If it's Opening Day, it's time for the first edition of the Hit List. Few things in baseball generate as much controversy as preseason predictions, particularly when they contrast with what happened the season before. Player movement, the aging process, and regression to the mean can make last year's glory look like this year's pie in the sky, and when it does, some fans get cranky about that. Nonetheless, we here at Baseball Prospectus are determined to put our best foot forward when it comes to predicting the 2007 season, and the foundation of our
predictions is PECOTA. Once we've taken Nate Silver's basic projections (continually refined), our staff adjusts for expected playing time, and then Clay Davenport runs the revised numbers through his his Postseason Odds Report thingamajig.
The rankings you see below are based on Clay's odds, which is why a projected .529 team like the Angels can outrank stronger teams in other divisions. Also, if you note a disconnect between the projected winning percentage and the Average Won-Loss record, don't adjust your screen--the average wins and losses are derived from Clay running a million seasons for the team, while the winning percentage is a club's projected third-order winning percentage. Keep in mind that not every last-minute development--Kenny Rogers' injury, for example--is reflected in these odds. Soon enough, these teams will put their money where their mouths are, and the rankings will reflect what's actually happening on the field--it's a whole new ballgame.
Bet the under here. Terry Ryan's club stumbled out of the gate last year because the team was unwilling to put its best ballclub on the field. With a rotation that's got Carlos Silva, Ramon Ortiz, and Sidney Ponson standing in the way of progress, they're in danger of doing it again despite the continued excellence of Johan Santana, Joe Mauer, AL MVP (groan) Justin Morneau, and Joe Nathan. They need better production out of left, where the undead Rondell White remains, and even if Jason Kubel is pushed into the position by the need to DH Mauer, he'll have to improve his 2006 production to be an asset.
Daisuke Matsuzaka is a major addition to the front of the rotation--not to mention possibly the single most compelling reason to watch baseball in 2007--and the Sox have a lot more depth there than they did last season, even with the return of Jonathan Papelbon to the bullpen. But the lineup, while solid, is starting to resemble a stars-and-scrubs patchwork, with the likes of Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell, and Dustin Pedroia limiting their upside, though PECOTA likes Coco Crisp's chances of a bounceback.
Consider Eric Wedge to be on the hot seat. With four straight seasons of failing to match their Pythagorean record, the Indians have perennially underachieved on his watch; recall that they finished
#1 here in 2005 without making the playoffs, and fell 10.7 games short of their third-order projection last year. PECOTA loves their young nucleus--of their top six projected contributors, only Travis Hafner is on the wrong side of 30--and that's before accounting for the possibility of a breakout by Josh Barfield, Andy Marte, or Fausto
Carmona. But beyond C.C. Sabathia, the staff doesn't miss many bats, and that could be a problem.
The loss of Chone Figgins won't hurt as much as you think--Maicer Izturis actually projects better except where your fantasy team is concerned--but the offense is
certainly set up to fail, with underachievers at first base (Casey Kotchman) and DH (Shea
Hillenbrand), not to mention questions about the legitimacy of Gary Matthews Jr.'s 2006 breakout. Even with reasons to be pessimistic about Bartolo Colon's return from rotator cuff hell, this is still a deep rotation and a fantastic bullpen. The question is whether Mike Scioscia will look so smart in running both with Bud Black no longer by his side.
The foundation of Ryan Howard, Chase
Utley, and Jimmy Rollins might be the best in the league, and the outfield, which appeared thin in the wake of the Bobby Abreu trade, should be productive enough
if PECOTA has anything to say about it. But the surplus of starting pitchers already looks like a mirage, with Stand Pat Gillick having failed to capitalize before the injury bug bit, and the bullpen could be a nightmare in the making. This team needs something to go surprisingly right, because even for a contender, getting over the hump and into the playoffs is harder than it looks.
Despite the slightly pessimistic PECOTA projection, the Mets are in good shape. Watching the Jose Reyes-David Wright tandem develop remains one of the game's great pleasures, and the offense's most glaring weakness--the battle-scarred remains of Shawn Green--is offset by the apparent readiness of Lastings Milledge. Towards the back end of the rotation, John Maine, Oliver Perez and rookie Mike Pelfrey look as though they can credibly hold down the fort until Pedro Martinez or a big in-season acquisition arrives. A repeat of last year's bullpen, however, will be a tougher act to follow, with Guillermo Mota suspended and Duaner Sanchez still on the shelf.
This man's pick to go all the way. Jake Peavy's shoulder is apparently healthy, and graybeards Greg Maddux and David Wells should thrive in Petco, making this the strongest rotation in the league. The brothers Giles atop the lineup will be a plus for an offense that may lack for stars but is nevertheless without weakness. The only thing working against them is
age, including a lack of tradeable chits for in-season fixes.
The less-than-rave reviews of his transition to center field notwithstanding, Alfonso Soriano will provide a huge boost for the offense--remember, he's replacing Juan Freakin' Pierre. As will a healthy Derrek Lee; PECOTA sees this team
scoring 109 more runs than they did last year. Lou Piniella's brand of irascibility will be a welcome breath of fresh air compared to that of Dusty Baker, but the latter's mistakes continue to loom large, particulalrly with a rotation that desperately misses the Kerry Wood and Mark Prior of yesteryear.
More Brew Crew and less Bruise Cruise, please. A healthy Ben Sheets fronting a very deep rotation could put this club in the thick of an NL Central race that appears up for grabs. But Bill Hall's move to center ups the stakes for keeping their nucleus of young talent healthy, as there's no credible fallback (sorry, Tony Gwynn Jr.) that allows Hall's versatility to offset the fragility of Rickie
Weeks and J.J. Hardy should another injury arise.
Last year's biggest surprises have a tough act to follow, particularly with Kenny Rogers now out until the All-Star break due to surgery to remove a blood clot. For all of the pitching staff's youth, the lineup is hardly a young one--barring a Chris Shelton revival, only Curtis Granderson is under 30. Furthermore, PECOTA doesn't see the arrival of Gary Sheffield having nearly enough impact to ofsett an offense with too many low-OBP types. Jim Leyland is going to need a bigger ashtray.
The bullpen's been rebuilt with savvy John Schuerholz swaps, and Tim Hudson appears primed for a rebound. But beyond him and John Smoltz, PECOTA sees four of the remaining five starter candidates putting up ERAs in the fives, and that won't cut it in the NL East. Beyond keeping Chipper Jones healthy, they need a Jeff Francoeur breakout, a productive first base tandem of Scott Thorman and Craig Wilson, and a successful return to the infield from Kelly Johnson in order to outhit their shaky pitching.
Tony La Russa can't afford to be asleep at the wheel; the 83-win World Champs' lineup will need plenty of tweaking if they're to defend, particularly with a fragile outfield that lacks upside. On the other hand, PECOTA loves the Cards' decision to let Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver walk, projecting a combined VORP of 59.4 for Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright, compared to 23.4 for the departed
duo. Bet on Dave Duncan to nurse--or did I say doctor?--this staff into contention with his usual bag of tricks.
The Fish have their work cut out for them just to top last year's surprising showing, and concerns about the condition of Anibal Sanchez's and Josh Johnson's arms should curb some enthusiasm. Improvements from Mike Jacobs and Jeremy Hermida could make the lineup around superstud Miguel Cabrera very interesting, but those gains are tempered by the possibility of a fallback from Dan Uggla, whom PECOTA still does not love. And when Jorge Julio is the answer to your bullpen needs, you've probably asked the wrong question.
Winning the Wild Card is a tough enough act to follow without Ned Colletti upping the degree of difficulty in the majors' most balanced division. The arrivals of Luis Gonzalez and especially Juan Pierre are cause to sing the Dodger blues, and the threat that Colletti will be true to his Giant roots and burn or bury even more prospects in the service of mediocrity keeps Dodger fans laying awake at night. Reasons for optimisim: last year the Dodgers did let the talented kids find their way into the fray, and trainer Stan Conte's ability to keep the likes of Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, and Brad Penny on the field could pay additional dividends.
Admit it: the most intriguing question here is whether Coors Field scoring will return to its pre-August 4 levels (9.0 runs per game) or persist at the arcadelike 14.3 runs per game it entertained fans with afterwards. But beyond that potential for carnage--and really, haven't we already decided the latter show doesn't make for compelling baseball?--there's some interesting stuff here. Full seasons of Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Iannetta beat Clint Barmes and the Torrealba/Ardoin/Closser mess seven days of the week, Todd Helton looks primed for a comeback, and Matt Holliday and Garrett Atkins are legitimately good hitters,
altitude or no. The pitching should be...interesting.
No, Jays fans, your team's ranking here has nothing to do with my longstanding beef with the entire nation of non-Francophone Canada; the Prime Minister and I buried that hatchet long ago, finding unity in our skepticism of J.P. Ricciardi's plan. The Jays spent lavishly last winter, but only netted second place because they kept playing long after the Red Sox raised the white flag. Beyond adding Frank Thomas, they did little of consequence this winter; Royce Clayton doesn't count, nor does letting someone else overpay Ted Lilly, and while Vernon Wells' huge contract is a long-term plus, he'd have been in the lineup anyway come Opening Day unless the Jays panicked. Meanwhile, the AL East's big guns reloaded, leaving the Jays to pay in the standings.
Barry Bonds appears healthier than at any time since 2004, though the three-ring circus--steroids, the home run record, and questions about his health and usage--will continue to follow him around. Elsewhere, the rest of the lineup continues to do little more than age. In the rotation, Barry Zito's arrival won't mean as much as the Giants think, but Tim Lincecum may provide a big shot in the arm.
Boosters like to point to the Bucs' relatively strong second-half showing (37-35), but that ignores the fact that they were outscored by a whopping 43 runs in that span, sporting a run differential of a .400 team, not one around .500. The young rotation appears primed for a step forward, but in a lineup where nobody this side of Jason Bay and Adam LaRoche projects to put up a .350 OBP, scoring runs will remain a problem.
With full seasons from Delmon Young,
B.J. Upton and perhaps even Elijah Dukes on tap, the Rays' lineup could be bursting at the seams with young talent. In the rotation, James Shields offers a credible counterpunch to Scott Kazmir, and Edwin Jackson's a worthy flyer to take, but this pitching staff cries out for a couple of League Average Innings Munchers. A .500 record is a stretch, but this is the season the Rays start wandering out of the wilderness.
It's been a long road for the Orioles, but after nine years of hard work, we believe that Next Year has arrived: the O's will finally crash into the basement of the AL East. The pitching staff has upside; Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera are maturing nicely, and if Jaret Wright is ever going to approach his 2004, it will be on Leo Mazzone's watch. But the O's are still trying to run an offense with underwhelmers like Jay Payton, Jay Gibbons, Aubrey Huff, and Kevin Millar in the key spots,; we saw a similar show last year, and it wasn't pretty.
Yes, White Sox fans--and you too, Kenny and Ozzie--we've hired an employee tasked specifically to handle your complaints. PECOTA clearly doesn't dish out much love here, seeing a rotation where nobody might be better than league average; given last year's second-half collapses of Mark Buehrle and Jose Contreras, the middle-of-the-roadness of Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez, and
the extreme flyball tendency of John Danks, that may be merited. Plus there's a lineup that may feature both Scott Podsednik AND Darin Erstad as subzero contributors, and a division that appears to have three other contenders. I'm comfortable taking the over here, but even so, it could be a long summer on the South Side.
Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo are an enviable 1-2 punch, but until Homer Bailey arrives, the most notable thing about the rest of the staff is GM Wayne Krivsky's determination to build a Franken-reliever out of discarded limbs and organs (they didn't releaseall of Dustin Hermanson, you know). Just about anything can happen in the NL Central, anything except now-rightfielder Ken Griffey Jr. producing at a level that can provide the offense with another big bat besides Adam Dunn.
Discussing the patchworked rotation may not be the cow-tipping exercise it looked like a few weeks back, but the upside is that if Manny Acta plays his cards right, this team might avoid 100 losses. Meanwhile, Nick Johnson's return appears anything but a certainty, and if this team lets Cristian Guzman and Nook Logan devour the playing time of Chris Snelling and Ronnie Belliard, that 100th loss will zoom by in late August.
Alex Gordon's arrival, Zack Greinke's return, and Angel Berroa's demotion instantly make this team more likeable and compelling than last year's basement bunch. That said, PECOTA loathes this rotation, seeing seven out of eight potential starters with ERAs above 5.00. When troubles with Luke Hudson's shoulder translate into "more Brandon Duckworth, please," the results may not be viewable by audience members under the age of 18.