April 5, 2009
The Top Ten
Here is the first installment (teams numbered 30-21), and here is the second (teams 21-11).
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.
#10: Philadelphia Phillies (86-76, 819 RS, 774 RA)
The Phillies were very health-fortunate the past two seasons, with only Jimmy Rollins' 2008 ankle injury being notable. As we head into '09, they're already sweating Cole Hamels and Chase Utley, two players they simply have no way of replacing. Utley seems like he's ready to go, which is a relief, but in general this prediction includes a sense that everything went right for the last two years, and they don't have much room for anything to go wrong. They'll allow more runs even if completely healthy, as last year's bullpen performance is not repeatable, and they don't have much room to grow offensively to make up for that. There's no shame in being one of the ten best teams in baseball, and that you can be that and not reach the playoffs is a feature, not a bug.
#9: Tampa Bay Rays (86-76, 766 RS, 719 RA)
Playing almost a quarter of their schedule against the two best teams in the game costs them dearly, perhaps up to four games off of their record. They'd be a favorite or co-favorite in any other division in the game, even regressing a bit off of their terrific '08 performance. It's hard to know what they'll get from some of last year's surprises in the bullpen, such as J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour. I do think the defense will give up a few more hits this season, though that's as much about buying into the Plexiglass Principle as anything else, and when I look at the team on the field I have a hard time backing that up. The Rays also represent one of the most interesting off-field stories of the season: does the pennant have enough of an effect on attendance in a place where baseball hasn't been embraced?
#8: Chicago Cubs (87-75, 784 RS, 726 RA)
This is a bearish assessment, though still enough to win them the division. Subjectively, I think they're going to be even a bit worse than this, with no center fielder on the roster, their best pitcher and best hitter both massive injury cases, and projected declines at all five infield slots. The bullpen will be worse as well. It will be interesting to see how Kosuke Fukudome plays; Hideki Matsui didn't hit for a ton of power in his first season over here, then rediscovered it in his second. The righty-heavy Cubs desperately need the stud they signed, and not last year's fourth outfielder.
#7: Arizona Diamondbacks (88-74, 823 RS, 748 RA)
Brandon Webb was the big loser this winter, as a team that already had Mark Reynolds in the infield swapped out Orlando Hudson for Felipe Lopez. That's as big a voluntary defensive downgrade as you'll find. Lopez has lost a number of jobs in his career for his inability to be an adequate defensive infielder; he lacks range or hands, and has a tendency to make mental mistakes. Throw in Reynolds and a mediocre first baseman-worse if Conor Jackson heads back that way-and you have an infield that doesn't mesh well with Webb's skills. The outfield, however, could be very good on the days that Eric Byrnes plays left, which bodes well for the other four starters. The Diamondbacks will go as far as the young hitters take them, which was also true last year and two years ago. It's a critical year for Chris B. Young.
#6: Oakland Athletics (88-74, 746 RS, 695 RA)
Not a typo, though I keep thinking it is. The A's additions of Matt Holliday and Orlando Cabrera were such massive upgrades on both sides of the ball over what played left field and shortstop last year that they'll have a huge effect. It's not just a statistical thing; the A's, who collectively take good at-bats and draw walks, needed guys to bat .290 with a bunch of doubles, because few teams squandered more good counts and more good situations last year. Holliday and Cabrera fit perfectly in this lineup, making it a good offense. The rotation is shaky-Dallas Braden, Opening Day starter?-but there's so much pitching in the upper levels that it could be a lot better in August than in April. The bullpen is fantastic, five deep when Joey Devine returns.
#5: Atlanta Braves (91-71, 799 RS, 703 RA)
Also not a typo. The Braves' rotation was a bad joke last season, so the additions of Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, and Kenshin Kawakami have a similar effect on their prospects as the additions of Holliday and Cabrera do for the Braves. The Braves are going to play very good defense; only Chipper Jones and Garret Anderson don't handle their positions well. The threat of two OBP sinks in the middle of the lineup, Anderson and Jeff Francoeur, is the main reason to be pessimistic, and using Tom Glavine in the rotation provides another. The organization's blind spot about experience could hurt it in a season when it should be able to get back to October.
#4: Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70, 819 RS, 711 RA)
I'm no Casey Blake fan, but if he's the worst hitter you've got, then you're on to something. The Dodgers' signings of Orlando Hudson and Manny Ramirez upgraded them from a fringe contender to one of the best teams in baseball in the waning days of the offseason. The decision to use James McDonald in the rotation will be worth a few wins as well, and while the back of the rotation is still a weakness, there's enough bullpen here-Cory Wade and Hung-Chih Kuo could own the seventh and eighth innings-to make up for it.
#3: New York Mets (92-70, 812 RS, 712 RA)
They could have done more this winter, and if Daniel Murphy and Ryan Church don't work out in the corners as Manny Ramirez rakes in LA, the local media will have a field day. However, the upgrades to the bullpen aren't just cosmetic, they're real, and they mean that the Mets won't have to sweat three-run leads with six outs to go they way they did during the last two Septembers. Just winning the games they should win will be enough to bump them back above the Phillies in the East. It's not inconceivable that the Mets could have the three most valuable players in the NL in Johan Santana, Jose Reyes, and David Wright.
As long as I'm here, let me ask this question: what does Gary Sheffield do that Nick Evans doesn't? Is there anything at all? It's not as if Evans is such a great prospect that he absolutely has to play every day to develop his skills; he's about what he's going to be, and for what the Mets signed Sheffield to do, Evans would be better and provide more flexibility.
#2: New York Yankees (95-67, 789 RS, 675 RA)
The age of this offense is a big concern, and it was even before Alex Rodriguez went down, reminding everyone of how Jorge Posada's shoulder changed the 2008 season. Six of the nine regulars are past-peak guys, giving the lineup a 2008 Tigers feel. There's more depth on the pitching staff, and with A.J. Burnett not in a walk year, they'll likely need it. The bullpen, which gets very little attention, is a huge strength for this team; the Yankees may win a number of games in which a starter gets knocked out just because their #11 and #12 guys are likely to be average pitchers. They're DOA if Posada can't catch 120 games, however. The fallback positions are awful, and there would be a nasty effect on everyone's playing time if he has to DH. Finally: less Xavier Nady, more Nick Swisher.
#1: Boston Red Sox (102-60, 822 RS, 637 RA)
The Red Sox have a ridiculous amount of pitching on hand, which makes their efforts to gild the lily by adding John Smoltz, Brad Penny, and Takashi Saito seem sinful. Clay Buchholz couldn't make this team, and he'd be the top starter on about six other staffs. Justin Masterson is between roles, and he'd be the second starter on six others. This is a run-prevention team now, with plus defenders at most positions to go with a staff that is going to give them easy work on a lot of nights, and pitching depth that no team can match. If there's a problem, it's some lack of offensive depth and a reliance on players, such as Mike Lowell, J.D. Drew, and David Ortiz, who have recent injury histories. They might need a bat come the summer.
Red Sox 102 60 .630 --
Yankees* 95 67 .586 7
Rays 86 76 .531 16
Blue Jays 76 86 .469 26
Orioles 73 89 .451 29
Indians 84 78 .519 --
Twins 82 80 .506 2
Tigers 75 87 .463 9
Royals 74 88 .457 10
White Sox 73 89 .451 11
A's 88 74 .543 --
Angels 83 79 .512 5
Rangers 78 84 .481 10
Mariners 77 85 .475 11
Mets 92 70 .568 --
Braves* 91 71 .562 1
Phillies 86 76 .531 6
Marlins 81 81 .500 11
Nationals 74 88 .457 18
Cubs 87 75 .537 --
Reds 82 80 .506 5
Brewers 79 83 .488 8
Cardinals 79 83 .488 8
Astros 70 92 .432 17
Pirates 62 100 .383 25
Dodgers 92 70 .568 --
Diamondbacks 88 74 .543 4
Giants 80 82 .494 12
Rockies 80 82 .494 12
Padres 61 101 .377 31
World Series: Red Sox over Braves.
Eight hours. I am not at all ashamed to tell you that I'm very excited right now.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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