Spring has a way of creeping up on you in the Midwest, and it crept up on me this year without my ever getting an article out on the PECOTA projected standings. So, rather than try and pretend that that I didn’t see what happened over the first couple days of the season-I will point out that my three favorite teams (the Tigers, White Sox, and Cubs) are a collective 0-6-I’m instead going to focus things at the player level, and give you a list of 11 guys that I expect to outperform their PECOTA forecasts this year. Tomorrow, we’ll do the equally fun part of this list: those guys that I expect to underachieve PECOTA.

C Ivan Rodriguez, Tigers: From their four-year deal with Rodriguez that expired this winter, the Tigers got one MVP-caliber season (2004), one year in which Rodriguez played well and helped them to reach the World Series (2006), and two years that were just okay (2005, 2007). That’s not a bad return on a deal that was criticized at the time. Rodriguez was brought back this year, perhaps more because of the lack of viable alternatives than anything else, and PECOTA thinks he’s pretty much done, projecting a .267/.295/.390 batting line and just 287 at-bats. I’d expect Rodriguez to provide a more dignified performance than PECOTA suggests. Truly great players-and Rodriguez is a first-ballot Hall of Famer-are great in part because of their ability to perform competently at the tail ends of their careers, reaching the big leagues early, and then still contributing to their clubs into their late 30s. That grand arc of a player’s career is something that PECOTA can miss because of its focus on a player’s most recent performance.

1B James Loney, Dodgers: Loney’s projection isn’t bad; it’s a hell of a lot better than what the Dodgers might have expected to get out of Nomar Garciaparra at first base. But PECOTA is still hedging its bets a bit because of Loney’s mediocre .239 EqA in 2005 in Jacksonville, a season that we can probably excuse on account of Loney’s having been rushed. It’s also skeptical of some of the high batting averages that Loney has posted in the minors, but his .331 BA over 375 plate appearances in the majors last year ought at least to suggest that he wasn’t merely taking advantage of shoddy minor league defenses. I expect Loney to append about 15 points of batting average to PECOTA’s projection, and produce something resembling his 75th percentile forecast line (.308/.375/.501).

2B Ian Kinsler, Rangers: Kinsler started last season strongly, with a .298/.385/.667 April, and ended it relatively well, with .277/.403/.446 rates in September and October. What happened in the middle wasn’t so good, but Kinsler was bothered persistently by a stress fracture in his foot over the middle part of the year, and that may have altered his hitting mechanics. Whenever you have a performance arc over the course of the season that was strongly correlated with the presence of an injury, and that injury is no longer supposed to be a problem, I think you can fudge upward.

3B Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals: Well, it’s certainly a little easier to make this call after his walk-off home run on Opening Night. However, so many of the peripheral indicators that I like work well for Zimmerman-he thrived in the big leagues early, he’s a big, strong kid, his overall game is very well balanced, and he’s always been healthy. I just don’t see anything holding him back on his ascent toward true superstardom.

SS Julio Lugo, Red Sox: Lugo hit .224/.286/.315 when batting atop the order last year, but then improved to .305/.353/.483 after being demoted to the nine-hole in the latter part of the season. Now, hitting leadoff was nothing new for Lugo; the leadoff spot has accounted for the plurality of his at-bats over the course of his career. But the combination of Lugo’s trying to live up to the pressure of a big new contract in a big new city and having to do it in the leadoff role when you’ve got Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz waiting to hit behind you… it’s perhaps understandable that Lugo had some terrible slumps in the first half, and it’s clear he may have been pressing. I’m not expecting an All-Star performance, nor am I expecting the Red Sox to feel particularly great about the contract they gave him, but I like his chances to beat PECOTA.

OF Pat Burrell, Phillies: There’s not a left fielder on the board whom I feel wholly comfortable with. Jason Bay is my gut-feel pick, but that may be a stubborn refusal to look past his big numbers in ’05 and ’06 peak, and acknowledge that the general rule for guys who blossom a little late is that they tend to decline a little early; Bay sort of seems headed down the Bobby Higginson career path. So I’m going to go with the guy who has the most on the line this year, and there’s nobody who has more on the line than Burrell, who is playing for a big new contract, and could either be someone’s $100 million baby, or the sort of guy where a lot of teams look at the strikeouts, the poor defense, and the off-field static, and decide to take a pass.

OF Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners: The gimmie pick on this list, this year and every year. PECOTA just can’t find enough good comparables for Ichiro, who in many ways bears the most similarity to guys who played before World War II, and continues to want to characterize him as a Lance Johnson-style banjo hitter. I also think that Suzuki’s work ethic and disposition toward conditioning is enough to take a couple of years off his biological age. Now, I do think that when the end comes for Ichiro, it could come rather quickly, in part because he’s going to lose a ton of points off his batting average once he loses his foot speed. It might well come before the end of his new contract in Seattle, but I don’t expect it to come this year.

OF Nick Swisher, White Sox: Swisher is hitting out of the leadoff spot this year, another piece of evidence that the White Sox are repressed statheads at heart. The thing about hitting leadoff is that it’s actually the hardest place in the lineup to draw walks. But the reason for that is because pitchers don’t want to put the leadoff hitter on, so they’ll be more inclined to challenge him, and that’s something that could pay big dividends for Swisher, who can do nasty things to baseballs in the middle of the strike zone. PECOTA already likes Swisher pretty well, but I see 40-homer potential in the friendly confines of U.S. Cellular Field.

LHP Oliver Perez, Mets: This strikes me as another relatively easy pick, as PECOTA has him as a below-average pitcher this year absent league and park context (4.67 EqERA, versus a league average of 4.50). PECOTA is hedging a lot because Perez’s performance was so poor in 2005 and 2006; his PERAs were in the sixes and sevens over that period. It’s generally a fool’s errand to try and outsmart PECOTA on these things, as it’s generally very good at figuring out how to weight different seasons in making its forecast. But with Perez, I see a pitcher who has the stuff to match the improvement in performance; this is the classic case of whole new worlds opening up for a pitcher when he shaves a walk or two off his BB/9. There is downside here, because Perez had stretches last year where he reverted to his old, wild self, especially in the second half of the season. But there is also more upside than PECOTA is acknowledging.

RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox: Matsuzaka was so hyped last year that people forgot that he was a rookie, still getting used to his new routine in the US, and perhaps especially the differing usage patterns over on this side of the pond. His sort of game-theoretical approach to pitching-he mixes up his pitch and location choice on different counts in ways that most US-born pitchers would never dream of-suggests someone who might benefit more from further familiarizing himself with the AL’s hitters more than the other way around.

Reliever Joakim Soria, Royals: It’s not like PECOTA is down on Soria, already forecasting a 3.16 ERA and 35 saves. But what Soria accomplished last year was one of the most overlooked stories of the season: a pitcher who had all of 17 innings outside of the Mexican League, none of them above A-ball, becomes one of the best relievers in his league after getting picked via the Rule 5 draft? The ability to not just survive but thrive upon making this sort of a leap speaks to a special pitcher.

Bonus #1: The Three Most Underplayed/Underreported Storylines of Baseball 2008.

  1. How much smarter teams are getting. I owe you folks, along with other things, a column about our new MORP calculations, but it appears that we have gotten past a tipping point with respect to teams coming to understand the risk inherent in long-term contracts. How many starting pitchers received multi-year contracts this winter? Just two, and one of them was a Japanese pitcher (Hiroka Kuroda); the other was Carlos Silva. Nobody was conspiring against Kyle Lohse, it’s just that teams are starting to look at things more like PECOTA does, seeing Lohse’s 46 percent attrition rate in 2010, and understanding that their best gambles lay elsewhere.
  2. The potential impact of Barry Bonds on the pennant races. Teams tend to be happy with their options during spring training and very early in the season. Almost everyone is healthy, and you come to drink your own Kool-Aid and expect everything to break well and everybody to perform toward the top of their performance curves. But come June 1st, somebody is going to be injured on a contending club, and someone is going to be underperforming, and some general manager is going to be worried about his job security. Those teams are going to face a choice between signing Bonds for next to nothing, or having to deal two or three elite prospects for a comparable performance from Adam Dunn. Somebody is going to choose Bonds.
  3. The rebuilding taking place in St. Louis. The Cardinals have overhauled their front office culture over the course of the past couple of seasons, with a new emphasis on performance analysis, but they were left with an extremely top-heavy team that had gotten very little production from its farm system. The rebuilding process is more passive than active at this stage; a team that decides that Skip Schumaker and Cesar Izturis should be everyday players is not expecting to contend, it’s playing out its cycle, hoping to put a reasonable face on things in a sympathetic market, and looking toward the future. If the Cardinals get off to a bad start, you could see the team decide to take an injury year on Albert Pujols, try and recirculate Troy Glaus, and part ways with Tony La Russa, at which point its direction will be manifest.

Bonus #2: The PECOTA projected standings

I include these strictly for propriety’s sake. They are taken unaltered from our depth charts page, but our depth charts are dynamic, and I want something static on the record. Although each team has now played a couple of games, these projections have not changed since March 28; they will change with our next depth chart update, which should be out within 24 hours.

AL East     W   L   RS  RA
Yankees    97  65  881 724
Red Sox    91  71  838 745
Rays       88  74  786 718
Blue Jays  78  84  762 775
Orioles    66  96  750 882

AL Central  W   L   RS  RA
Indians    91  71  834 744
Tigers     91  71  849 757
White Sox  77  85  783 815
Twins      74  88  712 780
Royals     73  89  742 826

AL West     W   L   RS  RA
Angels     85  77  806 777
Athletics  80  82  731 751
Mariners   75  87  687 748
Rangers    73  89  780 867

NL EAST     W   L   RS  RA
Mets       93  69  797 682
Braves     86  76  803 757
Phillies   86  76  839 792
Nationals  73  89  765 842
Marlins    71  91  761 845

NL Central  W   L   RS  RA
Cubs       91  71  848 757
Brewers    88  74  832 767
Reds       80  82  773 775
Cardinals  75  87  712 764
Astros     72  90  738 820
Pirates    72  90  722 803

NL West     W   L   RS  RA
D'backs    87  75  827 774
Dodgers    87  75  782 731
Rockies    82  80  880 871
Padres     78  84  689 713
Giants     68  94  635 744

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