It’s time to lay it on the line again. I’ve done this by divisions, by league, and overall, and I think I like overall the best. The distinctions between the leagues have been blurred so much that what we really have now are the American and National conferences of MLB, rather than separate entities with many differences. Other than the DH-which is a big difference, of course-the leagues do play much the same game. Illusions about “National League baseball” persist, but the one-run strategies in the league are really all automatic and tied back to the lack of a DH. There’s more bunting, but not necessarily more strategy.

Over the next few days we’ll count down the teams, #30 through #1, and explain why they’re in that slot. There’s a great deal of parity again this year-23 of 30 teams are slated to have from 70 to 88 wins, and there are just four or five teams I’d feel comfortable writing off completely before the season starts. We’ve entered an era not of NFL-style randomness, but of significant parity within the game in which the structure of the league allows everyone an opportunity to build successfully and sustain that success, reaping the benefits both on and off the field. It’s not a perfect league, but it is a strong one.

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.

So here we go…

#30: San Diego Padres (61-101, 611 RS, 792 RA)

What’s going to kill the Padres is their outfield defense. They have a converted third baseman in left field, a 38-year-old in right field, and a 31-year-old with rebuilt knees in center. Unless they’re moving the fences in-way in-at Petco Park, that’s a recipe for a lot of doubles and triples. The rotation falls off dramatically after the top two slots, and even Chris Young could be in trouble pitching in front of this defense. The Padres may have the worst middle infield in baseball, and if you consider catcher in that grouping, you can take “may” out of the equation. This is why they’re rightly trying to trade Jake Peavy, and should be shopping everything that moves. There are no building blocks here, not for 2011 and beyond.

#29: Pittsburgh Pirates (62-100, 690 RS, 873 RA)

The upset is that they might not be the worst team in baseball, thanks to the Padres’ rebuilding process. The Pirates’ rotation is terrible, with replacement-level talent in the last two spots (Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens) and not much coming up to improve the situation. Even if Ian Snell is better, it will likely only cancel Paul Maholm‘s regression. My pessimism about their offense is mostly tied to my disbelief in the power of Nate McLouth, who still looks to me like a pumped-up fourth outfielder who had one huge month. The bullpen will likely be among the worst in the game.

#28: Houston Astros (70-92, 731 RS, 843 RA)

You have to feel for Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, who between them are enough to raise an average or even slightly-below-average team into the playoffs. Here, Oswalt fronts a rotation that includes Brian Moehler, Mike Hampton, and Russ Ortiz, which I’m pretty sure was Rany Jazayerli‘s playoff rotation in NASA in 1999. The Kazuo Matsui/Michael Bourn dup at the top of the order could set up Berkman to hit .310 with 32 homers and 71 RBI. There’s no internal depth, and no young players clamoring for jobs, which means that if Berkman, Oswalt, Carlos Lee, or Miguel Tejada fail, they could lose 100 games. All this, and they have to try to win now, because there’s no base for rebuilding, and they did win 86 games last year. The rebuilding process here is going to be long and ugly.

#27: Chicago White Sox (73-89, 739 RS, 828 RA)

Their complete lack of a real center-field solution could be solved by moving Alexei Ramirez out there and sliding Brent Lillibridge in at shortstop. Ramirez could become a very good center fielder in a hurry, just like B.J. Upton did, while playing Lillibridge doesn’t make any less sense than playing DeWayne Wise. It might make them three games better, most of that defensively, which wouldn’t change much but would at least align the talent properly. The main reason to be optimistic here is Ozzie Guillen, who seems to always get more from his pitching staff than we think he will. The bullpen could be a real asset, especially if Mike MacDougal finds his control. With all that said, the aging of the offensive core and a rather bad defense are the two things that will hurt the Sox the most.

#26: Baltimore Orioles (73-89, 824 RS, 902 RA)

I was more optimistic about the Orioles a few weeks ago; they have a decent offense in place, and more importantly, a pretty good plan in place. The problem is, that plan didn’t include the line, “build a pitching staff that can win in 2009.” This is a wretched rotation, with a salvaged Jeremy Guthrie and a Japanese import up top, and three guys even the Astros didn’t want in the back. Running this group into the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays nearly 60 times is going to be ugly. The more I think about it, the more I think keeping Matt Wieters away from this train wreck is the right thing to do. He’ll catch better pitchers at Triple-A, and when those guys are ready, he can be promoted along with them.

#25: Washington Nationals (74-88, 707 RS, 757 RA)

I also liked these guys quite a bit more before I peeked at the pitching staff; they’re likely to lead the NL in walks, as even the nominally good pitchers, like Scott Olsen, are prone to free passes. With the addition of Adam Dunn and the return of a presumably healthy Nick Johnson-no, really-we’ll see better plate appearances from the Nats on the whole. It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, their presence has on Jesus Flores, Lastings Milledge, and Ryan Zimmerman, all of whom could stand to improve their plate discipline to varying degrees.

#24: Kansas City Royals (74-88, 739 RS, 801 RA)

There’s a core here, one that could be competitive. In the last 18 months, that core has been joined by Jose Guillen, Mike Jacobs, Willie Bloomquist, Horacio Ramirez, and Sidney Ponson. There is no rational baseball plan extant that should include those names, and the decision yesterday to let the last two form 40 percent of the Opening Day rotation is the kind of the thing that, if run under Christina’s byline, would have been dismissed as an April Fool’s joke. There’s a core here, but it’s being supported by air. Pity.

#23: Detroit Tigers (75-87, 776 RS, 831 RA)

The decision to release Gary Sheffield was a strong one, the kind of thing that statheads yammer about without giving proper credit to teams when they actually pull the trigger. Sheffield can’t play the outfield and can’t hit to the standard expected of the designated hitter. He costs $14 million whether you let him screw up your offense or not, so why not move on. The Tigers aren’t entering the season with the same level of hype they did a year ago, but the results are going to be much the same. They’ve upgraded the defense slightly-a lot if Josh Anderson plays left field-and picked up some lineup balance, but the pitching staff is just not good enough. Justin Verlander bounces back, Rick Porcello picks up rookie votes, as does Ryan Perry, and you still can’t get them to 85 wins without wishcasting two or three other guys. The Tigers are a high-variance team because of the high-variance young pitchers.

#22: Toronto Blue Jays (76-86, 738 RS, 786 RA)

This would be a jump of 176 runs allowed, or more than one per game. That sounds like a lot-it is a lot-but when you look at the rotation in back of Roy Halladay and Jesse Litsch, as well as a defense that was good last year but is another year older at all four infield spots, and a bullpen that had a million things go right last year… a run a game starts to look conservative. The Jays missed their window. They have too much superstar money committed to players who don’t approach that level in Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, and the supporting cast is not nearly good enough to make up for it. Given the standard set at the top of this division, it may be a long time before the Jays are again relevant.

#21: Seattle Mariners (77-85, 641 RS, 671 RA)

I love the experiment in the outfield, where the Mariners have three guys, assuming Ken Griffey Jr. is the DH, who could all play center field. That’s why I could see them, despite a shaky bullpen, allowing just 671 runs this season. The problem is that they’re going to have a hard time scoring runs, as they’re the swingingest bunch of hackers in the game, and that won’t change with the additions of Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez. The decision to demote Jeff Clement is the cost of signing Griffey, and it’s a high one to pay for the little that Junior brings to a noncontender. The move is identical to the Devil Rays signing a bunch of Tampa-area vets in their nascence, or the Astros playing Craig Biggio in his last year: a neon sign saying, “We’re not a baseball team, we’re a vaudeville act.” I expected better.

Thank you for reading

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What is it about the Padres that makes you disagree with PECOTA's projection of 61 more runs scored and 39 more runs prevented? PECOTA already takes into account the bad situation at C/SS/2B and the OF defense isn't nearly as bad as you make it out to be (by UZR it's not even the worst in the division since the Dodgers are way worse and Brad Hawpe is worse than all the Padres OFs combined). I just think PECOTA isn't exactly giving the Padres any gifts, and yet you are downgrading them from that projection. I don't get it.
What's the matter? Don't you like vaudeville?

Looking forward to the next two installments...
Come on now, the Padres look like they will be god awful in 2009. All their hitting faults aside, their pitching staff could be just as worrisome. Peavy is ready to be traded at any minute, Chris Young (as the article implied) is not what he was a few years ago and constanly injured, and Correia basically got run out of San Francisco despite the fact that Bochy loved the guy. Correia was gift-wraped the Giants 5th starter spot got demolished by NL hitters in 2008, and now he's the Padres 3/4 starter. Even if San Diego's bullpen is serviceable, they will become over-used from bailing out the starter on three days out of five. I believe the PECOTA W-L projection is generous.
I guess most of feeling comes from seeing last year's team and I don't see how this one could be any worse. They don't have Jim Edmonds who accumulated -7 VORP in a month while playing an awful CF. They should get about replacement level production from C, 2B and SS which is a HUGE improvement from last year (it was easily over -20 VORP from the 3 positions in 2008). And pre-Headley, the LF offensive production was bad too. The pitching was no great shakes last year either, so it's hard to believe that this team could be worse than that one. And that team's record lagged behind its adjusted record. I'll stick with PECOTA on this one and say they have a shot at 4th place in the NL West and will be closer to 85 loses than 100.
The Padres' hitting isn't actually epically bad. Gerut and Gonzalez are well above average. Kouzmanoff, Headley, and Giles are average to above average. Eckstein is fringe average, and Hundley and Rodriguez are bad.

From the original article, I don't see how you can look at this team and put OF defense anywhere close to the top of the problems. Some numbers from last year (UZR from fangraphs): Giles at -1.3 runs, Gerut +3.9, and Headley -8.1 Knock off some runs for Giles getting older and Gerut coming back down to earth some, add some for Headley spending a second year at the position. So an OF defense that's -10 runs is the biggest issue on a team that's going to lose 90+ games?

I also take issue with the no building blocks past 2011 statement. Jake Peavy is signed through 2012. If he's traded they'll get a building block back for him. Chris Young has a 2011 option which is cheap for an above average starting pitcher. Gonzalez has a cheap 2011 option. Headley and Kouzmanoff are under control past then. That's a number 1 and 3 starter, an All-Star first baseman, and two average players with some upside (both projected to be above average by PECOTA this year).

All that being said, I think they're going to go 71-91 this year. I do think they could contend next year if they go out and spend some money to fill out the roster with an average back of the rotation, SS, C, and bullpen.
More defensive numbers from last year:
Total zone (defensive system listed on b-ref - play by play based, including an arm component): Giles +0.1 runs, Gerut +15.0, Headley -4.2.

BPro's own #'s, taken from PECOTA cards: Giles +5, Gerut +9, Headley +1 (combo of Portland and major league #'s in left).

Plus/Minus: Gerut +12 plays, Giles +20 plays, Headley not listed on the leaders or trailers (so below +8 plays and above -13 plays).
The Pads have signed 6 pitchers in the past week who will most likely make the roster. That's bad.
Can a White Sox pitching staff that sports John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Mark Buehrle and Bobby Jenks really be expected to surrender 828 runs in the flaccid AL Central?

I have trouble seeing them among the worst teams in baseball. Am I alone?
I agree somewhat, but Floyd is a good candidate to regress this year, and the Cell is a hitters park.
At this point aren't you kind of use to the gloom and doom predicted for the White Sox?

The jays at #22 with 76-86 record?

I don't think they will be that bad..
You've convinced us! Good work!
Thank gods of all varieties my Reds are no longer on this list.
McLouth's big year wasn't based on one great month. He had four months with an OPS of .885 or higher. If you had said that his big year was based on one great half-season, I'd agree; .781 OPS post-allstar-break really isn't huge. Good for a CF though.
Yeah, I don't quite get Joe's assessment that Byrnes is a "pumped-up fourth outfielder." He had 2 bad months and 4 extremely good ones. One of the very good ones was in September, when he hit .309/.385/.500 and was 9/9 on the basepaths. So one can't really make the argument that he wore down.

Care to expand on your assessment, Joe? I'm just kind of curious why you feel that way (other than Mclouth's more-than-passing physical resemblance to Eric Byrnes...)
Wow, Freudian slip? My first sentence should have read, "I don't quite get Joe's assessment that Mclouth is a 'pumped-up fourth outfielder'".....

Sorry about that.
Not to mention he showed almost the exact same power in 07, he just didn't play fulltime.

I think 20 HR power is real for him. Of course he is a below average defensive CF even if he did win a gold glove(what a joke).
bj ryan might ha\/e had a \/ery lucky year but gi\/e me downs, carlson, league, tallet, frasor, and camp o\/er what 70% of baseball will field in their respecti\/e pens.
I think a gremlin has taken over your "v" key.
Speaking of standings, no Predictatron (and for that matter, HACKING MASS) this year?
I agree the O's have a plan. I also agree the starting pitching is terrible. I actually think the relief pitching will be pretty good (but is likely to get overworked with that starting staff).

I can't believe the O's are considering giving Adam Eaton a starting spot. At 32 he has had plenty of time to prove that he is not a major league starting pitcher (although people keep putting him out there). With the lousy options immediately, I would probably choose Brian Bass. At least he is young enough that you could imagine him developing.

The real story behind the starting pitching is that it will be a revolving door this season. The O's best pitchers will be at AA and perhaps AAA. MacPhail is adamant that he won't rush them, and I support that.

By May, Hill will take a spot to try to prove he belongs. Before long, Pauley will get his feet under him in AAA and get another shot to prove he can pitch in the big leagues. Before the top prospects come up, look for Bergeson to get a shot.

The O's rotation will be better in September than it is now. I agree that there is a plan.

You mention the outstanding defense the Mariners have put in their OF. I'm wondering if this makes any of their SPs good targets in leagues where wins don't matter and QS do. Anyone there you'd be willing to take a flier on?
The Astros are worse than the Nats, really? I like Washington's offensive upside as much as the next guy, but their pitching staff should lock them into the AL East cellar. At least the Astros bring back an underrated bullpen from last year and sport a true ace at the head of the rotation.
Nats reside in the NL East cellar of course. BP's been underrating the Astros for years, so I guess this prediction shouldn't surprise me.
I disagree entirely that the Jays missed their window. They hit their window exactly. They built to a single competitive season, and in 2008 had the fourth-best team in baseball.

That's not missing their window. That's a peak on their success cycle, and they nailed it.

Now they need to realise it has passed and work toward the next one, but I would count 2008 as a resounding success for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Joe's only partly right about the Blue Jays. The rotation could well be awful and an awful lot did go right for the bullpen last year.

The criticism of the infield defence is off-base. Aaron Hill is only 27, Rolen and Overbay are still fine defenders, and Scutaro and MacDonald are both solid and spectacular, respectively.

As for the bullpen, it's true they won't all repeat last year's performance but if someone falters we'll likely see Accardo and possibly Janssen step in. The team has a ton of depth in the pen and as a whole this group is a very good bet to turn in another excellent performance.
Pleasantly surprised to see that my Giants aren't in the bottom ten.

Small pleasures.
Agreed. Predicting W-L records is really not that simple. There are factors beyond the obvious player personnel assessments. For example, in 2008, most Giants fans I talked to believed the team was bound to lose 100+ games. They ended up with "only" 90, thanks to a great record in one run games and the emergence of Tim Lincecum. It's still an inexact science to some degree. That's why even though I think the Padres should lose close to 100 games, I wouldn't necessarily be surprised if they end up closer to the PECOTA projections.
I think there's an implied range to any W-L projection, something like seven games. (That may render this whole process meaningless to you.) So "the Padres will go 61-101" means "the Padres will win from 58 to 64 games."

The thing is, that seven-game range...that's your hope and faith. Maybe not for the Padres, but for a hell of lot of teams.
Need a good bookie?
When MacDougal is seen as a plus in the bullpen, that suggests that statistical analysis of pitching has stymied since "strikeouts are all that matter" philosophy of the late 1990s.
Somebody better tell Carlos Quentin that he's aging.
The Sox have a better rotation than the indians, and the Indians are 11th.
Williams 7
Shaprio 1