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.