Predicting the outcome of the 2006 season in November 2005, before anyone has made an offseason move of significance, is pretty silly. The only thing that comes close is predicting the outcome of the 2006 season in March of 2006 after all the offseason moves of significance have been made.

That said, we’re going to do a bit of that today anyway. We’re going to look at matched sets of teams from the 2005 season and try to figure out what direction each team is headed. Naturally, we’re going to go a little deeper than mere won-loss records, so the Red Sox/Yankees (95 wins each) and A’s/Phillies (88) do not make our list of Pythagabuddies. Actually, that’s not even that accurate a description of these pairings since we’ll be using the rankings from the Prospectus Hit List for 2005.

Five sets of teams came within one point of one another in last season’s rankings. This means that, for the next 10 or 11 months, these teams should be forever linked in your mind. Since they are starting from the same exact jump-off point, it will be interesting to monitor their relative progress. Well, I find it interesting, anyway. I hope you will too, but then, who am I to presuppose what waters your field?

The 2005 matched pairs:

Arizona Diamondbacks (.439) – San Francisco Giants (.439)

The Giants took a staggering 200 runs off the board in 2005. Had they been able to cut that loss by half, they probably would have won the division. Given the D’backs actual record against their run count, they’d have to improve again between ’05 and ’06 as much as they did between ’04 and ’05 just to match their 77-85 ’05 record. Can a team pull off two such improvements consecutively? It can be done, but they had so much ground to recover from ’04 it is unlikely they can get to .500 this year. In this division, that is not necessarily a dismissal of their championship potential.

Early advantage: Giants

Milwaukee Brewers (.510) – Chicago Cubs (.510)

Now that baseball has been gripped by championship drought-ending fever, it’s only a matter of time before the Cubs–the Dust Bowl farmers of baseball–get their championship thirst slaked. With 30 teams, every fan has a cosmic right to expect a championship once every three decades or, with some bad breaks, once every four. This means, in a fair universe, you should see your team win it all twice in your lifetime–three if you’re born at the right time.

Things don’t work like that, though. Instead, we are left with this list–recently reduced from five to three by the events of the past two postseasons–of teams who are well past due for a victory cycle:

97 years: Cubs
57 years: Indians
51 years: Giants

This next group of teams is approaching the 30-year cycle:

26 years: Pirates
25 years: Phillies
23 years: Cardinals
22 years: Orioles
21 years: Tigers

This next group has a ways to go before cycling out:

20 years: Royals
19 years: Mets
17 years: Dodgers
16 years: A’s
15 years: Reds

Of course, there is that eight-team contingent of teams that have never won it, as well. Of them, the Rangers (44 years) Astros (43 years), Nationals, Padres and Brewers (36 years) have all exceeded the cycle by a decent margin. Seattle (28 years) is nearly there.

The fans of any team not mentioned above have no right to whine about not winning. This ban is good for at least another ten years.

I think what everyone is rooting for is for the Cubs to time their rise just so they can win it all in 2008, the 100th anniversary of the last time they won it all. (Are they going to have the yarbles to wear centennial patches in 2008? It will be interesting to see.) What this means is that they need to spend the next two years sorting out who can help them get there and who can’t. They’ve got two seasons to find themselves an outfield. They might also want to shelve Kerry Wood until then, giving him almost three years to heal so he can give his all to the centennial Championship push.

Can the Brewers improve again in 2006? It doesn’t seem likely. It’s very hard to follow up a 14-game improvement with another season of gains. On the other hand, it’s hard to see them getting significantly worse, given the talent on hand and the acumen Doug Melvin has shown in the GM spot.

Early advantage: Brewers

Minnesota Twins (.516) – Texas Rangers (.515)

The chart below identifies the greatest positional deficiencies in both leagues. In this case, they are ranked by PMLVR (Positional MLV rate. Runs/game contributed by a batter beyond what an average player at the same position would hit in a team of otherwise league-average hitters. Like MLVr, it is a rate stat. The comparable season total is PMLV.) These teams got the least offensive production from these positions. For instance, the most-deficient position in baseball–relative to the average performance at that position–was by Dodger left fielders (that combined .324 slugging average is pretty amazing).

Three teams appear on here twice: the Mets, Giants and these Twins. I believe you can forgive a team one appearance on this list–it can happen to anybody with injuries. A team with two appearances cannot afford to stand pat at both positions. Naturally, we’re much more likely to see the teams on the corner positions on this list making moves to not appear here again in 2006. More slack is cut for the up-the-middle positions, obviously. The Twins, though, will take the opposite tack, giving corner man Justin Morneau another shot while finding a sentient being to play shortstop.

The Twins haven’t had a scary monster in the lineup since…well, they haven’t had a 30-homer season since 1987–not that they can’t win without a 30-homer man, but they’ve got to cover the 92 runs they lost from 2004 if they’re going to get back into the mix in ’06.

TEAM        POS      PMLVR      AVG     OBP     SLG
MIN         1b       -.131     .244    .310    0.429
SLN          c       -.138     .233    .278    0.326
WAS         ss       -.143     .227    .275    0.308
TOR         rf       -.149     .261    .308    0.397
NYA         cf       -.157     .243    .297    0.333
SFN         rf       -.163     .245    .313    0.405
CHA         lf       -.177     .269    .329    0.328
KCA         2b       -.180     .235    .293    0.334
CLE         3b       -.186     .229    .286    0.344
SFN         3b       -.187     .259    .306    0.374
NYN         2b       -.190     .251    .295    0.338
SEA          c       -.204     .216    .253    0.313
MIN         ss       -.236     .235    .283    0.325
BAL         dh       -.240     .209    .276    0.364
CHN         cf       -.258     .234    .281    0.362
NYN         1b       -.290     .227    .303    0.391
LAN         lf       -.347     .212    .279    0.324

In 2004, the Rangers allowed the fewest runs in their decade at the Ballpark. That went to hell this past season while their offense marked time. Cracking the run prevention code there has become one of the more vexing problems in baseball. Even looking at the two years they won the division, we find them allowing tons of runs (albeit in a higher-scoring league). They got away with it twice because their lineup was fraught with danger and they went above and beyond their run projections in 1999 and nobody else in the division managed to win more than 85 games in 1998. Those circumstances could arise again, but it seems unlikely the Angels and A’s would both fall short of the 90-win plateau in ’06.

Early advantage: Twins

Baltimore Orioles (.475) – Washington Nationals (.474)

One team signs Javier Lopez and Miguel Tejada while the other signs Cristian Guzman and Vinny Castilla–it’s only a matter of figuring out by how many games the former will be better than the latter. Not so. Already geographically entwined, they also end up in a statistical dead heat.

Getting back to the chart above, Oriole DHs hit a combined .209. How easy would it be to solve that problem? They could trade for Jason Marquis, give him the designated hitter job and get better production than that and get a start out of him every fifth day as well. As bad as Guzman was, he was better relative to his position than the Orioles DH’s were to theirs.

The Orioles were an old team offensively and one that, we cannot forget, was disinvited from the city of Rochester because of the lack of decent players they were running through their AAA operation there. They failed to capitalize on one of the better keystone combo efforts of recent memory. The hiring of Leo Mazzone may not be an automatic improvement in and of itself, but it shows, at the very least, that somebody is trying.

Meanwhile, the Nationals ended up on one of those lists a team would rather not be on:

Team leaders with the lowest VORP (position players):

32.5: Shea Hillenbrand, Toronto
34.9: Chris Shelton, Detroit
40.9: Joe Mauer, Minnesota
42.3: Mike Sweeney, Kansas City
42.7: Nick Johnson, Washington

2006 will probably bring more of the same unless there are some serious decisions made at the top.

Early advantage: none

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (.562) – Chicago White Sox (.561)

How cool that two teams this close met in the league finals. As sometimes happens, though, the eventual winner has more question marks headed into the offseason than the team they beat. As White Sox general manager Kenny Williams said, there are people out there who would pick Chicago for third in the division in 2006 the day after they won it all in 2005.

The majority of World Championship teams don’t win as many games the following year and the White Sox will probably be no different. Even with that, though, they could repeat as division champs if the Indians hit their high water mark in August of 2005 and the Twins fail to address their offensive cratering.

In a straight-up comparison of these teams, the money and aggressiveness of Arte Moreno is going to get the nod. For instance, it has been suggested that the Angels are interested in purloining the White Sox best hitter in 2005, free agent first baseman Paul Konerko. Even if that’s not the case, that the Angels are even contemplating moving non-producer Darin Erstad off of first base is an indication that they will be back in the hunt next year.

Early advantage: Angels

Thanks to James Click for compiling the chart.

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