March 27, 2013
These Questions Three: The Cautiously Optimistic
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 third-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: 34.1 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 34.7
Team TAv: .268
Runs Scored: 802
Runs Allowed: 768
Team FRAA: -10.5
1. Can Jon Lester get back to being the near-ace he was in his mid-20s?
Paul Sporer: I think so. The environment in Boston last year couldn’t have been more toxic, and that seemed to impact the entire team. Lester’s decline in strikeout rate of nearly three percentage points is concerning, but he also reduced his walk rate a bit from 9.4 to 7.8 percent. More importantly, his groundball rate and fastball velocity saw negligible drops, so it’s not like his skills imploded en route to the 4.82 ERA and 1.38 WHIP last season. He is a 29-year-old who is still among the hardest-throwing lefties in the game, so I’m betting on him to bounce back.
Matthew Kory: Yes, he can. [long pause] Fine. He will. Three things lead me to say so. The first is the return of John Farrell to the organization. Farrell was instrumental in turning Lester into the pitcher he was supposed to be the last two years but wasn’t. Already the two have been working on fixing Lester’s mechanics (that’s the second thing). The third thing is probably a stupid thing to look at, but Lester has dominated this spring. He’s given up two runs in 20 innings while striking out 16 and walking four. He’s got the downward plane back, his slider is crisp, and he’s throwing his curve effectively. It’s only spring, but considering the mechanical changes and the vast difference in the way he looks compared to last year, I’ll believe it. In two months someone is going to quote this back to me in effort to make me cry. It will work.
2. Should Jackie Bradley break camp as the starting left fielder, and if so, can he really stick there all season after just 61 games at Double-A?
PS: There is actually a legitimate spot for Bradley Jr. to play, unlike Yasiel Puig in Los Angeles, so this talk of him sticking has some merit. But it’s still a big question mark, considering that his spot has been opened by an injury. Once David Ortiz returns, he will take the DH spot, leaving Jonny Gomes without a home. Though Gomes looks like a platoon player (with multi-year TAv splits of .259 vs. righties and .336 against southpaws), they seem set on playing him daily. They can’t afford to turn Bradley into a platoon guy at this stage of his development, so unless he’s just tearing the cover off the ball when Ortiz returns, he will have to head to Pawtucket.
MK: He’s certainly played like he deserves a spot, but I keep coming back to two things. First, he’s never played above Double-A, and he’s played in only 61 games there. It’s not like he’s worked his way up the ladder. He’s talented, no doubt, but we’re talking about moving a player from Double-A into the majors on the basis of 65 spring training plate appearances. Second, smart teams don’t do this. Smart teams congratulate Bradley on his excellent spring, pat him on the back, and boot him down to the minors. If in two weeks David Ortiz is still hurt, or there’s a new injury in the outfield (not exactly unheard of in Boston), and Bradley is tearing up Triple-A, bring him back up. No matter how you look at it, there is no scenario where 11 days of 2013 Jackie Bradley are more valuable than 162 games of 2019 Jackie Bradley. If the Red Sox sacrifice a year of Bradley in 2019 for less than two weeks this season… ugh. Just ugh.
3. Let's say the Red Sox stay healthy (in light of last season, a pretty big if). How many wins will this team have in 2013?
PS: I’ve got them down for some improvement from 2012, but that’s not exactly saying much given how dreadful their 69-win season was. I see them with 78 wins. Without a series of best-case scenarios, I just don’t see much out of this lineup. In fact, even with a projected resurgence for Lester and a favorable performance out of John Lackey, I’m skeptical about how good this rotation can be, too. I think the division is just too tough for them to have much success, barring some unforeseen surges. It’ll be another tough year, but without the same black cloud hanging overhead as last season.
MK: I can understand the skepticism over the Red Sox lineup. I don’t share it, but I understand it. I view an Ellsbury/Pedroia/Napoli/Ortiz/Middlebrooks top five as well above average in the run-scoring department (two aisles over, behind the Cheez Whiz). Stephen Drew should be a huge upgrade over Mike Aviles, and as long as the Red Sox get reasonably healthy seasons out of that group of five (admittedly, with Ortiz already on the shelf this could be dicey), scoring shouldn’t be a problem.
The Red Sox could win 95 games. They could also win 75. If you told me they’d win anything within that range, I’d be prepared to believe you. But it’s important to note that this team isn’t the one that finished last year. For the last month-plus of 2012, the Red Sox were fielding a glorified Triple-A team. The majority of that team is gone. The replacements aren’t necessarily All-Stars though I could see Napoli or Drew reaching that level, but they are all competent, above-average players. Assuming they avoid another ridiculous injury-fest, the Red Sox should win somewhere between 85-90 games.
Playoff Pct: 30.8 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 31.2
Team TAv: .258
Runs Scored: 698
Runs Allowed: 693
Team FRAA: -18.1
1. Will Matt Harvey log 150-plus innings of 3.50 ERA or better?
PS: In a word: no. I am a huge fan of his long-term outlook, but betting on him to enjoy such success in his first full season isn’t a high-probability play. We just don’t see many 24-year-olds do that in their first full season. Jered Weaver threw twice as many innings as Harvey in his debut, with even more success from an ERA standpoint (2.56 to Harvey’s 2.73), yet his first full season the following year saw him pitch to a 3.91 ERA in 161 innings. That’s just an isolated incident, but look at how Matt Moore fared despite lofty expectations last year. Look at David Price and his 4.42 ERA in his first substantial season back in 2009. Harvey’s lack of control will be the primary culprit during the outings where he struggles. There will be flashes of brilliance, but by season’s end, his ERA will be closer to 4.00 than 3.00.
MK: YES! Actually, no. Paul is probably right.
2. Will the Mets break two million in attendance?
PS: I think the excitement generated by their summer staff, which should include Zack Wheeler along with Harvey, Jonathon Niese, Dillon Gee, and maybe even Johan Santana will be enough to keep fans coming to the yard, especially if the Yankees struggle as many suspect after their spring training from Hell. Some have the Mets projected to finish behind the Marlins, while others have the Marlins “worsting” the Astros for the most losses in baseball. The latter is more likely, and the Mets might even leapfrog the Phillies if everything breaks right for them. I think they’ll stem the tide on their attendance drop and surpass two million fans.
MK: I agree. The Mets’ attendance has steadily declined since their last year at Shea Stadium, from four million in 2008 to 2.3 million last season. It’s possible, if things break badly, but I don’t see the Mets losing 110 games. They might lose 90, though, and I’m not sure a group of prospects, even highly regarded ones, will keep the fans coming through the turnstiles if the team is floundering in the standings. Still, it’s hard to conceive of a New York team drawing fewer than two million fans, let alone a New York team with a pretty new ballpark. So I’ll say they’ll fall somewhere between two million and last year’s 2.3 million mark.
3. How many innings will Johan Santana pitch in 2013?
PS: Eighty? He says with zero conviction. Here’s hoping I’m 100 percent wrong and he doubles that, but that’s a long shot. The last bit of news on Santana is that he’s still throwing on flat ground, and six weeks from being where he wants to be. As mentioned above, this team can have a strong rotation without him, but it would just be nice to see one of the game’s best stay upright and enjoy something of a proper twilight of his great career.
MK: It’s hard to expect a whole lot out of Santana at this point. Our depth charts project him for 131 innings, and that seems like an awful lot to me. Considering his recent track record and the fact that he hasn’t appeared in a spring training game… 90? No, wait, Price is Right rules. I’ll say 79.
Playoff Pct: 30.6 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 32.7
Team TAv: .267
Runs Scored: 717
Runs Allowed: 695
Team FRAA: -3.6
1. How close will the A’s come to replicating 2012's incredible 94-win season?
PS: I’d say pretty close, as I have them winning 89 games. The Astros joining the division will offset a lot of the natural regression you might be inclined to build in. Plus, it’s not like they stood pat this offseason. They added Jed Lowrie, Chris Young, Hiroyuki Hiroyuki Nakajima, and John Jaso from the outside while hoping to get full seasons out of Brett Anderson and Scott Sizemore, who totaled just 35 innings of playing time in 2012 (since Sizemore missed the entire campaign). Like last year, they have a host of prospects knocking on the door, too. It’s not a flashy roster outside of Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Jarrod Parker, and maybe a healthy Anderson (does that even exist?), but the sum of their parts looks to be strong once again.
MK: Is it a copout to just say “I like what Paul said” over and over? Okay, I’ll just do that here. The A’s are a good fielding and pitching team in a ballpark that promotes both. One mustn’t forget their team chemistry-inflating facial hair. I don’t think 94 wins is happening again with this roster (this absolves me from looking dumb when Billy Beane somehow trades for Mike Trout at the deadline), but 88 wins is absolutely achievable.
2. Does Brett Anderson pitch over 100 innings for the first time since 2010?
PS: You couldn’t get me to put any of my hard-earned money on it, but sure, I’ll give him just over 100. The fact of the matter is that Anderson has been sliding downward since a career-high 175.1 innings as a rookie in 2009 and the rash of left elbow injuries he’s suffered since isn’t fluky. Sliders eat elbows, and his slider, while excellent, has nom-nom-nom’d his elbow in each of the last three years, resulting in five DL stints. Betting on anything more than around 105 innings is like betting green 00 on the roulette wheel.
MK: No. He’ll invent the concept of 0.99 innings pitched just so he can throw 99.99 innings. Then his elbow will turn into cottage cheese.
3. Yoenis Cespedes: growth or regression?
PS: How about both? Copout City, population: me. I say both because I think it will be something of a consolidation year for Cespedes, in which his raw totals are similar to what we saw in 2012, but completed in a full season of plate appearances (600-plus), though his walk rate will climb over 10 percent, giving his rate stats some overall growth. Notice I also said a full season, which means I have him staying healthy, too. That would also be a sign of growth.
MK: I’ll follow the old point/counter-point and disagree with my esteemed colleague here. Paul, you ignorant slut. Yoenis Cespedes can barbecue a pig on a spit better than any player in baseball history, and you’re telling us he’s going to get worse? Better is the only acceptable answer.
Playoff Pct: 29.0 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 32.8
Team TAv: .255
Runs Scored: 656
Runs Allowed: 656
Team FRAA: -8.2
1. Roy Halladay's ERA: over/under 3.50?
MK: Over. Halladay has run up against a rough combination of injury and age. Mostly injury, though. Last season came with a host of shoulder problems, kicking Halladay’s ERA over 3.00 for the first time since 2007 and coming with acorresponding drop (small, though it’s there) in strikeouts and rise in walks. He’s been awful this spring as well, with lost velocity and control. Halladay’s time as an elite pitcher might be at an end.
PS: I’m going to bet on him. I know it seems crazy right now, given what we’ve seen this spring, but Halladay can live with diminished velocity as long as he’s intact, and we keep hearing that despite the disastrous outings, he is in fact healthy. We aren’t going to see the otherworldly Halladay we were used to as recently as 2011, but rather someone who lives in the 3.40-3.50 range, painting the corners with guile and deception (hey, the Diamondbacks might want him!). Admittedly, some of this is a refusal to believe that a quality Halladay is a player of the past, but I do believe he can transform himself and remain effective. If it were 3.75 I’d feel more confident, but put me down for a yes on 3.50 or better, just the same.
MK: Howard suffered last season from a freak injury that I’m not sure is any kind of indicator of being injury prone. The injury report on Utley’s player card reads like a menu at a combination Italian/Chinese/Vegan/Bar-B-Que joint that serves burgers on the side. It wouldn’t shock me if Howard played 150 games. That leaves 91 for Utley. Even Chase Utley can play 91 games. I’ll go over.
PS: I’m also on board here, though I think it will be a bit more evenly split. Or rather, I think Utley will stay reasonably healthy, so even if Howard hits Matt’s 150 figure, Utley will push the pair well over the threshold by playing 130 games of his own. Mid-30s second basemen aren’t exactly a sound bet, but Utley has another full season in his knees, and it will come in 2013.
3. Domonic Brown is raking in the Grapefruit League, which matters very little, if at all. That said, is this the year?
MK: Sure, why not? Brown is only 25, and like Shaquille O’Neal, he’s had success at every level except the ones he’s not had success at. Brown is batting a prodigious .354/.414/.646 this spring, and according to Baseball-Reference’s quality-of-opponent metric, he’s faced something between Triple-A and major-league pitching quality. That’s not the same as doing it during the regular season, but it’s not nothing. (Also, some studies point to a correlation between slugging over 200 points higher during spring training and in-season improvement.) So, is this the year? Well, it’s a year. Maybe that’s good enough.
PS: I’m on board, too, but I’d like to point out that I was buying in prior to the Grapefruit League explosion. Since we’re in agreement here, I don’t have a ton to add to what Matt has outlined. One factor that led me toward Brown as someone to watch this winter was the fact that the door is wide open for him to get a full-blown chance to either sink or swim. The Phillies have jerked him around a bit to this point, with a pair of 56-game samples to show for the last two years. Unless he just completely implodes, he should get a chance to play nearly three times as many games this year.
Playoff Pct: 28.2 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 34.2
Team TAv: .268
Runs Scored: 790
Runs Allowed: 761
Team FRAA: -12.8
1. Let's just start at the top: The Blue Jays have bent over backwards to put together a winner, so will it work?
MK: It’ll work in that they’ll win more games than they lose. They added a ton of talent in picking up R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and Melky Cabrera, and that should make it difficult to have a losing season. That said, their roster still has some questions, and I don’t take it as a given that this team is going to run away with the division. Josh Johnson was fairly mediocre last season and has a lengthy injury history, R.A. Dickey’s grip on the raging bull that is the knuckleball is as tenuous as any knuckleballer’s, Buehrle’s high-wire act has to grow old along with his arm eventually and moving to a tougher league and ballpark won’t help, Jose Bautista is getting over a serious injury, and the team just sent last year’s Opening Day starter to Single-A. It’s a very good team, probably the best in the division, but it’s hardly perfect.
PS: All fair critiques, but in the end I reach roughly the same conclusion as Mr. Kory, with the Jays enjoying a strong season of 90 wins and an AL East title. They have built the team in such a way that they can raise this many legitimate questions and still succeed, because there is not only star talent on the roster, but also depth. One thing Matthew didn’t mention is that Brett Lawrie is eternally on the mend, too. The sneaky part of that Miami trade was the inclusion of Emilio Bonifacio, and I actually believe that he’ll be instrumental in the team’s 2013 success. He can play just about everywhere, and his speed is game-changing. The two aren’t on a 1:1 correlation, but don’t forget that Roy Halladay was sent to the low minors to figure himself out at one point, too. I have faith in Romero. RR Cool Jay will rise from the ashes.
MK: Cabrera is an interesting buy-low guy. He doesn’t have to be the player he was last year in San Francisco to be a huge asset to the Blue Jays, and Toronto might get a superstar for 1.5-WARP money. Still, it’s hard to see Cabrera coming close to replicating his 2012 season, though I suppose he could replicate his suspension for PEDs. PECOTA says .280/.331/.427, 13 homers, 12 stolen bases, and 70 runs scored. It wouldn’t shock me if he was a bit better than that, but not vastly so. I’ll say .285/.340/.440 with 15 homers and bow to PECOTA after that.
PS: I hate to be milquetoast, but my thunder was completely stolen here. I could go Skip Bayless on everyone and disagree as outlandishly as possible, projecting him for a .043/.024/.111 line in 650 plate appearances, but my heart just isn’t in it. When I came up with this question, the answer I had in my head was “just over PECOTA,” so I’ll go with Matt’s numbers. From a fantasy perspective, since that’s my main beat here at BP, I will say that he will derive exceptional value from his runs scored. That statistic is often overlooked, and he was on pace for a second straight 100-run season before he got popped. In fact, his 2012 pace with his 2011 plate appearance total (706) would’ve netted him 118 runs, the sixth-highest total since 2009. I like him to push toward 110 batting second in that potent lineup with the two mashers directly behind him in Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. A 110-run season would’ve been good for second-most in 2012, behind Mike Trout’s 129.
MK: It’s been pointed out a billion times that Dickey is facing a tougher league and a tougher division, and it’s true, but to me it comes down to the pitch. If he can throw the knuckler like he did for the Mets last year, his success will be similar, for the simple reason that batters of all stripes have a devil of a time hitting the thing. I’ll say 220 innings pitched, 3.10 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 198 strikeouts, and 59 walks.
PS: If he pitches at or near last year’s level, it wouldn’t really matter if all four of his divisional foes were the ’27 Yankees. Dickey was simply untouchable a year ago, because he threw the knuckler at a velocity rarely seen while also controlling it on an incredible level. All of our experience and knowledge of that pitch throughout history says it can come and go at any time, but Dickey showed an unprecedented feel for it that I think he can maintain, for the most part. Put him down for 224 innings with a 3.17 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 217 strikeouts, and 57 walks.
Playoff Pct: 27.8 %
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 30.8
Team TAv: .263
Runs Scored: 728
Runs Allowed: 735
Team FRAA: 5.8
1. Scott Kazmir has won the fifth-starter job after a strong Cactus League showing (13 K, one BB). How does this comeback story fare in 2013?
MK: If he can pitch even adequately, it’s the best comeback story we’ve seen since Josh Hamilton. Kazmir last pitched extensively in the majors in 2010 and was terrible (yes, he also threw almost two whole innings in 2011). He spent last season getting cuffed around for the independent league Sugarland Skeeters, the same team that let Roger Clemens pitch for them. To go from utterly done to winning a spot in a major-league rotation… I’m not sure that it’s not already the best comeback story we’ve seen since Hamilton.
PS: Blast! Why did I have to answer second on the Indians, too? Oh wait, I set it up this way. Matt covered it perfectly. Kazmir was getting trounced in an unaffiliated minor league near his hometown last year, and now he’s slated to lock up a spot in a major-league rotation. (This kind of story is why I refuse to give up on Roy Halladay or Rickey Romero, by the way.) While I am firmly in the camp of paying little heed to spring training numbers, the one walk really jumps off the page, because it’s coming from someone who struggled with walks even at his peak. Then there is the fact that his velocity is back up at 92 MPH, according to the limited data that has been gathered and posted at Brooks Baseball. That is up from 88 MPH back in 2011. Sample size caveats are a given with such an extreme case, but there is legitimacy here, and I think Kazmir can be at least a league-average pitcher for the Indians with the potential to once again be an impact arm.
MK: It has changed a bit. Before I thought they were going to be an utter mess with no starting pitching and a mediocre offense. Since then they’ve signed Michael Bourn, so now I think they’ll be a decent-sized mess with no pitching and an average offense. Third place! Where’s Harry Doyle when you need him?
PS: On the podcast I gave them 79 wins and a second-place finish. I’ve still got them in second, but with 82 wins now, because of Bourn.
MK: Kipnis’ power disappeared somewhere around early May. He’s hit for good power for a second baseman every year in the minors, so it was probably a blip, something from which he’ll have to adjust. If spring stats are an indicator, he isn’t adjusting, but they aren’t. He’ll be better this season. PECOTA says a 728 OPS with 15 homers. That sounds about right.
PS: We’ve now seen about seven and a half months of work from Kipnis, with the first three and a half good and the rest downright awful. I think we are going to see some more growing pains in 2013, and his PECOTA projection indicates as much. Many are expecting (praying for?) something north of a 750 OPS, but he hasn’t given us a really strong reason to make that bet. The potential is in there for 750 or better. Even 800 is well within reason, if he’s performing at his peak skill level, but I think we’ll start to see that in 2014, with more inconsistency to come in the short term.
Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @mattymatty2000