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March 26, 2013
These Questions Three: The Legit Contenders
In the week leading up to Opening Day, we're asking and answering three questions about each team in a five-part series ordered by descending Playoff Pct from the Playoff Odds Report. Today, we continue with a look at the group of six teams with the highest odds of winning at least a Wild Card. As a reminder, you can find links to our preview podcasts for each team here.
Playoff Pct: 62.9 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 41.8
Team TAv: .260
Runs Scored: 707
Runs Allowed: 648
Team FRAA: 4.6
1. These guys had the most wins in baseball last year, swapped out a pretty good pitcher for another pretty good pitcher, added a dominant closer in place of the mediocre one they had last season, get a full year of Stephen Strasburg, and get Bryce Harper a year older. Should anybody be looking at them as anything less than one of the “favorites” we covered yesterday?
Adam Sobsey: Isn't some of it just historical bias? The Yankees are the Yankees with their 27 championships; the Nats are still upstarts in many eyes (even though they're kind of the old Expos in new clothes), and I think the controversial Strasburg shutdown last year, plus the fact that their best player was a youngster (Harper), also had the effect of making the franchise look a little babyish even though they have a veteran manager. We tend not to trust greatness that seems to arise ex nihilo until retrospection allows us to see how they built their foundation of success (if indeed the Nats go on to have sustained success). What do you think? Is there a 2012-13-based, rational, by-the-numbers reason not to have them in the top tier?
Sam Miller: Well, I personally have picked the Nationals to win the NL East in 2013, but even as a booster I can see an argument for plenty of regression in the rotation. Last year, the Nationals had the best starting ERA in the league. There were solid teams (the Brewers, the Pirates, almost the Diamondbacks) that didn't have one starter with an ERA lower than the Nationals' fourth-best starter, Ross Detwiler. It really is a dynamite rotation, a rotation that led the league in strikeouts and rarely gave up home runs. But it's also a pitching staff with mediocre walk and groundball rates, a staff that finished middle of the pack in K:BB ratio and close to the middle of the pack in xFIP. Even with Strasburg throwing 200 innings, I'd be happy to bet on the Nationals' staff allowing 50 more runs in 2013 than it did a year ago.
AS: But do you think the bullpen anchored by Soriano could compensate for a rise in the starters' ERA? I know holds are a dodgy stat for any number of reasons, but the Nats were second in baseball in that stat last year, and their 23 blown saves was actually not that bad, about middle-of-the-pack. The overall picture is of a very good bullpen that has just improved with the addition of Soriano. If you reload the setup corps with Clippard and Storen (Washington's last two closers, in 2012 and '11, respectively), pushing even better arms to the sixth and seventh innings in relief, maybe that can take the pressure off the starters to be as dominant.
2. Iffiest issue (pick one): Dan Haren's drop in velocity; Danny Espinosa's apparently already-blown-out rotator cuff, which he plans to play through; or Wilson Ramos returning from a season lost to an ACL tear?
SM: Haren is the iffiest for me. Obviously, the Nationals saw the medicals and decided they were fine. But the Angels saw the medicals, lived the medicals, and would have had more incentive to sign Haren (fly ball/contact pitcher in front of a big park and the best outfield defense in baseball, very weak bottom of rotation, win-now mode) than any team in baseball and they offered him less than 60 percent what the Nationals gave him. I just don't think there's a more compelling data point about any pitcher in baseball than the way the Angels (and, in a near-trade, the Cubs) treated Haren this winter. I wouldn't be surprised if Haren is pretty good, but I'd be surprised if he makes 20 starts, including postseason.
AS: I agree that Haren is the most worrisome of the three. I'm pretty interested in what will come from Ramos' return. Apparently his recovery from ACL surgery has been so rapid that the Nats have revised their timetable for him. Originally, they said he'd be back in June or so; now they intend to have him split catching time 50/50 with Suzuki right from opening day. Ramos said he feels even better now than he did before the injury, and he has apparently lost weight along with recuperating. His bat (.177 ISO in 2011) might help the Nats compensate for losing the power of Morse, who is now Denard Span, I guess: one injury-plagued OF replacing another.
3. Is handling Stephen Strasburg carefully now completely a thing of the past or will we have to dwell on it into October?
AS: Unless the Nats are PR fools, they'll run Strasburg out there every fifth day until the end of the season, and we're done with the silliness. Had they done exactly what they did last year with a full season of Strasburg, no one would have complained. To my thinking, it was tentative rookie coddling, and the training wheels are off from here on out. Even if they are fools, surely they learned from last year's fallout. But if Strasburg gets hurt again, there will be some who will have a field day with the argument that the 2012 babying "caused" it by not toughening the kid up. All that said, I think we're done and he's simply a pitcher now—and a really good one. But something tells me he won't be quite the elite ace he was once destined to be.
SM: I think being another year removed from Tommy John means they won’t have to be quite so sensitive, but it’s also possible that he could throw 250 innings this year if the Nationals win the World Series. In retrospect, that might be something people will look back on with some discomfort. If the Nationals can very, very, very subtly save a few pitches over the course of the year, they’ll look smart.
Playoff Pct: 48.9 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 36.7
Team TAv: .270
Runs Scored: 739
Runs Allowed: 678
Team FRAA: 9.7
1. Why does the rotation minus James Shields look so much less intimidating (in a sum/parts way) than it did with him?
AS: I actually predicted a breakout season for Matt Moore this year—a dangerous thing to do for a sophomore—but David Price/Moore/Jeremy Hellickson/Alex Cobb/Jeff Niemann (Niemann is the announced no. 5 until further notice, with Archer to Triple-A for now) doesn't quite convince me.
I'm not sad at all about them losing Shields. PECOTA projects him to be worse (by ERA) than Price, of course, and also Hellickson, and also Moore, and also Niemann, which okay we can disregard that little nugget but the point is that there are a lot of narrative lenses through which we can look at Shields, and one of them (the one I like) is that he's basically a durable league-average pitcher who has as many disastrous, sub-replacement seasons as he has had ace-like seasons. It's true that he throws a massive number of innings, so maybe he's harder to replace in a rotation than, say, Moore or Hellickson would have been this year. But it's also possible that all those innings catch up with him.
Cobb, by the way, projects to an ERA just .06 runs worse than Shields. Am I just missing something fundamental about Shields by not watching him as closely as a Rays fan does?
AS: I'm not a Rays fan either, just a guy who spends a lot of time looking up through the Triple-A wormhole at them, and in fact I rarely actually see them play. But I think it's that Shields has a track record of dominance, albeit not consistently; even in "down" years he will have the occasional dominant start that makes you sit up and go, "Oh, ace!" But you may very well be correct about the overstated impact of losing him. I do think we see him differently. Shields hasn't any sub-replacement seasons in his career, and while he wasn’t worth as much according to WARP last season, many of the key peripherals (FIP, K-rate, BB-rate, HR-rate) held steady from his dominant, 2.4-WARP 2011. I do agree that the question is whether the high mileage catches up with him.
I have to think that sophomore slump hits either Cobb or Moore, and I wonder about Hellickson, who appears to be getting by on (ugh) clutchiness so far in his career.
As for Alex Torres, I've watched that guy pitch and talked to him countless times over the last two seasons. He was a total disaster last year. Some of it is that he's little and has to throw across his body. The good part is that that gives his pitches natural movement. The bad part is that he has no command of that movement. He is also easily unnerved by that lack of command, and confidence is as much an issue as anything. But there is one sign of hope. The Rays sent him to the low minors last year to work on his mechanics, and he returned to Durham on the last day of the season having ditched his curve for a slider (which helped him regulate his release point), and having removed some of the head and neck noise in his delivery. The result was the best game I've seen him pitch. He's still only 25.
2. The bullpen was superb last year. Fernando Rodney won't do another Eckersley, Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth are 37 (and Farnsworth mostly injured last year), and Wade Davis, who had an excellent '12, is gone to KC with Shields. So?
SM: This barely counts as analysis, but unless there is something extreme going on I don't even bother predicting bullpens. I just assume that all bullpens are average, and that fluctuation from year to year is unpredictable. The Rays aren't a bad example of this. Going back four years, the Rays' bullpen has finished:
in team bullpen FIP in the AL. The fact that they got great performance last year means they're likely to lose a couple wins to regression. But just as Rodney won't be as good and Davis will be gone, somebody else totally unexpected (Roberto Hernandez!) will be dominant and some busted down prospect (Alex Torres!) will be reborn in the 'pen.
AS: And watch out for Chris Archer, too. He could be Wade Davis (part two) if they can't find a place for him in the big-league rotation.
SM: I'm still surprised that Scott is coming back. Why are the Rays so good at everything and so bad at filling DH? Scott last year, Johnny Damon in 2011, Willy Aybar in 2010, Pat Burrell in 2009. They've ranked 13th, 10th, 11th and 12th in DH OPS+ during that time. It just seems incredible that Jim Thome has never been on one of these teams.
AS: I know—I guess I always assumed it was because Thome just didn't want to play there. The affection for Scott baffles me, although he's raking in spring training with an 1143 OPS. But is he really going to stay healthy? He has also had a hammy injury this month.
SM: All the burden isn't on Myers and Scott. A lot, but not all. Yunel Escobar could be a massive upgrade over the non-Zobrist shortstops, who hit .239/.295/.327 last year. Evan Longoria should play a full season. And Desmond Jennings could break out a bit. All of those things should offset the addition of James Loney.
AS: For me, I need to see the Rays get a real impact hitting performance where they haven't gotten one before if I'm going to believe in them as a contender, especially in the AL East. Granting the Longoria exception—he missed half of last year—for me, the candidate to provide the muscle they've lacked is Myers.
Playoff Pct: 42.6 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 37.6
Team TAv: .258
Runs Scored: 658
Runs Allowed: 623
Team FRAA: 7.7
AS: The latter, but that's less because I predict that Zito is going to be better than league average than because Lincecum looks like he might really be rapidly flaming out. I don't buy PECOTA's optimism. Check out his spring training stats. (Yes, small sample, but still, those numbers are horrifying: 10.97 ERA, 2.25 WHIP.) I feel like they'll go out and get a starter on the free agent market at midseason (see below), just as you suggest they will given Brian Sabean's preference for July deals over off-season acquisitions. I'm not wild about the Giants' overall chances this year. The farm system is depleted—not a big surprise from a team that has been focused on winning World Series a lot lately—and things that worked for them last year can't possibly work this year (also see below).
SM: The scary thing for the Giants is that they went 21-11 in Zito’s starts (not counting postseason) and basically relied on him to pitch them to the postseason. That's already super troubling; what are the odds that Zito pitches that well again? But even more troubling is that he didn't actually pitch well at all, according to defense-independent stuff. By WARP, he was below replacement level and matched his second-worst season as a Giant. So basically the Giants need to replace 21 wins from a guy who appears to be just incredibly bad at pitching. And they have no real credible sixth starter. It's the oddest thing about their offseason, to me.
2. Sabean is always extremely active around the trade deadline; it sometimes seems like he never signs any free agents, but that might just be because he's adding so many friggin’ pieces in July. So predict the Giants' trade deadline deal this year—both halves of it.
AS: Assuming they're buyers, not sellers? They do a deal with the Orioles after it becomes clear that Baltimore's 2012 magic is unrepeatable. They deal from their OF prospect strength and send either Gary Brown or Francisco Peguero to Baltimore for Jake Arrieta, whose potential the O's have tired of waiting on.
AS: Honestly, I believe in both of them, but I'll settle for Pence because a) it's easier to repeat terribleness and b) Pence's gawkiness allows for extremes positive and negative, so if he never moves the needle out of the deep red I won't be surprised. No way Scutaro hits .362 again, as he did for the Giants last year.
SM: Pence is the weirdest thing, because when he's playing badly—as he did with the Giants—you can't possibly imagine him ever playing well. There's no way that body and that movement can combine to produce something so transcendent as good baseball. You have to really remind yourself that he actually has a track record! God bless the scout who found him and didn't get turned off.
Scutaro is weird because he seems like he can flip a switch and go from being suuuuuper patient to suuuuper aggressive (fewer u's in suuuuper aggressive because he's never quite as aggressive as he is patient), and there aren't many players who do that. He's really in control of every at-bat. It's a beautiful thing to watch, and Giants fans will love watching it. But also he's a league-average hitter, nothing more. There's nothing wrong with that. He just won't repeat.
AS: Yeah, Pence reminds me of something I once read about Johnny Damon. Paraphrasing: Damon's swing is so idiosyncratic that when he's going bad, you think he'll never get a hit again, and when he's going good, you think no one will ever get him out again.
One last question: Are you a believer in Sergio Romo as full-time closer? PECOTA is. I'm not so sure.
SM: I think Romo is one of the half-dozen best relievers in baseball, and might be in the top three (after Kimbrel and Chapman). But I'm also open to the idea that the Giants know a lot more about his durability than I do, and that ninth-inning closers are usually used so rigidly that you don't want to have somebody who can't pitch three, four, maybe five days in a row.
Playoff Pct: 42.4 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 39.8
Team TAv: .259
Runs Scored: 707
Runs Allowed: 681
Team FRAA: 22.5
1. If the Braves win the division, who will be getting the MVP votes? There are a lot of potential narratives on this team.
AS: Yeah, it's pretty cool how many Braves could be MVPs if everything went right for them. But for me, the likeliest candidate is Jason Heyward. He seems like a player whose ceiling is still a good deal higher than his results so far (closest to superstar level), he's building off a terrific (and healthy) season, and he can almost fly under the radar while the Upton brothers draw more scrutiny.
But I wouldn't be surprised if Julio Teheran finishes higher in ROY voting than any Brave does in MVP voting.
2. Whom would you rather have, salary not relevant, and future upside not relevant, for 2013: Martin Prado or Justin Upton? It seems like people believe the Braves upgraded for 2013 with that move. Is that actually true?
AS: The Upton/Prado question is a great one, and tough to answer independent of context. I kind of thought Upton's difficulties in Arizona might owe something to issues with Kirk Gibson, and I do think he'll do better with B. J. beside him and, perhaps, new management overseeing his work. I like the star potential, allowing that some of that owes to the name. Oddly, though, B. J. hasn't exactly broken through either.
SM: The thing about Upton (Justin) is that a) he kind of had a disappointing season in 2010, too, though of course he was just 22. The other thing about Upton (both) is that, when a guy needs a change of scenery because he's not getting along super well with his manager or he's not motivated or the crowds aren't big enough for him or whatever, that seems like a negative indicator for his next job. That's not to downplay the importance of context and setting. But a player who has motivation problems in one setting is probably a lot more likely to have motivation problems in another setting. Most of our quirks and foibles are intrinsic. Our ability to motivate ourselves should be intrinsic, if it's going to be durable. I don't know. I obviously don't know any of the situations up close. I've had lousy managers and my work was worse under them. But I never assume, or even strongly believe, that the problems are being entirely left behind.
3. What would need to happen for the Braves to whiff 1,530 times?
AS: This guy Dan, who works at the BBQ restaurant down the block from the place where I tend bar, will sometimes come in after his shift. Because he spends all his working hours near a meat smoker, he always smells like single-malt scotch when he walks in, so it usually isn't long before somebody is drinking single-malt scotch and everyone is talking about sports. Dan is a Braves fan but put his Vegas money on Washington to win the NL East this year. Part of his pessimism about the Braves' chances had to do with the Justin Upton deal, because that deal (he argued) only added the potential for even more strikeouts to a team that is already K-heavy. Dan even claimed that the Braves were going to break the single-season team strikeout record this year.
So, will they? I used our depth charts for playing time and PECOTA for projections, and then added 144 strikeouts from the pitchers; that is, one per non-interleague game if you don't count Game 163—which is exactly how many they had last year. I came up with 1,378 team strikeouts, up almost 100 from last year. That would be fourth all-time, third if you use only NL teams and get the DH out of there. With 22 more strikeouts, this Braves team could jump up to second place all-time at an even 1,400. But the Diamondbacks' 1,529 in 2010 seems safe to me. Nonetheless, I cheer on pursuits of records, so what would need to happen for the Braves to whiff 1,530 times? An injury to Andrelton Simmons, resulting in the Braves trading for, I don't know, Clint Barmes?
SM: a) Juan Francisco needs to play 150 games
AS: More seriously, do the new, Uptonian Braves have enough patience and power to offset all the strikeouts they're almost sure to rack up? Does it matter if you strike out a lot? Five of the top 10 striking-out teams last year went to the postseason.
SM: Generally, I'm not worried about this particular aspect of the team offense. Their overall team offense, according to PECOTA, is basically league average, which is more telling than a strikeout total, but also probably not as good as the Braves would like to think they have. Losing Chipper Jones is an underrated on-the-field storyline, though I'm moderately curious to see whether Juan Francisco can pull off one of those awesome .260/.275/.525 lines.
Playoff Pct: 40.1 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 35.7
Team TAv: .257
Runs Scored: 717
Runs Allowed: 691
Team FRAA: -6.4
1. Were the D-Backs' off-season moves as terrible as some people think?
SM: Were they as terrible as people think. Hmm. I'm always hesitant to judge smart professionals harshly, but there were some moves I liked okay, some I liked not a lot, and some I hated. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best:
Trade for Heath Bell: 1
So I guess overall it's not good, if not a terrible disaster. I can't imagine liking a trade less than I like the Heath Bell trade.
AS: Do you think the D-Backs are going to regret dealing Bauer?
SM: I don't think they'll regret it. I think the Indians could end up being very happy about having Bauer (I think I have him third in my ROY predictions), and I think the Diamondbacks could end up wishing they'd gotten something better than a no-hit shortstop (not that there's anything remotely wrong with a no-hit shortstop) for him. But the enthusiasm with which they shopped him convinces me that they didn't think Bauer in Arizona was going to work. That it was a losing hand. Once you make that decision, you can't really regret having the discipline to get away from it, even if [continuation of poker analogy to logical conclusion].
2. The Diamondbacks seem, from the outside, to be making a lot of moves based on character and personality out of deference to Kirk Gibson. If this roster implodes for some reason, does he go down with it?
AS: He is under contract through 2014, so I bet they wait out 2013 to depreciate their losses if it doesn't work out. If you stumble again in 2014, you aren't taking as much of a bath if you axe him in, say, July. But I think they probably just honor the whole contract and then decline the options after 2014. That way, if it doesn't go well with Gibson, they can "part ways with" rather than "fire" him. Otherwise, if you terminate him mid-contract you're sending a strong message that most teams don't like to send. I think passivity and hedging still tend to dominate.
SM: The flip side is that, if the Diamondbacks do really well this year, win a division, win the World Series—they wouldn't nearly be the least likely team to ever pull it off—Gibson is going to become a massively powerful manager for a very long time. I'm thinking something along the lines of Mike Scioscia, a guy who has a ton of say in personnel decisions, who gets a 10-year extension, who ages into a sort of Patriarch of Baseball role. What I'm saying is, even though I'm not a big fan of the Diamondbacks' winter, there's a non-zero chance that this year puts Gibson on the path to the Hall of Fame as a manager. So maybe worth watching.
3. A flip-side question from the very first one in the series: The D-Backs play in a division with the almost-dynastic Giants and the expensively restocked Dodgers. Yet we have them in the second group of teams, sorted by Playoff Odds. Should we be that optimistic?
SM: Maybe not that optimistic. But they have a very deep pitching staff, and that goes a long way in a long season. Last year I dumbly predicted that the White Sox would finish last. I underrated the value of a deep pitching staff. I'm wary of making the same mistake and writing off the Diamondbacks. Besides, the only player of real value whom they lost from last year is Upton, and he wasn't all that valuable. There's a lot of the same team here that won 94 games in 2011, and some improvements as well.
AS: I'm with you (and admit it was kind of a rigged question). I think the Bell trade, the Ross deal, and the Upton deal, though dubious to varying degrees, made Arizona's overall picture look worse than it is, largely because of the baggage that surrounded Bell and Upton. I look at that depth chart and see a good team that could be very good. And I love the upside of Randall Delgado.
Playoff Pct: 34.2 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 32.3
Team TAv: .261
Runs Scored: 721
Runs Allowed: 705
Team FRAA: -3.0
1. The Cardinals basically bring back the entire same team they fielded in 2012, swapping out Kyle Lohse for Shelby Miller. That's standing almost historically pat, it seems. Will it work?
SM: I wrote about the Giants' standing pat earlier this offseason, and for historical standing patness it's hard to top the 2005 Astros, who brought back 99 percent of their postseason offense and 100 percent of their postseason pitching. But point taken. I think the difference between the Cardinals and the Giants, though, is that the Cardinals have the best farm system in baseball and have loads of high-upside reinforcements coming, imminently. With Oscar Taveras likely blocked for a season, and Trevor Rosenthal blocked from the rotation, they arguably could have been sellers this offseason, in a weird and unorthodox way. Standing pat is a funny-sounding phrase.
AS: You know the old Richard Nixon "We cannot stand pat" accidental-joke oopsie from the Kennedy debate? His wife's name was Pat. Anyway, the Cards finished a distant second in the NL Central last year, so it's not as if the returning forces are world-beaters. I do get that they have a deep farm system, with some of the produce about ready to be harvested (Miller, Rosenthal, Taveras), but who knows what they'll get from such young players? Taveras doesn't turn 21 until June. I'm also expecting Yadier Molina to decline from his great 2012, and for Beltran and/or Holliday and/or Craig to spend time on the DL. But mostly I think teams need an injection of the new in order to stay vital. Some of that is psychological more than numerical. It's something to do with the old Branch Rickey saw about trading a player a year too early rather than a year too late. Change has to be seized upon before it's made as a reactive or even desperate response to circumstantial problems.
2. The Cardinals' rotation comprises Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, Shelby Miller, Jaime Garcia, and Lance Lynn. If I told you that I've seen the future and Rosenthal makes 20 starts this year, where from those five would you guess they came from?
AS: I guess the smart money is on Jaime Garcia to cede starts to Rosenthal, what with his recent shoulder rebuild. But I think I might go with Lance Lynn. It's funny, I tend to think of Lynn as an established big-league pitcher, but in fact he's a relative greenhorn and got demoted to the bullpen last year. If he struggles again, the Cards may see him as a guy who might not be cut out for the rotation and send him back to relieving—especially if Jason Motte's spring injury turns out to be serious and help is needed in the bullpen. But if help is needed in the bullpen, maybe it's Rosenthal himself who goes there. As Jason Parks wrote in February: "If his future is in the ‘pen, you can stick him in the majors and he’s going to punish people with his elite fastball and that’s going to be the story." Yet even if Motte is healthy, I still think Rosenthal might replace Lynn, after all, if for no other reason than the fact that St. Louis has too much invested in the other four—barring that post-surgery reinjury to Garcia, of course.
SM: I think I’d go with Shelby Miller if for no other reason than that he has the shallowest butt groove on the dugout bench. He had a 4.74 ERA in Triple-A last year, too. I know all the reasons why that doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t totally not matter, either.
3. Oscar Taveras' 2013 line, including plate appearances?
AS: PECOTA projects 211 PAs. I'm going higher at 250, as he supplants Shane Robinson on the bench and roves around giving days off to all three outfielders. I'm more bullish on him than I am on, say, Wil Myers, whom I think is going to strike out a lot. Let's say .280/.340/.420. I could go higher with the PAs but I don't want to imprecate injury on Carlos Beltran. It isn't nice. And he played 151 games last year.
SM: .328/.406/.590 with four homers in 69 plate appearances. I just stole that from Jesus Montero's 2011 page. I just think events are always conspiring to keep 20-year-olds from being full-timers.
Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @SamMillerBP