March 25, 2014
AL East 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, Andrew Koo and Zachary Levine discuss the American League East.
1) Owner Stuart Sternberg has admitted that the Rays have overspent to compete this year. Overall, the team has few glaring weaknesses, but if they had a few extra dollars, where would you spend it?
Zachary Levine: What’s funny is that the two places PECOTA says spending might be needed are two places they did go out and make an acquisition. Their only starting position players slated for less than 2.0 WARP are James Loney (0.4) and Ryan Hanigan (1.0). The Rays bought high—or I guess renewed high—on Loney at three years and $21 million. I could answer this question retroactively and say that if they had a few more dollars, they would have aimed higher for a power bat at the low end of the defensive spectrum—preferably first base. With what they have now… I don’t know, buy up other teams’ tradeable draft picks. That farm system ain’t what it once was.
Andrew Koo: Crafty. Hanigan might be underpaid too, if he produces enough offensively. Between him and Jose Molina, there might not be a better defensive catching tandem in baseball. I’m not sure where they could shore up either. Heath Bell is a questionable setup guy, but plenty of candidates in the bullpen can take that role. The bench, while shallow, is versatile. Sean Rodriguez plays multiple positions. Logan Forsythe is great against lefties. Maybe a left-handed bench bat?
2. Evan Longoria has never finished higher than sixth in AL MVP voting; the Baseball Prospectus staff has him as the consensus no. three in 2014. Entering his age-28 season, could this be the year he puts together batting average, power, defense, and health?
Zachary: Longoria’s MVP vote history is amazing. Throw out 2012, which was an injury-filled mess. In his four other seasons, he finished sixth, sixth, 10th and 19th with WARPs all between 5.9 and 6.2. The one season when he did exactly what the question asked about putting it all together—.281 average, career-high 33 home runs, career-high 15 FRAA and 157 games played—was the one where he finished 19th. I don’t exactly trust the voters to evaluate Longoria’s game at this point, but I do trust Longoria to have a season like that. I took the usual twosome and Prince Fielder as my three picks, but Longoria would have been my next choice.
Andrew: Chone Figgins finished 10th in the year that Longoria finished 19th! I had a tough time choosing between Robinson Cano and Evan Longoria for the third MVP spot. We don’t know how recurring Longoria’s hamstring issues are; they’ve essentially wiped out his baserunning game. But he still plays good defense and hits well. He struck out more last year (a bout with plantar fasciitis hurt his June-July numbers), but I could see .280 and 30 homers. His overall health would be the concern.
3) Let’s say the Rays are 40-55 at the All-Star break, 15 games out of first. Let’s say Andrew Friedman receives a market-value offer for David Price, who has one arbitration year left. Does he accept it?
Zachary: Yes, absolutely. If the Rays ever get to that scenario, they aren’t the kind of team that can hope it will turn around. I wouldn’t have been shocked if they had moved him this offseason, so if they can unload him with a year and a half to go and get significantly more than the rental price—almost a James Shields haul—then absolutely. Part of that is that they haven’t been drafting like they were when they were getting top picks and could use the reinforcements elsewhere.
Andrew: Friedman should accept, but can they sustain a competitive 2015 rotation without Price? This is among the best teams they’ve put on the field; trading him away will certainly lower their odds next year. It obviously depends on the package—I think the James Shields haul was above-market value, with Wil Myers ably jumping right into major-league action—but I can see them using that last arbitration year.
4) Matt Moore comes into the season off of one of 2013’s stranger lines. On one hand, a 4.5 per 9 walk rate that still would have been the highest in the AL even if you gave him zero walks in the 11 ⅔ innings he needed to reach qualifying status. On the other, a 17-4 record and a 3.29 ERA. Is it more likely that the peripherals improve to match the results or that the results regress to the peripherals? Bonus question: who has the most Cy Young votes on the Rays this year?
Andrew: Do those numbers qualify Moore as “effectively wild?” He has a huge platoon split, walking eight percent of lefties and 14 percent of righties. With health concerns to account for, I see the results getting worse before the peripherals get better. PECOTA likens him to Gio Gonzalez, which sounds exactly right.
Zachary: Nice product placement for “Effectively Wild,” the daily podcast from Baseball Prospectus (Please rate and review it on iTunes). And yes, Moore was also the American League leader in wild pitches, if that adds to the argument at all. If you’re the Rays, you’re really hoping the playoffs weren’t a preview of what will happen if he can’t sustain that .259 BABIP. PECOTA is somewhere in between on this question. His ERA is projected to rise a little bit to 3.50 and his walk rate to fall to a still-lofty 4.1 per 9, but I think the strikeouts that he’s still able to get will prevent him from regressing from effectively wild to wild.
5) Have to get a Joe Maddon question in here, and the biggest Joe Maddon story this spring was how he was trying to game the instant replay system by playing for fourth outs and running through third outs in case calls are reversed. Do you think this will be a story at any point this year, and do you think any of Tampa Bay’s competitive advantage can come from things that we would consider gamesmanship?
Zachary: The only thing wrong with Maddon’s Rays bringing back the hidden ball trick last year was that they wasted it in a blowout. Maddon is certainly the likeliest to become a story again when a team abuses the instant replay system. When it happens, though, I don’t expect it to be either of those categories, which would require an unbelievable convergence of circumstances to work. Maddon’s gamesmanship will be a lot closer to the time he brought Sam Fuld in to warm up in order to buy time. The first abuse of the replay system will probably be temporal, running some clock on the game with no clock in order to get a reliever warmed up, and after Maddon’s last trickery led to a rule change, I certainly wouldn’t put it past him to flirt with the bounds of the rules again.
Andrew: Buying time seems to be the motivator for gaming instant replay. I bet we see many managers try it when a close call arises. I wonder though, whether Maddon or someone else will intentionally manufacture a close call. Maybe he asks Desmond Jennings to bunt for a base hit, knowing it’ll be close, and call for a replay just to cool down the opposing pitcher’s arm. Ultimately, these are marginal tactics that wouldn’t affect the game much, but they’re exactly the sorts of things that become stories.
PECOTA Team Projections
1) Will Jon Lester continue to look like an ace, and do you think he’ll reach free agency or become the latest to join the league-wide contract extension parade?
Andrew: Even if he doesn’t look like an ace, I can’t see the Red Sox letting him go. The rotation is thin without him, and despite his non-ace line last season (only the result of a poor June), he’s been a 30-start, 200-inning starter for six straight years. The Red Sox aren’t averse to spending money nor fielding players in their 30s, either.
Zachary: They’re not, but I’d love to see them try. I have no insight that Lester is going to age any worse than anyone else, and there’s no question about how instrumental he was to their third title in 10 years. But if there’s ever an environment in which you could say goodbye and thank you for your service, it’s the intersection of lots of good pitching prospects, which we’ll get to in the next question, and a hyper-inflated market for pitching. They’ll talk extension, no doubt, but they shouldn’t feel like a hostage in the talks. They let Pedro Martinez walk; they can do it with Jon Lester.
2) Under the heading of World Series winner problems, even with Ryan Dempster unable to pitch, the Red Sox still have Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront, Jake Peavy, Brandon Workman, Chris Capuano and a couple of names on the fringe like Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa. If everybody stays healthy, what do you do with that backlog? Keep them in their lesser roles in the bullpen/Triple-A or take advantage of the depth to make a trade?
Zachary: Unless something goes horribly wrong somewhere else, I’d hang on to pretty much all of them and think longer term than just a repeat. Buchholz’s health is always tenuous, as is Lackey’s to some extent and Peavy’s if he can’t stay away from dat fishing life. Capuano will be tradeable if some team has an injury and will overpay for him because they desperately need another starter, but if the worst part of this is that Webster has to hang out for another year in Triple-A despite being ready and you have to waste a year of Workman in the bullpen, stick with it.
Andrew: In 2000, “You Can Never Have Enough Pitching” banners probably cost $2.99; today, they’re around $19.99. Good thing the Red Sox bought enough to line their front office. Seriously, though, I’d love to see some bullpen experimentation here. If one starter pitches 5-6 innings, let another close out the remaining 3-4 innings rather than going inning-by-inning with the bullpen. I know, platoon matchups and traditional roles and all, but if they’re capable starters and looking good through innings six and seven, why not send them out for eight and nine?
3) Daniel Nava tragically disappeared during the 2013 postseason and has returned to compete for a starting job this year. Why isn’t the mainstream media making a bigger deal of this, and do you expect him to replicate his 2013 effort this year? Should he or Jonny Gomes start more games in 2014?
Andrew: Both hitters have displayed sizable platoon splits over their career—Nava better against righties (.290/.390/.443), Gomes better against lefties (.277/.377/.502). It’s obviously tempting to start a .309 TAv player daily, but that number is high for a reason: optimal platooning. Unless one of them falls off completely, I wouldn’t change that configuration.
Zachary: Every game Nava started in the postseason was against a right-handed pitcher, but not every game against a right-handed pitcher was started by Nava. It was sort of odd hearing the reasoning for starting Gomes against the Cardinals’ stack of righties. It usually had to do with intangibles and big games, and Gomes rewarded that faith with a bad postseason that one would hope has John Farrell thinking about playing things a little straighter with the platoon this year. Nava should get almost all the starts against righties, and that would give him the majority. He will regress, though; the usual suspects of BABIP and Plexiglas are to blame.
Andrew: I think the Red Sox have full confidence in Xander Bogaerts. Starting two rookies (Jackie Bradley Jr. being the other) might be scary in a competitive division, but you can’t do better than Jason Parks’ no. 2 and no. 23-rated prospects, right? Even if the price on Drew falls to one year and, say, $10 million, I bet the Tigers snatch him up first.
Zachary: The interesting one here is Middlebrooks, whom you can really look at in one of two ways. He hit .192/.228/.389 before being sent down in mid-June and .276/.329/.476 after returning in August. So either he’s figured it out, or you could say he’s incredibly susceptible to prolonged failure—he was bad in the playoffs, too. If you say that he’s the one to replace, you’re still sacrificing something by moving a potential superstar off his natural and long-term position, so it’s not without some other cost. I’ll say that even if Middlebrooks is their no. 9 hitter and hits like a no. 9 hitter, the Red Sox won’t regret sticking with him and they won’t re-sign Drew.
5) Last year, Boston fans (and Fox broadcasters) made a big deal about the Red Sox finally getting to clinch a World Series title at home. What new technicality can they come up with this year to make them seem like they’re breaking free of some prolonged agony and not just another spoiled fanbase that wins something every year?
Zachary: I was in Boston during the whole run, and it’s amazing how many people thought this was a thing. Over the last 10 years, the Sox have beaten the Yankees, they’ve won as a wild card, they’ve won as a division winner, they’ve won on the road and now they’ve won at home. They’ve swept, they’ve swept again, and they’ve won in six. But did you know that the Red Sox haven’t won a World Series Game 7 since 1912? That means that somebody who’s 101 years old doesn’t know what it feels like to…
Andrew: Well, did you know that the Red Sox have never clinched a World Series title after midnight local time? They’ve won at 11:39, 11:35, and 11:20. How cool would it be to win after midnight—or even better—in extra innings! Because winning titles in low-leverage situations is passé at this point.
PECOTA Team Projections
1) The Yankees have had two Hall of Fame catchers and three-going-on-four with their numbers retired. But will Brian McCann become the first Yankees catcher ever to top 30 home runs?
Andrew: An outside chance exists. It can’t be a coincidence that the Yankees’ four new position players pulled from free agency—McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran (switch), and Kelly Johnson—hit left-handed. The right field porch in Yankee Stadium beckons, and McCann is the most fly ball-inclined of the group. He’s a great receiver, and his bat is valuable enough to play at DH or first base if needed. McCann has never hit more than 24 homers, and no catcher has topped 30 since Javier Lopez in 2003, but the stars (or
Zachary: I believe he will be the first. When I went through the players the Yankees would benefit from acquiring based on their pull rates and their fly ball rates, his name popped up with an alarm. I didn’t use him because the story was about looking for low-cost options, but he’s basically the model player for the park. PECOTA projects McCann for 24 home runs in 80 percent playing time (65 percent at catcher, 15 percent at DH). I believe he’ll surpass that playing time and home run rate and get to (let’s say) 32.
2) Kelly Johnson: legitimate major-league starting third baseman, or potentially subpar enough for Yankees fans to miss Alex Rodriguez?
Zachary: Legitimate starting third baseman if you can keep him at third base. That’s an average bat (.268 TAv last year, projected for .257 this year), which is enough there, considering the circumstances. The problem comes if Mark Teixeira’s extremities start acting up again and Johnson has to carry that bat over to first base and take throws from Brian Roberts, Derek Jeter, and Brendan Ryan. The throws aren’t a problem. That lumber collection sure is, though; he can’t be the best hitter in your infield.
Andrew: Johnson has bounced between three AL East teams now—ironic, because the Orioles could use a second baseman. He has the bat to play but was never great defensively. Now he’s starting at a position at which he’s played 16 career games, so it’s hard to avoid some reservations. The Yankees did put Mark Reynolds there for a while last year, so at least there should be improvement?
3) The Yankees’ five projected starters—Sabathia, Tanaka, Kuroda, Nova, Pineda—all have surnames that end in “a.” The last time the same letter ended every surname of a rotation? The 1980 Twins. Does that make you want to root for these five now? Does it make you excited for them? No? Well, what does excite you about this rotation? Could this be the first Yankee team in recent memory to be carried by pitching rather than hitting?
Zachary: First of all, I can’t believe you looked this up. Second of all, last year I was excited about David Phelps’ arrival in the rotation, so I’m probably not the person to ask about this. But no, this doesn’t really excite me that much. Sabathia and Pineda are the scariest on this list for very different reasons; I still haven’t seen anything that makes me think CC will bounce back, new cutter notwithstanding. And while I’m encouraged by what Nova did at the end of last year and okay, fine, this spring, this rotation still doesn’t blow me away. This will be a more pitcher-heavy Yankee team than usual, but that probably says more about the potential holes in the lineup.
Andrew: Sabathia’s velocity drop is concerning for sure, but I’m optimistic about the rest of the rotation. I’m particularly interested to see whether the league adjusts to Nova, whose sinker made him one of the most ground ball-heavy pitchers in the league. I see this team’s value lying in pitching, but I also agree about the weak lineup.
Zachary: I’m not-so-secretly hoping that the Yankees got all those -a pitchers just to hear Suzyn Waldman try to pronounce their names.
4) Will the ghost of Mariano Rivera have any impact on the Yankees’ closer situation? If David Robertson blows two saves the first week, is there a quick hook and an attempt to find a “Proven Closer,” or is he aided in any way by an understanding how difficult it is to follow a legend?
Andrew: Three relievers have produced 1+ WARP in four of their past five seasons: Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, and David Robertson (who actually has 0.98+ WARP in all five). That’s a short list, and there might not be a better replacement for Rivera in New York. So, Robertson should be aided by the fact that he’s David Robertson.
Zachary: If he blows two saves the first week, we’ll definitely see an earnest attempt by a New York writer to track down Rivera and ask an earnest question about whether he’s in shape and considering coming back. That’s the Chipper Jones model that’s already been established. Robertson will be fine, and he’s helped by the fact that there isn’t really another internal option pushing him, plus what you said about the reliever landscape in general.
5) How many games will Derek Jeter play this year? Also, what’s the weirdest gift that he’ll receive during his retirement tour?
Zachary: Is it possible that the ancient Yankees have actually been among the three or four healthiest teams this spring? I still don’t trust Jeter to get anywhere near 162, both because he’ll hit the DL once with a lower-body something-or-other and because when he’s healthy, Joe Girardi will try to give him lots of rest. I doubt he starts more than 100 games at shortstop and maybe another two dozen at DH, with a short DL stay and a few well-timed days off making up the rest. He’ll get into some of those games he doesn’t start, so let’s call it an even (or odd) 135.
Andrew: With defensive GIF machine Brendan Ryan on the roster, will Jeter finish 100 games at shortstop? How many games Jeter plays could depend on performance; if he’s below league average with the bat, I can see Ryan spelling him for one game each series. I’ll say 125. PECOTA projects a 17-run gap between them defensively and just a 13-run gap offensively, though that might overstate the difference.
Zachary: As for the gift, as much as most teams will try to play nice, I think there will be something of a backlash against the retirement your this year since everyone had to go through this a year ago, and the Red Sox showed you could still have a little fun at the player’s expense. So I believe Jeffrey Maier will present something to Jeter in Baltimore or somehow be involved in the ceremony.
Andrew: One “Major-League Unretirement Coupon.” Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte have done it, and now Manny wants back in. So it’s cool if you must call it quits, Mr. Jeter. Whenever you feel like coming back, simply visit the league office with this coupon and they’ll reinstate you, free of hassle, free of judgment*.
* No guarantees that we can control the press reaction.
PECOTA Team Projections
1) Has Toronto begun to turn on Alex Anthopoulos? If R.A. Dickey’s time under contract goes by without a year even in contention, will the general manager’s job be in any danger?
Andrew: Anthopoulos created deity levels of goodwill when he shipped out Vernon Wells. As of now, it hasn’t run out yet. He has two years each left of Dickey, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion. Perhaps his job will be in some danger if they go by without any playoff contention, but whose wouldn’t be? Payroll has jumped again, and Blue Jays fans are getting antsy.
Zachary: Well, we know that general managers don’t get fired anymore, so our base case is a little off from what it would have been 10 years ago. Anthopoulos went all in, though, to an extent even greater than Dayton Moore, who was the last person about whom this question could have been asked. Moore is actually an interesting case—he acquired Shields in the same offseason that the Blue Jays acquired Dickey, and while the Royals didn’t make the playoffs, they showed signs of improvement, and there is clearly still enough in the farm to show that he didn’t decimate it. If the Jays win 70 without a Marcus Stroman or Aaron Sanchez breakthrough, the GM’s chair will get extremely wobbly. If there are any signs of progress anywhere, well, general managers don’t get fired anymore.
2) More underappreciated player: Edwin Encarnacion or Colby Rasmus?
Andrew: E5. Nothing against Rasmus, but last year, Encarnacion struck out in under 10 percent of his plate appearances while hitting 36 home runs. The last three seasons in which that happened? Albert Pujols 2011, Pujols ’09, and Pujols ’08. Encarnacion made contact on 84 percent of the pitches he swung at, yet his BABIP was just .247. Duly noting that he’s been a low-BABIP hitter over his career, I see that number rising. We could appreciate Encarnacion a lot more still.
Zachary: It’s Encarnacion, who has now put together two star-level seasons in obscurity, but there are actually people on my side of the border—particularly somewhere in the middle of the country—who think that Rasmus is a bad player. Granted, part of his value spike was BABIP and some was fielding-driven, but he has to have one of the worst reputations of any four-win player. I’ll take the way over on PECOTA’s projection of 1.3 WARP this season in what should feel like a much more comfortable home than St. Louis.
Andrew: It’s odd—Bautista, E5, Rasmus—three batters have broken out offensively under the Jays, all picked up from the discard pile. Makes me wonder why no one homegrown has succeeded in a while.
3) If Brandon Morrow succumbs to another injury, how imminent is Marcus Stroman’s call-up, if it comes at all?
Andrew: Blue Jays fans I’ve spoken to are clamoring for Stroman—it’s been a while since the team has developed and debuted a highly touted prospect. But he hasn’t risen past the Double-A level, where he’s pitched only 120 innings, and the spring training results weren’t encouraging. I wouldn’t be surprised if he spent a full year in Triple-A to polish up.
Zachary: He’s certainly the exciting option. There are lots of unexciting options for a team that has plenty of recent experience in dredging up starting pitchers from uninviting places. If the other four are the Dickster, Mark Buehrle, Drew Hutchison and J.A. Happ, there’s still potential long man Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, and (earmuffs) Dustin McGowan. There is nothing inevitable here except sadness.
4) Offensively, is there any more to Brett Lawrie? He’s been solid but not spectacular with the bat these past two seasons. Will the Red Bull-intensity hinder his development?
Zachary: If I had to force a reflection of his aggressive personality onto the baseball field, I would create a hitter who can’t take a walk and can’t wait on a changeup. Okay, I cheated a little bit and found two of Lawrie’s weaknesses that have really been holding him back. In his two full seasons, he’s drawn walks in just 6.3 percent of his plate appearances. And the changeup stands out as a real weakness in his pitch-type stats, and it’s not getting better. The road to improvement seems to be in those departments, which make for an easy match with the aggro narrative.
Andrew: The intensity has to eventually subside, right? It’s great to see on defense, but he’s entering his power prime now. I expect more offensively in the coming seasons, and I’m intrigued to see whether the energy slows down as he grows into a “veteran” role.
Zachary: Yes, without a doubt. The Blue Jays’ catching last year was a huge part of the problem, offering no offense of which to speak and a poor all-around game, resulting in a combined -1.1 WARP with both parties sharing the blame. It was one of the easiest upgrades to seek out across baseball, and while Toronto didn’t do much here, this duo will be an improvement. Navarro’s line looked like real production, and while .300/.365/.492 is something we’ll never see again from him, he’s reclaimed the distinction of being starter-caliber five years after abandoning it. Kratz’s power-based offense will suffer outside Philadelphia, and I’m not as high on him, but if he gets backup-type playing time, this is a reasonable major league quality duo.
Andrew: Yep. Navarro hits lefties incredibly well, and Kratz accumulated 15 receiving runs in just 68 games last year, according to Dan Brooks’ and Harry Pavlidis’ model (to say nothing of the value he contributed through deceptive glove-pounding). Kratz also walked the same number of times as J.P. Arencibia… in half the plate appearances. Both were cheap acquisitions who have flaws, but I’ve seen more than enough of Arencibia’s empty home runs.
Zachary: Let’s stop there. I know you’re a Torontoan. Torontan? Torontite? And I’m feeling nice after the last answer, so don’t follow up with any questions about the Blue Jays’ second-base platoon.
PECOTA Team Projections
1) How do we spin the trajectory of the Orioles’ approach to 2014? Shrewdly waited out the market and got good second-tier players at third-tier prices, or got beaten on the desirables early and had to settle for leftovers late?
Andrew: Good question, with the answer depending on exactly how you want to spin it! If you’re Orioles public relations, it’s definitely the former. Overall, though, if you told the O’s in November that they’d have Ubaldo Jimenez for four years and Nelson Cruz for a cheap one year when the dust settled, I think they’d be satisfied. Desirable free agents aren’t known to sign in Baltimore, and these two are respectable pick-ups. Without them, they’d have added only two leftovers—banking on Johan Santana recovering by June, or hoping to striking gold on Delmon Young like they did with Nate McLouth last year.
Zachary: Stealing Steve Lombardozzi for Alex Gonzalez on a team with infield weak spots is also a testament to procrastination, as was the fact that I was able to mention this late-breaking transaction in my answer after you got your work in comfortably ahead of time. But yes, I liked Jimenez as much as if not more than some of the other anxiety-inducing pitching options out there, they got a nice price on him, and there’s not much harm in paying Cruz at that price point either. They acted like a team that was concerned about payroll and a team that wasn’t concerned about a window immediately closing, which feels appropriate.
2) The Orioles rotation is a mix of relative no. 3 starters. PECOTA projects their ERAs to range between 3.72 and 4.46. It’s a small range, and any one of them could beat the lower bound. Who will it be?
Zachary: If I’m looking for somebody to beat a median projection, I’m looking for a high-variability guy. Chris Tillman is still on the upside of his career, and if you’re not concerned about his coming off 206-plus innings, he’s probably your guy, especially given that he was able to do it for a short stretch in 2012. My other candidate, and the one I’d take if I could pick only one, would be the highly volatile Jimenez, just because he has two short runs of dominance—the monster (half) year in Colorado and the end of last year that sent his price soaring. I think the others are probably closer to known quantities and mid-rotation guys.
Andrew: Who will lower their home run rate? Everyone but Jimenez had a HR/9 above 1.0 last year, and the Orioles as a team allowed 1.25 homers per nine innings. They’re fly ball-leaning starters, and that effect is multiplied by this division and their park. I’d pick Tillman too; with his upside, his 80th-percentile PECOTA ERA projection of 3.55 doesn’t seem too distance.
3) How concerning is the uncertainty at the back of the bullpen? Will the Orioles miss Jim Johnson, or are there enough pieces returning from last year’s sixth-ranked bullpen in the AL that they’ll make it work?
Zachary: The Orioles have one-time top starting pitching prospects like Brian Matusz and Zach Britton who are looking to salvage something and regulars like Darren O’Day, and Tommy Hunter (also a bullpen convert), and Ryan Webb, all of whom could be closer-ish. Somewhere in here is a very competent bullpen, even if it’s without Johnson, who was overrated when he was saving games and underrated when he was blowing saves. What really makes it interesting, though, is the effect that Kevin Gausman could have on it after he comes back from what should be a brief Triple-A stint. He’ll either make the bullpen a top-shelf unit if he is brought back in short burst, or he’ll push Bud Norris to closer, which could send everybody else back to a more familiar role in the seventh or eighth innings. I’m firmly on board with this odd collection.
Andrew: My thoughts exactly. I enjoy how the Orioles are turning failed starters into usable relievers. They could’ve pushed more with Matusz or Hunter, but they recognized that it wasn’t working, and now the two headline a serviceable bullpen. The lack of name-brand relievers shouldn’t hurt; as you said, somewhere in there, competency will emerge.
4) Chris Davis hit 53 homers for the Orioles last year, and they’ll be counting on him for an encore performance. What will he actually do?
Zachary: Davis should be relieved that his comparison isn’t to the only other Oriole ever to hit 50 home runs, and what that guy did the following seasons. Although to some extent, Davis’ outlook, given that he’s a bat-only first baseman, is susceptible to a cratering like the one Brady Anderson had over the couple of years after his breakout. The problem is that Davis’ walks already spiked, going from 6.6 percent of his plate appearances to 10.6—still not great for a slugger of his caliber. He’s projected to drop to 8.1 percent this year and in turn, put together a .324 OBP that would make him perfectly fine but not even top-10 MVP level. There’s almost no way for Davis to stay immensely valuable without dingers and lots of dingers.
Andrew: He still hit 16 home runs in the second half, despite batting just .245. The walk rate increased from 10 percent to 12, the strikeout rate from 28 to 32. According to PITCHf/x, his contact rate fell from 70 percent to 67 while the percentage of pitches he saw in the strike zone dropped from 42 percent to 41 (already among the league’s lowest). Given that these split-half stats stabilize quickly, I’m willing to rely on them as possible predictors. Pitchers might avoid him as they did when Jose Bautista embarked on his post-54 homer season, but Davis is less patient than Bautista. Yet we also know that Davis can blast pitches inside and away, to right and left. If opponents pitch around him and Davis can lay off outside balls, we might see the walk rate increase and compensate for any decreased home run value.
5) PECOTA projects the Orioles to win 78 games and finish last in the division. If the Orioles win 78 games and finish last in the division, is it an indication that something needs to change, or is the more distant future brighter than 2014?
Andrew: After being a perennial 70-win team, the Orioles have surprised (most of) us for two years now, with neither Kevin Gausman nor Dylan Bundy pitching at the major-league level for long. Our depth charts project the pair for just 13 combined starts, so winning 78 games in the AL East would be far from embarrassing. Even if this season is a step back from 2012-13, these two impact arms are just settling in and their elite players are under team control through 2015, so they haven’t reached their all-in year yet. They might want to replenish that dwindling farm system along the way, though.
Zachary: We also know now that Manny Machado won’t be ready for the start of the regular season, which should probably change the projection a little bit. Sticking with the question as asked, though, I think last place would be very disheartening, because the team wasn’t supposed to get much worse after the 2012 wild card season. You’re right that looking forward instead of backward, this isn’t the year. I’ve said a lot of nice things about the present in questions 1-3, but I also see a fifth-place team with a better future ahead.
Andrew Koo is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @akoo