Sunday, April 5, 2015

Predicting the 2015 Season—American League

There's a reason I issued my NL predictions first; the American League is simply a mess this year. There are legitimate three-, four-, even five-team races for all three division crowns; the entire AL East, for instance, is evenly matched enough that the entire one-through-five order of finish could be determined totally by luck. By comparison, the NL is a picnic.

But despite the sad futility of it all, I'll still make picks the same old way. Here are your full win-loss projections for the American League in 2015, plus my Patented, Guaranteed, Can't-Miss Fearless Predictions.

AL East

1. Tampa Bay Rays (89–73, 2nd playoff seed)
  • In a division without any clearly dominant physical talent, bet on the brains. The Rays' continued ability to employ players with the most upside—even with Andrew Friedman on another payroll—will set them apart in the AL East.
  • Drew Smyly and Nate Karns (sub-3.00 ERAs and 200+ strikeouts each) will come out of nowhere to become two of the best young pitchers in baseball. Along with Alex Cobb and Chris Archer, the Rays will have the AL's best pitching staff by a country mile.
  • Flyball pitcher Jake Odorizzi will also take a step forward, thanks in no small part to a top-notch outfield defense. Kevin Kiermaier will amass 25 Defensive Runs Saved and lead the league in Web Gems.
  • The offense still won't come easily, but better luck (.241 average, .279 BABIP last year with runners in scoring position) in clutch situations will help—as will facing their pitching-challenged AL East opponents 76 times a year.
  • Leading the charge on offense will be a revitalized Evan Longoria (.290/25/90) and AL Rookie of the Year Steven Souza (.260/20/80).
  • The old Ernesto Frieri will reemerge. With Jake McGee out, he'll seize the closer's job and never relinquish it. He'll be emblematic of baseball's most improved bullpen overall—one of the best in the AL.

2. Baltimore Orioles (86–76, 2nd Wild Card)
  • In a strange twist, despite losing Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz, the Orioles' bats won't skip a beat. Virtually every other slot in the lineup will improve from down years in 2014. They'll match their 705 runs scored from last season, and they'll again lead the majors in home runs.
  • Matt Wieters and Manny Machado will have productive full seasons. Jonathan Schoop's .244 OBP in 2014 was simply the result of being overmatched at age 22; he'll no longer be an automatic out.
  • JJ Hardy will remember how to hit home runs again, while Chris Davis will remember how to hit, period. His 2013 was a career year, but he's very capable of putting up his 2012 numbers of 33 home runs and 121 OPS+—or even better, as his patience at the plate continues to improve.
  • Kevin Gausman will finally live up to his potential and give the Orioles the ace that many have complained they do not have.
  • Baltimore pitchers will regress, but not by as much as most are projecting. Their ERAs will continue to outpace their FIPs due to a top-two AL defense and, in the case of the bullpen, the shrewd management of Buck Showalter.
  • Surprisingly, yes, Steve Pearce is for real.

3. Boston Red Sox (83–79)
  • There will be trouble in the outfield as Hanley Ramírez gets injured, Rusney Castillo is a flop, and Shane Victorino shows his age. I'd love to believe Mookie Betts will be an instant superstar, but common sense simply dictates there will be a learning curve.
  • The good news: Xander Bogaerts will post the highest OPS of any AL shortstop. The bad news: it'll only require a .750 figure to do so. But hey, the Sox will take it.
  • It won't so much be the lack of an ace that does the Bloody Hose in, but the fact that no starter will be better than "not bad." Justin Masterson, however, will be straight-up "bad."
  • Robbie Ross and Anthony Varvaro will headline a surprisingly strong bullpen.
  • The next pitching phenom to take SportsCenter by storm will be second-half debutant Henry Owens—affectionately known as HONK (Henry Owens, Next Koufax).

3. Toronto Blue Jays (83–79)
  • The Jays will be undone by 2014-Red-Sox-itis: overreliance on young talent. Aaron Sánchez, for example, will find that a stellar fastball alone does not equal success as a starter. However, you can count on Drew Hutchison taking a substantive step forward, cutting a full run off his ERA.
  • Dalton Pompey won't be winning the Silver Slugger anytime soon, but I foresee a Fielding Bible Award (and a Gold Glove too, if it were truly merit-based).
  • Three 30-home-run-hitters (José Bautista, Edwin Encarnación, and Josh Donaldson) will push the Blue Jays just past Boston for the league lead in runs scored.
  • Toronto's moribund relief corps—the worst in baseball by ERA—will cause the team to underperform its Pythagorean record. Paging Rafael Soriano?

5. New York Yankees (78–84)
  • Alex Rodríguez is back—with a vengeance. The guy is still one of the best hitters who has ever lived, and he'll show it by hitting 20 home runs with a .330 wOBA.
  • You won't have to hold your breath with every Masahiro Tanaka pitch for long. He'll leave his Opening Day start with elbow soreness and go under the knife by the end of the week.
  • Conversely, Michael Pineda will be fully healthy and completely dominant. Finally, after three years, a winner will be declared in the Pineda-Jesús Montero trade.
  • With Chase Headley, Didi Gregorius, and Stephen Drew around the horn, this is one of the best defensive infields in baseball. That'll help CC Sabathia pick up the pieces and become a serviceable starter once again.

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians (85–77, 3rd playoff seed)
  • Carlos Santana is a dark-horse MVP contender as his average comes back but his walks are unaffected. With a .900 OPS, he'll reclaim the title of Cleveland's best player from Michael Brantley with ease.
  • Jason Kipnis, again falling short of his miraculous 2013, and Lonnie Chisenhall will only hurt the Indians with their gloves, but the other positions should be passable enough to keep them out of the bottom five in Defensive Runs Saved.
  • In turn, this will help each starting pitcher shave a little off their 2014 ERAs—yes, even Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. The staff will also limit the potential damage by fielders by becoming the first team in major-league history to strike out more than a batter per inning.
  • Terry Francona will win yet another Manager of the Year award that would have been more deserving during his Boston days.
  • In a very close division race with Chicago, the once-again elite bullpen may be the Indians' one true advantage.

2. Chicago White Sox (83–79)
  • There's one guaranteed way the White Sox will improve in 2015: not having Paul Konerko, who cost the team 3.2 wins over the past two years, per FanGraphs.
  • Melky Cabrera will also be a huge shot in the arm, but where they'll really need the help is the infield. Alexei Ramírez's, Conor Gillaspie's, and Tyler Flowers's regressions will offset Cabrera's gains.
  • Hope that Robin Ventura learned from his experience giving away all of Adam Dunn's value playing him in the field, even a little; otherwise, Adam LaRoche could waste another 124 OPS+ season with a sub-1.0 WAR, effectively replicating Dunn.
  • The difference-maker in the Central will be how quickly the White Sox call up Carlos Rodón, who will dominate hitters from his first big-league fastball to his final September slider. If he's up by May, he'll cement the rotation as the division's best and lead Chicago to the playoffs. If July, it'll be too late.
  • Adam Eaton will be the most valuable center fielder in the American League (non-Trout division).
  • José Abreu can't possibly repeat his insane .317/.383/.581 with 36 home runs from 2014. He'll hit only .300/.370/.550 with 33 home runs.

3. Kansas City Royals (80–82)
  • Eric Hosmer will finally hit the 20-HR mark KC fans have always dreamed of, but it won't help a dismal offense that will be lucky to match its 651 runs scored from last year's incredible ride.
  • Alex Ríos will be far less productive and valuable than the (cheaper) man he replaced, Nori Aoki.
  • No one's ERA will rise this year as much as Edinson Vólquez's. Even Kauffman Stadium can't save the groundballer.
  • Yordano Ventura will be the latest brightest young thing to tear a UCL and undergo Tommy John surgery.
  • After going four months without one to start 2014, Wade Davis will give up an extra-base hit in his very first appearance of the year.

4. Minnesota Twins (77–85)
  • There's real talent here, but the Twins' super-conservative management style will prevent it from being deployed in winning ways. The more the team puts its exciting young players on the field, the better Minnesota will fare.
  • Exhibit A: The Twins will actually benefit from Ervin Santana's PED suspension, as it will eventually pave the way for Alex Meyer in the big leagues. (The fact that they're currently moving ahead with Mike Pelfrey in that rotation spot is Exhibit B.)
  • The Twins will surprise everybody with the division's best offense. Danny Santana and Kurt Suzuki won't be quite as good, but Brian Dozier will be even better. Oswaldo Arcia will become a legitimate middle-of-the-order threat.

5. Detroit Tigers (76–86)
  • This year, the Old English "D" on those caps will stand for "decline." It'll start with JD Martínez, who will plummet back to career norms in both BABIP and ISO, but also extend to Victor Martínez and Ian Kinsler, who will be sapped by the ever-advancing decay of old age. Folks will look back and point to 2015 as the year that even the great Miguel Cabrera started slipping.
  • The old Justin Verlander is never coming back. The Tigers will only be able to hang their hats on Aníbal Sánchez and David Price in the rotation, and they won't even be as good as Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello will be in their new homes.
  • "Alfredo Simón vs. Joe Nathan: who is worse?" will be a fascinating barroom discussion this summer.
  • His poor bullpen management and failure to meet even basic win-loss expectations will mean Brad Ausmus won't be skippering the Tigers when 2016 starts. He'll take a brief hiatus from managing and will next be seen at the helm of the 2017 World Series champion Astros.

AL West

1. Los Angeles Angels (91–71, 1st playoff seed)
  • Ironically, the salvation of the aging Angels will be a couple of kids: Johnny Giavotella, the underappreciated on-base artist, and Andrew Heaney, Rookie of the Year runner-up. Giavotella will be better than the departed Howie Kendrick and will have a better WAR per 600 plate appearances than Josh Hamilton.
  • The entire rotation will be turned on its head, as ace Jered Weaver pitches more like a #5 and #5 Heaney outpitches him by every rate stat (though his limited timetable will hold him down in counting categories). Erstwhile innings-eater CJ Wilson also still has something left in the tank: he'll be back to 3.0 walks per nine, 8.0 strikeouts per nine, and a 3.50 ERA.
  • The American League MVP may not be who you think! I mean, it's still almost definitely going to be Mike Trout, but it may possibly, theoretically be somebody else. It'll be a bounceback of sorts for the definitely-not-declining center fielder: strikeouts down, steals up, defense back above average.

2. Seattle Mariners (90–72, 1st Wild Card)
  • There are lots of names in the M's bullpen who could close—and at least three will, as Fernando Rodney turns into a pumpkin. The bullpen as a whole will strike out more than a batter per inning.
  • Seth Smith will out-WAR Nelson Cruz, but both will be important parts of lifting the Seattle offense out of the cellar and into the middle of the pack.
  • Rickie Weeks will prove a shrewd bargain-bin signing as the supersub no one expected—filling in for ineffective Logan Morrisons and Dustin Ackleys of the world at first and outfield.
  • In another squeaker, Félix Hernández will beat out Chris Sale for his second Cy Young Award.
  • The seven-game Mariners-Rays ALCS will be the most travel-intensive playoff series in baseball history, with 2,530 miles separating the two cities. But Seattle will be accustomed to the rough travel schedule, and that will be the decisive factor in sending the Mariners to their first World Series.

3. Oakland Athletics (84–78)
  • Jesse Hahn and Kendall Graveman will shine in the early going, but they'll deteriorate around the All-Star break as they hit innings totals they aren't used to. Thankfully, at that point, the A's will have Jarrod Parker and AJ Griffin ready to keep the good times rolling.
  • Billy Beane knows something you don't know on an annual basis. This year it's Ike Davis, who will hit .250/.350/.450 with 25 home runs and 90 RBI—and that's a conservative estimate.
  • Drew Pomeranz will double his career WAR with a breakout season, and Marcus Semien will be one of the AL's better shortstops.
  • The magic will run out for Scott Kazmir and, sadly, Ben Zobrist.
  • Pat Venditte—the switch-pitcher—will finally make the Show, and not as a mere curiosity: he'll post a sub-two ERA in a small sample.

4. Texas Rangers (73–89)
  • Jurickson Profar. Yu Darvish. Who's next? Because the best indicator of future injury is past injury, the Rangers will again lead the majors in days spent on the DL.
  • Adrián Beltré will go from the majors' third-best third basemen to seventh-best (behind Kyle Seager, Kris Bryant, Pablo Sandoval, and David Wright)—still a good player, but one embarking on his inevitable decline, especially on defense. The Rangers should have traded him when they had the chance.
  • Prince Fielder will bounce back to hit 25 home runs; Shin-Soo Choo's resurrection will be milder and mainly OBP-centric, though he'll be a 15/15 man again.
  • Thanks to Leonys Martín and Elvis Andrus, the Rangers will lead the league in caught stealing, killing many a rally and compounding a pair of already-poor OBPs.
  • Derek Holland will have the rotation's best ERA—terrifying, considering it'll be 3.90. Yovani Gallardo will be eaten alive by Globe Life Bank Texas Rangers Suburban Ballpark in Arlington.

5. Houston Astros (72–90)
  • When the Astros lead the AL, if not MLB, in strikeouts, a columnist will inevitably blame the Ks for the ugly Houston offense. That won't be fair. For every Evan Gattis and Matt Domínguez who strikes out because he doesn't know how to hit at the major-league level, there will be a George Springer or Jon Singleton who is a net positive to the lineup despite the whiffs.
  • Colby Rasmus will parlay his resurgent year in 2015 into a four-year, $50 million contract next offseason.
  • Dallas Keuchel will add a full run of ERA (the groundballer won't be a fan of Jed Lowrie's shortstop defense); Collin McHugh, half a run. But the blow will be softened by a much-improved bullpen.
  • The Astros rookie de la année will be Colin Moran—not Mark Appel, who will blame his poor performance during a September callup on the clubhouse's hostile environment.

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