April 3, 2009
The Middle Third
By way of reminder, here is the first installment. I forgot to mention that that the cutoff for "surprise" falls between the Pirates and the Astros, with the Orioles and Blue Jays in a separate category due to the AL East. I can see scenarios where even the Astros, White Sox, and Nationals are all relevant deep into the summer this season, and while I don't expect those things to happen, the nature of the game right now certainly allows for it. Once you get to the Royals at 24th, you're into the pool of teams that can legitimately dream.
Teams are ranked by record, primarily a function of runs scored and runs allowed, which are what I spent the last week calculating. I've made an occasional manual change to account for particularly strong or weak bullpens that can cause a team to diverge from its Pythagorean record, and to make everything balance at 2,430-2,430..
#20: Texas Rangers (78-84, 860 RS, 888 RA). It's very tempting to see the Rangers as a surprise team this year, what with a confluence of young talent on the way and a front office that is turning the team over to its youth. However, while the position players, many of them imports like Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Nelson Cruz, will boost the offense, the pitchers are a year behind. The Opening Day rotation isn't very good, and it pitches in front of a defense that leaves something to be desired. As much as I like the lineup, Elvis Andrus isn't ready to hit in the majors, and the ongoing fascination with David Murphy puzzles me. They'll sort these issues out in '09, and be my pick to win the West in 2010. And 2011. And 2012.
#19: St. Louis Cardinals (79-83, 772 RS, 788 RA). The problem with the Skip Schumaker experiment isn't that he might not work out as a second baseman. The problem is that the Cardinals need more glove than he's ever going to realistically provide. The Cards' rotation doesn't miss bats, which makes them reliant on their defense; by shifting an outfielder to second and allowing the adventure that is Chris Duncan to win the left-field job, the Cardinals are pushing their defense past the point of being able to back up the staff. The extra runs they'll get from this alignment won't be worth the cost. In general, the pitching staff was over its head last year, and some improvement from the bullpen won't make up for that. Color me skeptical on a Chris Carpenter comeback.
#18: Milwaukee Brewers (79-83, 756 RS, 761 RA). Last year's team returns down half a starting pitcher, as Yovani Gallardo slides into Ben Sheets' slot and no one replaces CC Sabathia. So why such a big decline? The bullpen, shaky a year ago, looks even worse today, although I do like the idea of Carlos Villanueva throwing 110 innings in relief. The seven-righties-and-Prince plan doesn't seem any better in the lineup today than it has the past two years, and while the defense is better than it was in 2007, it's certainly not good. If I'm off here, it's on the high side.
#17: Colorado Rockies (80-82, 801 RS, 809 RA). And if I'm off here, it's on the low side. The Rockies have done a very good job making decisions this spring, keeping Dexter Fowler around, and going with Franklin Morales and Jorge De La Rosa in the rotation. Full seasons from Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton will help both the offense and defense, as will letting Fowler play his way into the everyday center-field job. The 2007 team had a fantastic defense, which is why it went to the World Series. This one has better balance, and will go as far as the young starting pitchers take it. That's probably .500 in a much tougher division than the '07 team faced.
#16: San Francisco Giants (80-82, 657 RS, 658 RA). By projected VORP, the three best Giants are all pitchers, with Randy Johnson (29.7) beating out Pablo Sandoval (25.0). That's as descriptive a statistic as you'll find for a team, pretty much defining the 2009 Giants, who have a championship-caliber front of the rotation tacked onto a 100-loss roster. Except for Barry Zito, the rotation misses bats, which will be an essential skill in front of an infield defense that could be the worst in the game, even with decent glove man Travis Ishikawa manning first base. As we approach two years since his last at-bat with the team, Barry Bonds would still be the Giants' best hitter, and it's not all that close.
#15: Florida Marlins (81-81, 797 RS, 792 RA). They're still working on things, having traded for Ross Gload and Hayden Penn in the last few days, trying to bolster an unbalanced roster. They don't appear willing to make the obvious move of pushing Dan Uggla to third base or first base so that Emilio Bonifacio can upgrade the defense at second, and until the Marlins do something about their infield defense, they won't prevent runs as well as they should. There is a lot of young pitching talent here, but Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Chris Volstad, and others have to throw extra pitches, usually from the stretch, because the defense doesn't do its job. I'm bullish on the offense because of Jeremy Hermida, who should get back to the approach that made him a great prospect this year. If we see Logan Morrison in July, so much the better.
#14: Cincinnati Reds (82-80, 752 RS, 743 RA). Hey, Joe Sheehan picks the Reds higher than anyone else outside of Ohio. Film at 11. The rotation, with two veteran starters and good young ones, plus Micah Owings and Homer Bailey, sells me. The Reds could have a stable, above-average rotation that allows them to run a staff to compete, rather than just to survive. The problem is that the offense isn't good enough, with OBP issues at five spots at least. The commitment to defense is well-intentioned, and as we've seen in recent seasons, can be a critical part of a surprise team. More likely, however, is that it will make the Reds cosmetically better while leaving them just short of contention.
#13: Minnesota Twins (82-80, 748 RS, 735 RA). It's very difficult to slot them without knowing the status of Joe Mauer, and now Scott Baker is also hurt. With Mauer, they can score enough runs to win the Central. Without him, even if it's only for 40 games, they cannot. They don't have a good place to get him at-bats without catching him; if he has to DH, one of their better hitters has to sit. Perhaps he eventually moves to third base, which is a scar for this team-no, Joe Crede is not a solution-but you can't do that in-season. Remember, also, that they scored a bunch of extra runs last season with a performance with runners in scoring position that is unlikely to be repeated.
#12: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (83-79, 741 RS, 726 RA). Like the Twins, the Angels have so many injuries that it's hard to know where to slot them. As their defense and baserunning has declined-get past the reputation and look at what an aging, slow team this has become-so has their competition, leaving them able to dominate a weak division. That's changing now, just as their pitching staff, the other constant, gets hit by a truck. John Lackey and Ervin Santana have to be back soon and make every start the rest of the way, or 83-79 will be a pipe dream by August.
#11: Cleveland Indians (84-78, 847 RS, 822 RA). Someone has to win the AL Central, and the Indians have the fewest gaping holes. The back of the rotation is likely to be a revolving door all season, and for that matter, the front two in the rotation-Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona-have three good major league seasons between them. They should score a bunch of runs though, as Victor Martinez stays healthy all year, Grady Sizemore finishes second in the MVP voting, Mark DeRosa is an upgrade on the Andy Marte and Jamey Carroll at-bats he replaces, and Shin-Soo Choo peaks. If Kerry Wood stays healthy, he and Rafael Perez combine for a devastating last-six-outs combination.