Monday, March 31, 2014

Predicting the 2014 Season—American League

What one thing is absolutely certain in the AL this year? That no one knows what's going to happen. By my reckoning, only four of the Junior Circuit's 15 teams do not expect to contend this year. Many would call it a fool's errand to try to pick the five that will make the postseason this year—myself included. But that doesn't stop me from having some fun with it every spring.

Here are my projected finishes and win-loss records for American League teams. (My NL projections can be found here.) For each team, I make a few "fearless predictions" (read: statements that have a 50/50 chance of being completely false in six months) that attempt to justify my rankings. At the end of the season, I'll revisit these assertions to see how I did. (Hint: this is all just an exercise in fun.)

To the line!

AL East

1. Tampa Bay Rays (93–69, 2nd playoff seed)
  • The American League's best rotation will be a buzzsaw come October. Full seasons out of Alex Cobb and Chris Archer, at ERAs even better than their 2013s, will help lift the Rays to the AL pennant.
  • To everyone's surprise—including, quite possibly, the Rays'—James Loney will not regress. His 2012 was the aberration, as long as you don't expect him to hit home runs like every other first baseman.
  • Jeremy Hellickson is neither as bad as he was last year nor as good as he was every year before that. His career 4.39 FIP sounds about right for an ERA projection for 2014.

2. Boston Red Sox (92–70, 1st Wild Card)
  • Every year, defending champions falter because World Series championships usually happen when lots of guys have career years all at once. Though this will happen to the Red Sox, that 100–62 Pythagorean record from last year can withstand a substantial hit and keep them in the playoffs.
  • I hope I'm wrong, but I predict Grady Sizemore will reinjure himself in April. He'll be out for the rest of the season.
  • Exhibit A for regression in 2014: Shane Victorino. Jackie Bradley Jr. and AJ Pierzynski will also fail to make up for the losses of Jacoby Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, respectively—nor will they even crack an above-average OPS.
  • John Lackey will spend half the season on the DL, giving Chris Capuano—once again—the chance to show people what his excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio can do.
  • Rookie of the Year Xander Bogaerts will hit for a .342 OBP, 30 home runs, and 98 RBI—eerily matching the last Red Sox shortstop to win Rookie of the Year.

3. New York Yankees (88–74, 2nd Wild Card)
  • Following a pattern set by Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka, newcomer Masahiro Tanaka will register a 4.30 ERA this year—before lowering it at least a full run for his next few seasons.
  • The Derek Jeter farewell tour will be a painful and impotent one for the future Hall of Famer. However, Kelly Johnson will impress filling in for Alex Rodríguez.
  • The Yankees will lead the American League in DL trips in 2014. DL all-stars will include Mark Teixeira, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian Roberts.
  • Michael Pineda will win AL Comeback Player of the Year. He'll have a 110 ERA+ and be in the top 10 in the AL for strikeouts. A slighter, yet equally important, comeback will be staged by CC Sabathia.
  • New York's most valuable infielder? Brendan Ryan.

4. Baltimore Orioles (84–78)
  • Ubaldo Jiménez is for real. His slider will be the key to his second-act career resurgence.
  • As a team, the O's will slug at the second-highest rate in the AL—but get on base at the second-lowest rate.
  • Baltimore has some talented rookies who will play key roles, including Jonathan Schoop and Henry Urrutia. But they'd prefer to see that talent out of Kevin Gausman, who like Brian Matusz will be a permanent victim of Oriole mishandling.
  • Although he'll retain tremendous value thanks to his defense, Manny Machado will have an unlucky year at the plate. A low BABIP will expose his poor isolated on-base ability, leading to many a disappointed fantasy owner.

5. Toronto Blue Jays (79–83)
  • The Blue Jays were clearly overrated going into last season—but that probably means a largely similar team is underrated going into this season.
  • Dioner Navarro will do the impossible: make Jays fans pine for JP Arencibia.
  • Toronto will finally wise up and stop leaking defensive runs by playing Edwin Encarnación in the field. Freed from this burden, he will threaten to win the Triple Crown.
  • When José Reyes plays, Toronto will have a winning record. An anemic bench will kill them when he doesn't—which, unfortunately for them, will be often.
  • Relying on Dustin McGowan and Drew Hutchison will prove most unwise. At least RA Dickey will regain his old form.

AL Central

1. Detroit Tigers (94–68, 1st playoff seed)
  • Especially without José Iglesias, the Tigers defense will be no better this year than last. The hole at third base has been patched up, but first base, right field, and catcher will all be worse than a season ago. And just like in 2006, the Tigers' undoing in the playoffs will be poor defense from their pitchers—actually the team's leakiest position in 2013.
  • Miguel Cabrera will feel no ill effects from his lack of "protection" in the lineup with Prince Fielder gone. The Tigers may hit fewer home runs than in 2013, but Cabrera will hit more.
  • Nick Castellanos and Drew Smyly will both take the steps forward that this team needs to succeed.
  • Brad Ausmus will win Manager of the Year, and it's safest to say Cabrera will keep winning MVPs until he doesn't anymore.

2. Kansas City Royals (86–76)

3. Cleveland Indians (78–84)
  • The Indians will find it hard to contend once their best player becomes a liability. Carlos Santana will struggle with his transition to third, and it'll show up in his numbers at the plate. Meanwhile, Cleveland pitchers will not appreciate the gaping hole on the left side of the infield—caused by Santana's poor defense as well as Asdrúbal Cabrera's.
  • David Murphy is in for a big rebound. Last year's .227 BABIP will return to his career .302 average, and he will turn in a .340 wOBA.
  • Jason Kipnis is in for a big fall to earth. Look for him to return to his pedestrian 2012 stats.
  • The loss of Ubaldo Jiménez to free agency will hurt, but the real drag on the team ERA will be the Cleveland bullpen. It will be the AL's worst. Although the Indians will score more runs than their opponents, they'll finish below .500 thanks to an abysmal record in one-run games.

4. Chicago White Sox (75–87)
  • José Abreu will immediately become the new face of the franchise and bring a new tone to South Side baseball. That may not win ballgames, but Abreu's 30 home runs certainly will. Although he'll start his American career with a low average (.235), an MVP award is in his future.
  • For a team with the worst farm system in the game, a surprising number of youngsters will be significant positive contributors, including Adam Eaton, Avisail García, Erik Johnson, and Matt Davidson.
  • The White Sox defense will be much improved, plugging huge holes at first base and center field with above-average glovework by Abreu and Eaton. The result will be lowered ERAs across the board.

5. Minnesota Twins (64–98)
  • Phil Hughes has been a league-average pitcher in even years and a terrible one in odd years. Expect the move to Minnesota to help him have his best even year ever: a 3.99 ERA. Unfortunately for the Twins, that will make him their best starter.
  • Of the Twins reunions in 2014, Jason Kubel will be at least 80% of his former self; Jason Bartlett will be lucky to be 20%.
  • I'm not so sure Josmil Pinto is the answer at catcher. His power will struggle to translate to Target Field.

AL West

1. Texas Rangers (90–72, 3rd playoff seed)
  • Sure, all the injuries will hurt—but no worse than last year. (This is the team that gave 17 starts each to Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm in 2013.) Texas will start off with a poor April... Then have a passable May once Matt Harrison returns... Then have a good June when Colby Lewis joins the team and pitches as though he never left.
  • Of all people, Geovany Soto will be the Rangers' catalyst. When he returns from injury in June, that's when Texas will find its rhythm. Soto will slash .280/.370/.490 and be among the league leaders in catcher ERA. Evan Grant will give him an MVP vote.
  • Shin-Soo Choo will contend for the MVP award with a 30-30 season. Prince Fielder will hit 40 home runs in his only good season as a Ranger. And adjusting for the time he'll lose to injury, Jurickson Profar will out-WAR Ian Kinsler.

2. Oakland Athletics (87–75)
  • A team from Oakland isn't going to lead the AL West in runs scored every year, like they did in 2013. Josh Reddick will settle for 22 home runs (the average of his past two seasons), and Coco Crisp and Brandon Moss will also hit fewer.
  • Injuries to starting pitchers, like Jarrod Parker, will thrust young pitchers (e.g., Jesse Chávez, who has just two career starts) into leading roles they won't be able to handle. A mediocre Pythagorean record will result, but Bob Melvin's tinkering and, especially, a lights-out bullpen will help them overachieve it.
  • Billy Beane will wish he'd signed Bartolo Colón (two years, $20 million) instead of Scott Kazmir (two years, $22 million).

3. Los Angeles Angels (81–81)
  • Say what you want about the Angels' allocation of resources; they still have Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton in a lineup together. Pujols and Hamilton will both look much closer to what we're used to seeing out of them. Together, expect them to be worth 10 wins above replacement.
  • Kole Calhoun will be worth more to the Angels than the man he's replacing, Mark Trumbo, will to the Diamondbacks.
  • CJ Wilson will supplant Jered Weaver as LA's de facto ace, and when LA is still in the playoff picture at the trading deadline, they will add a third quality starter (Jeff Samardzija?). No one else will stick around for more than 20 starts.

4. Seattle Mariners (69–93)
  • New manager Lloyd McClendon will fail to keep the meddling front office out of affairs on the field, and his inconsistent managing will lead the M's to the majors' worst record in either one-run or extra-inning games.
  • A perfect example: continued struggles by Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders will lead to lots of Logan Morrison and Corey Hart in the outfield, and that will lead to the worst defensive outfield in the majors.
  • None of the promising young trio of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Erasmo Ramírez will show anything special this year, exposing Seattle's soft underbelly: pitching depth.
  • If the Indians don't have the league's worst bullpen, the Mariners will.

5. Houston Astros (58–104)
  • The top third of the Astros' lineup will actually be—gasp—good. That, and the fact that they will not lose 15 games in a row to end the season, should be enough for a marginal improvement on their 2013 record.
  • If you're looking for an under-the-radar Rookie of the Year candidate, you could do a lot worse than George Springer, who will be this year's king of the "on-pace-for" game. He'll be a 10/10 guy in 200 plate appearances.
  • Phenom Jarred Cosart will post an ERA much closer to his 2013 xFIP (4.68) than his 2013 ERA (1.95). Houston will finish last in the majors in starters' ERA. (Sorry, Scott Feldman.)

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