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March 26, 2013

Skewed Left

Things for Fans of Bad Teams to Root for in 2013

by Zachary Levine

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Throwing the word “bad” on a baseball team can be a difficult thing, not only in that no games have been played yet, but also because it’s such a hard word to define. Are there 15 good teams and 15 bad teams? Does it take 85 losses to be bad? Or 90 losses? Or does it depend on the team? Would an 84-78 campaign from the Giants be a bad season?

That said, heading into this year, it seems like there’s a pretty big gap where you might find some room to squeeze the line between bad and unbad. There are four teams with less than a five percent chance to make the playoffs according to our PECOTA projections.

Funny enough, the fifth-lowest chance belongs to a 2012 playoff team, with the Orioles seeing the playoffs in only one out of 20 simulations, but that’s partially a product of a really good division

Yet, there is still reason to watch for you fans of the Astros, Twins, Marlins and Rockies. Each team is building toward something with various levels of zeal and farsightedness, and while your season will be largely about watching what some prospects can do, there are things that can happen at the major-league level such that even if the team projections are right on, 2013 won’t be a lost season.

Houston: 69-93, 0.7 percent playoff odds
Astros fans should be happy if Bud Norris has a 3.50 ERA on July 1.

Last July, I wrote a story for the Houston Chronicle after the Wandy Rodriguez trade about the Astros’ being done with that phase of the rebuild. Everybody who had to go—the well-salaried Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, Carlos Lee, Brett Myers and now Rodriguez—was out the door. The next phase was going to be the guys who could go, and so far, could has meant would. Chris Johnson, Wilton Lopez, and Jed Lowrie didn’t have to go, but they were major leaguers, so they could be flipped for pieces who would arrive at a later date with less service time, and so they were.

That’s where Norris, who will throw the first pitch of the 2013 regular season, lands. Trading him now, as has reportedly been discussed, would mean trading him at a fairly low point of his value arc, which projects to go up this year. He had a poor season in 2012 and was always frustrated by some minor ailments—an illness, a blister, and a scalp irritation combined with some really bad outings on the road—that combined for a big letdown and a 4.65 ERA.

In his first year in the American League, he has to avoid disaster and pitch better away from Minute Maid, as he had two starts with nine runs allowed on the road, and 10 of his 11 outings of four-plus runs. He’s also seen a slight drop in average fastball velocity, from 94.4 in 2010 to 93.3 in 2011 to 92.5 last year. But he’s still a strikeout producer with just a $3 million salary, and when anything can and will go, Norris could bring back a pretty good return if he can avoid the awful days.

Alternate means of happiness: If they have a player other than Jose Altuve above 400 at-bats, which they did not last year.

Minnesota: 70-92, 0.9 percent playoff odds
Twins fans should be happy if Aaron Hicks slugs .360.

I really didn’t want to pick this one. Hicks came up last week in a piece on which spring training standouts appear to be for real and which are just spring training standouts, and I thought he was probably still a bit away from being an above-average major leaguer and three or four or 100 slugging points away from anything he’d ever see in the majors. PECOTA projects him for a .345 slugging percentage in basically a replacement-level season.

But the power isn’t completely out of nowhere. After hitting a measly 21 homers in 1547 plate appearances from rookie ball to High-A from 2008-11, he hit 13 in 563 plate appearances in Double-A last year and then parlayed that, coupled with a strong spring and the Ben Revere and Denard Span trades, to get the inside track on starting in the majors in 2013. Between that and his four home runs this spring, there’s some hope that Hicks has the power to compensate for the toll that adjusting to major-league pitching will take on his batting average.

So there’s my forced optimism about the Twins, an incredibly low-upside team outside of the known quantities. Your Triple-A team plays in Rochester, N.Y., your Double-A team plays in New Britain, Conn., your High-A team plays in Fort Myers, Fla., and your Low-A team has an ear of corn with eyes for a logo. Call your local cable provider and ask to see those instead.

Alternate means of happiness: If Joe Mauer equals or tops his career-high 641 plate appearances from 2012. He’s still owed $115 million after this season. ... If Vance Worley’s strikeout rate returns to above league-average 7.4 per 9 like 2011 rather than below like last year.

Miami: 70-92, 1.4 percent playoff odds
Marlins fans should be happy if Jacob Turner, Henderson Alvarez, and Nathan Eovaldi make 75 starts combined.

A more negative way to put this would be to cap the starts of Kevin Slowey, who’s taking his very Minnesota Twins skill set with him to Little Havana. But this piece isn’t about negativity, so we’ll leave the current projected fifth starter out of it.

Ninety starts would be ideal but overly ambitious. Slowey appears to be opening in the rotation with Alvarez, Eovaldi, Ricky Nolasco and Wade LeBlanc. That leaves out the 21-year-old Turner, who according to the Miami Herald is lacking some consistency at the moment.

If Turner can go to New Orleans and force his way back into the rotation, that would make the Marlins’ season all the more palatable. He’s not much of a strikeout guy either, but you’d much rather see the 21-year-old key trade chip get it together and force out the filler. He might luck into his chance at the end if Nolasco is traded, but 75 starts from the three of them means everybody stayed healthy and Turner probably came to Miami on his own terms.

Alternate means of happiness: Nolasco, like Norris, has a chance to raise his stock for trade purposes, so Miami fans should want to see a recovery in his plummeting strikeout rate back to at least 7.0 per 9. It’s dropped swiftly and consistently from 9.5 in 2009 to 5.9 last year.

Colorado: 73-89, 3.4 percent playoff odds
Rockies fans should be happy if Wilin Rosario plays a full season and has a combined 65 or fewer wild pitches and passed balls.

Those are some of the more blatant measurables, but you’d like to see better from Rosario in terms of framing and the less measurable work with a pitching staff as well as he ages toward what the Rockies hope is viability behind the plate. At age 23, he hit .270/.312/.530 and put together a 1.9-win season that was almost exclusively offensive value. While they make up only a part of catchers’ defensive value, Rosario topped both of these lists despite playing only 61.7 percent of the Rockies’ defensive innings at catcher.

Passed balls (MLB)
1. Wilin Rosario 21
2. Josh Thole 18 (knuckleballs included)
3. A.J. Ellis 11

Wild pitches (MLB)
1. Wilin Rosario 63
2. A.J. Pierzynski 54
3. Carlos Santana 44

Rosario’s arm was good, and with his bat’s relative strength at the position, he could be an excellent player for a long time. If he has to be moved to first base, where he started a few times in September, and the Rockies have problems at the close of the Todd Helton era, Rosario’s numbers won’t be all that impressive for Coors Field.

Alternate means of happiness: Drew Pomeranz meets or exceeds our projection of 16 starts. Troy Tulowitzki, in the Mauer camp as a future anchor, recovers to slug at least .500 after breaking a string of three .540s or better with a .486 in an injury-hampered 2012.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

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