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March 29, 2007

Prospectus Today

American (and National) Top 30

by Joe Sheehan

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First off, thanks to Geoff Silver and the Sports Business section of the Columbia University MBA program for hosting Steven Goldman, Derek Jacques, Jay Jaffe, Alex Belth and I on Tuesday evening. We had two great hours of discussion on the business of Baseball Prospectus, with the students providing not just great questions, but terrific feedback on what we do here.

With all of the items crowding my calendar this week, as well as the demands of family and friends in the New York area, I've found my season-preview material moving from a six-day package to a five-day one and now a three-day series. Then again, it's not just about scheduling; the process of preseason predictions is as difficult right now as it's been in years. Whether you see this as a result of revenue sharing and other mechanisms designed to narrow payroll gaps, or just a part of the natural ebb and flow that happens throughout the game's history-my preferred explanation-there's no question that we've slipped back into an era of considerable parity. This is good for competitive balance, bad for people who are supposed to give you a heads-up on what to expect.

Nevertheless, I'll take a stab over the next few days. This year, to mix it up a bit, I'll count down the teams, Casey Kasem-style, from #30 to #1. Don't worry, I'll provide the actual standings at the end, and for the many who have asked, I will close the process with a look at how my picks compare to the win totals that have been posted for entertainment value by houses of theoretical wagering.

My methodology is simple: I'm projecting runs scored and allowed for every team, and letting that dictate my predicted order of finish. In past years, I've tweaked the records to allow for what a team's bullpen could do to its performance in close games, but this year, I'm just letting the runs drive the process. I don't think the manual tweaks add enough to accuracy to bother.

On with the countdown…

#30. Washington Nationals, 57-105 record, fifth in NL East, 676 RS, 918 RA. The Nationals are a good bet to lead the majors in runs allowed despite playing in what is no worse than a fair park for scoring. Their pitching staff has perhaps three legitimate major leaguers in John Patterson, Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch, and I've exhausted the amusing ways to describe the rotation behind Patterson. A passable 2006 offense is down Nick Johnson and up Cristian Guzman, which is just mean. I suspect that Manny Acta is a pretty good manager who may make this team five to 10 wins better with his approaches, but will anyone notice the difference between 54 and 61 wins?

#29. Florida Marlins, 71-91, fourth in NL East, 701 RS, 791 RA. They might be worse than this, with a player no one has ever heard of (Alejandro De Aza) winning the center field job and a silly trade of a decent starter in Yusmeiro Petit for a closer, who will be as useful as a script continuity checker on the set of "Houston 500." The Fish had a number of players at or near the top of their range last season, making slippage likely. Saving them from oblivion is the strength of a good young rotation, even without Josh Johnson.

#28. Cincinnati Reds, 72-90, sixth in NL Central, 737 RS, 826 RA. There's no zealot like a convert. I've been generally bullish on the Reds in recent years, convinced that they could outscore their pitching issues. In the wake of the midseason trades that crippled the offense last season, however, I don't think this team is going to put up nearly enough runs to win in a park that requires you take your share of 7-6 games. They'll have OBP issues up the middle, not enough defense to make up for it, and the usual bleating about how they strike out too much. The bullpen is still just OK, and any slippage by Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang-both of whom had peak seasons in 2006-is going to show up very quickly in the standings.

#27. Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 74-88, fifth in AL East, 751 RS, 823 RA. The second number may be overly optimistic, predicated as it is on continued good work from James Shields and some excessive optimism about Edwin Jackson's prospects. The D-Rays could score more than 751 runs, however, if enough things break right. I'm not a fan of the veterans at first base; I'd rather see Elijah Dukes or B.J. Upton play every day rather than Ty Wigginton and Greg Norton, and for that matter, I'd just as soon see Jonny Gomes get one more shot instead as well. Even at that, this team could break 800 runs if the supremely talented outfielders get on base a bit more. The D-Rays are on the right track.

#26. Kansas City Royals, 74-88, fifth in AL Central, 825 RS, 901 RA. The team that sported a contender's offense in the second half of '06 adds a terrific hitter in Alex Gordon and removes a dead weight in Angel Berroa. Well, replacing Berroa with Tony Pena, Jr. doesn't help much, but Pena should at least cost fewer runs on the basepaths. The Royals will score enough to be dangerous; the pitching staff, especially the bullpen, remains an eyesore. The rotation would be helped by a healthy and effective Zack Greinke, and the bullpen might get good work from Octavio Dotel and Rule 5 pick Joakim Soria. Overall, though, the Royals will be hard pressed to hold the bad guys under five runs most nights, and they'll give up a lot of runs in the middle innings.

About Gordon making the team…why? The Royals could start the season with him in Triple-A and then call him up in May, trading 25 games of his services in a lost season for a full season of work in 2013, when they should theoretically be contending. Hold him down a month more, and they save millions on his 2010 salary. The decision involves more factors than this, but it should be clear that having an extra year of peak Alex Gordon counters an awful lot of arguments.

#25. Pittsburgh Pirates, 75-87, fifth in NL Central, 672 RS, 725 RA. I'm not quite sure that my optimism about the team's run prevention-I have them lopping 72 runs off of last year's figure-is entirely warranted. The good young left-handed starters are pitching in front of an average defense, and their ball-in-play tendencies could use more support than that. I like the variety of moderately talented hard throwers in the bullpen, some of whom will start the year in the minors. The offense just isn't good; too many right-handed hitters who swing early and often, and just one certain above-average hitter in Jason Bay. Pretty ballpark, though.

#24. Colorado Rockies, 76-86, fifth in NL West, 841 RS, 898 RA. It's very hard to predict the Rockies' runs scored and allowed because of the humidor issue. It's clear that the first four months of the season played out very strangely, and just as clear that it was business as usual thereafter. The Rockies have the makings of a pretty good offense in any environment, adding Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Iannetta up the middle to a solid corner setup. Willy Taveras should be a boost to a pitch-to-contact staff, covering lots of ground in Coors Field's roomy gaps between two so-so outfielders. Of the teams ranked so far, the Rockies are the first that I think could be much better than this prediction, possibly a wild-card contender if they can assemble a bullpen and Taveras continues to improve as a hitter.

#23. Toronto Blue Jays, 76-86, fourth in AL East, 748 RS, 793 RA. There's no position at which the Blue Jays will be significantly better in 2007 than they were in 2006. Virtually every position player was at or near the top of his range, and years like that tend to be followed by…different ones. Speed is overrated, but you can be too slow, and this Jays team is the slowest I can remember in a long time, especially through the middle of the lineup. The projected jump in runs allowed is pessimistic, predicated on the lack of a bullpen in front of B.J. Ryan and the inability to see that Dustin McGowan should be in the rotation to start the year, as well as half a schedule against some pretty good lineups. A full season of A.J. Burnett could offset those things a little. John Gibbons should be the first manager fired this season.

#22. Houston Astros, 77-85, tied for third in NL Central, 711 RS, 749 RA. This doesn't smell right to me. I think the Astros could be considerably worse than this, but the numbers are what they are. They have half an offense, with the lineup core of Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Luke Scott and Morgan Ensberg almost making up for three players up the middle who aren't good bets for .310 OBPs. The rotation drops off steeply after the top two pitchers, as does the bullpen, with little help available from within. They need Roger Clemens around just to chase .500.

#21. Milwaukee Brewers, 77-85, tied for third in NL Central, 737 RS, 775 RA. This seemingly pessimistic projection lops 58 runs off last year's pitching and defense, a huge number given that they didn't make major personnel improvements. A full, healthy season from Ben Sheets is essential, as is improvement by Rickie Weeks at second base and Bill Hall being at least average in center field. The offense isn't that good, featuring some pop but not much OBP, and like the Blue Jays, well-below-average speed. Their status as a preseason darling is unwarranted.

--

We'll cover the middle ten tomorrow, and the cream of the crop Saturday.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  The Process,  The Call-up,  Good Process

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