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April 1, 2007

Prospectus Today

Wrapping Up the Countdown

by Joe Sheehan

I should reiterate a point I made Thursday: there's as much parity in baseball right now as at any time in history. I didn't intend to have this mass of teams clustered in the 80s in wins, but when I sat down to do my runs projections-not PECOTA's, my own, although I take into account PECOTA projections for players-that's where I ended up.

So when you see that the Angels are projected for last in the AL West, or that the Phillies won't win the NL West, or that the Giants look better than expected, remember that the differences among those teams and the ones they're competing with are minuscule. I think the … well, the #1 team below … is the best team in baseball, and the Nationals are the worst. I'm also comfortable with the bottom six or so teams being ones with virtually no chance to contend in 2007. Between those two poles, though, are 23 teams that just aren't separated by much. I have a 13-game gap between the #2 and #24 teams in the game, and that's tiny. My projections, taken literally, are a giant shrug of the shoulders.

With that disclaimer, here are what I believe to be the ten best teams in baseball:

#10: San Diego Padres, 85-77 record, third in NL West, 701 RS, 671 RA. The offense has been pretty good in a bad park the past few years, but the best hitters on last year's team are past their prime or in Oakland, save for Adrian Gonzalez. They need the new infielders, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Marcus Giles, to hit to keep pace. The pitching is good, albeit not quite as good as the raw numbers they've been putting up thanks to Petco Park. With David Wells and Greg Maddux averaging six or fewer innings a start, they'll be very reliant on the relievers in front of Scott Linebrink, and that's not a strong spot. They could win the West, but the team age is a very big red flag.

#9: Atlanta Braves, 85-77, second in NL East, 823 RS, 787 RA. As much as I like the offense-Brian McCann, MVP candidate-that's how much I don't like the rotation. Lance Cormier? Mark Redman? I don't know what to think of Tim Hudson, whose stuff, command and peripherals have disappeared over his last 50 starts or so. Kyle Davies pitched his way back to Richmond, a bad sign given the names I just used. The bullpen is going to be much better thanks to Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, which should mean fewer games lost in the seventh and eighth innings this year. If more are lost before then, however, it's just running in place.

#8: Los Angeles Dodgers, 86-76, second in NL West (wild card), 777 RS, 731 RA. No matter what they think of his leaving, the Dodgers can't replace J.D. Drew with Juan Pierre or Luis Gonzalez and not feel the loss. The decision to bury James Loney in favor of Nomar Garciaparra isn't exactly inspired, either. Brett Tomko starting with Chad Billingsley in the bullpen? The talent is here, it just has to get on the field all at once. Few teams are better equipped to fix problems in-season, but that has to mean more than giving the Devil Rays good players in exchange for the likes of Mark Hendrickson.

#7: New York Mets, 86-76, first in NL East, 806 RS, 758 RA. There's room for the Mets to decline and still win the division, which is good for them, since they won't win 97 games again. The pitching staff is almost exactly where it was last October, a mix of the very old and very unproven, and while I like the unproven half-John Maine, Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey is actually a pretty good 3-5-the likelihood is that the staff will allow more runs in 2007. The bullpen…well, Joe Smith made the team, and I had never heard of him before earlier this week. He's basically a Chad Bradford replacement. Chan Ho Park may be a seventh-inning guy for them, and if not Park, Ambiorix Burgos. It's not that it can't work, it's just a high-variance group of pitchers. They will score runs, even more now that David Wright is batting second, and that will paper over a number of sins. They might also get a boost from the return of Pedro Martinez down the stretch; perhaps that's the real solution to the seventh-inning problem.

#6: Boston Red Sox, 86-76, second in AL East, 816 RS, 764 RA. Every time this looks inadequate, I just remind myself that it's 57-run swing over last season, which is a big bounce. The Sox, of course, made big moves, adding Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo. They also return, however, many of the aging hitters who contributed to last year's terrible second half. I'm not sure what the Sox expect to get from the 6-9 slots, but it won't be championship-caliber performance. The bullpen-and I'll be the first to defend the nonclosercentric approach-is a work in progress even with Jonathan Papelbon now pitching the ninth inning of games where the Sox lead by three or less regardless of who's batting for the opposition. I liked them better when he was throwing 180 innings. The ghost of 2003 hangs heavy over this decision; does anyone remember just how awesome that bullpen was by the end of the year, though?

#5: Oakland A's, 88-74, second in AL West (wild card), 749 RS, 685 RA. …before Dan Johnson got hurt. I'm stuck with this now, but losing Johnson for six to 12 weeks puts a damper on the A's offense, and worse, my AL Tout team. This could mean another opportunity for Billy Beane's white whale, Erubiel Durazo, or even an accelerated opportunity for Travis Buck in the outfield. This injury makes them more reliant on players such as Eric Chavez, Mark Kotsay and Bobby Crosby, all of whom were either hampered or benched by injuries last year. They don't need to have a great offense to win-the pitching is going to be very good, possibly the best in the league-but it would be nice for them to field a complete lineup in most games. The gap between them and the teams below them is small enough that they can't afford another injury like this.

#4: Texas Rangers, 89-73, first in AL West, 868 RS, 788 RA. The Rangers' problem last year wasn't pitching, it was scoring. Read that again. The team was 11th in the AL in Equivalent Average, as Hank Blalock and Brad Wilkerson formed the most disappointing pair of lefties since Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. Even stars Mark Teixeira and Michael Young had years that looked better on the surface, loaded with hits and homers and RBI, then they actually were as measured by more advanced metrics. This year, the pitching should still be fine again, highlighted by what should be a terrific bullpen if Eric Gagne stays healthy, and a good one if he doesn't. Where the improvement lies is at the plate; the Rangers are a bit the opposite of the Twins and Blue Jays in that you can project gains at many offensive slots. The defense, now featuring Kenny Lofton, will not be an asset, so watch the strikeout rates as a key indicator of run prevention.

#3: Arizona Diamondbacks, 89-73, first in NL West, 843 RS, 765 RA. Get off my bandwagon. Mine. The young hitting talent, the hard throwers in the bullpen, the deeper rotation with the additions of Randy Johnson and Doug Davis…this is a good baseball team, and it might actually be the best in the National League. I love the upside, especially from the core of Stephen Drew, Chris Young, Carlos Quention and Conor Jackson. The defense should be much better this year with Young in center field, another reason why they could lop 20-odd runs off 2006's mark. But it's the offense that will drive them to a division crown.

#2: Cleveland Indians, 89-73, first in AL Central, 838 RS, 757 RA. True story: this wouldn't be as good a run differential as they sported last year, when they went 78-84. So in actuality, I'm projecting them to a little bit worse than they were last year. OK, that's taking Pythag a bit too seriously, but still, the Indians don't have to get a lot better to win the Central. They have terrific lineup core with my pick for MVP in Grady Sizemore, and power from all nine slots. They sport a solid rotation with some upside at the front, one that will hopefully take the pressure off an improved, but just barely average, bullpen. Eric Wedge has to let skills and performance dictate roles out there, rather than experience and salary. Hello, Fernando Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Ryan Garko and Rafael Betancourt, and goodbye Joe Borowski, Trot Nixon, Casey Blake and Roberto Hernandez. How the playing time gets spread will determine whether this pick looks good or not.

#1: New York Yankees, 95-67, first in AL East, 942 RS, 788 RA. They can score like crazy, Robinson Cano hit .342 last year and will bat eighth. The first-base platoon will bat ninth. Funny thing is, neither choice is a bad one given the roster. The pitching problems are real, and a symptom of the Yankees' biggest issue: age. You can only have so many thirtysomethings around before bad things start to happen in clusters. Philip Hughes and Melky Cabrera are critical to this team, there to patch holes and provide above-average performance if and when the old guys get hurt. They've quietly assembled a pretty deep bullpen, which will also help out a staff that won't average six innings a start. The farm system is deep enough now to allow for one more Bobby Abreu-style trade this summer, probably for a starting pitcher such as Dontrelle Willis. Even without that, the offense is just so good they can win it all.

What happens in October? Strangely enough, postseason series aren't any easier to predict from six months out than they are six hours out. Officially, I'll go with the Yankees over the A's and the Indians over the Rangers, followed by the Yankees over the Indians. The Diamondbacks take out the Cubs while the Dodgers handle the Mets. The Yankees and Diamondbacks advance to the World Series, and the Yankees win in six.

Now, I've been asked to make a lot of predictions in a lot of places over the last two weeks, generally before I had enough time to sort through the numbers. The picks in this column are the ones I'll stand by.

Back Sunday with my annual comparisons of my wins projections with, er, entertainment industry ones, just for, uh, funsies. And note that a chat session has been added Monday afternoon, to coincide with-say it with me-Opening Freakin' Day. Finally.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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