loewen, 2007; Salomon Torres, 2002; Andy Van Hekken, 2002; Luis Andujar, 1995; Chris Haney, 1995. Each player's following season ERA+: 56, 92, DNP, 70, 106. So the upside here is Chris Haney, who led the league in hits allowed in 1996.
Okay, that's not the true upside. Cosart had made himself into an actual prospect before 2013's weirdness, though he was always one who walked more hitters in the minors than you'd like to see your top prospects walk and who had whispers of “RP” floating around him frequently.
But I haven't answered the question. It's George Springer, unless he's held down until July, in which case it's Scott Feldman.
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @r_j_anderson