2014 AL Preview

EAST

Can the Red Sox repeat their success from last year?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Tampa Bay Rays (94-68)

2. Boston Red Sox (90-72)

3. Toronto Blue Jays (85-77)

4. New York Yankees (82-80)

5. Baltimore Orioles (79-83)

SLEEPER TEAM: Toronto Blue Jays

All five teams in the AL East have at least a reasonable chance at contention in what shapes up to be the most competitive division in baseball.  But of the five teams, the Blue Jays seem to be getting the least amount of buzz.  Projected to challenge for the division title last year after a very active offseason, the Jays instead slumped into last place with a 74-88 record, the only sub-.500 team in the division.  And this offseason, they added only catcher Dioner Navarro to the fold, returning essentially the same roster as the one that was so disappointing a year ago.  So why will they succeed in 2014?  Because they can’t possibly be as unlucky as they were in 2013.  As this handy chart (warning: language is NSFW) compiled by Reddit user atomicbolt displays, the Jays had more freak injuries than a bus crash at a carnival last year.  Assuming the team is healthy, the talent is there.  If Jose Bautista can play more than the 105 games he has averaged over the past two seasons, he will anchor a lineup that has as much firepower as any in the American League.  The rotation is a little shakier — behind R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, the team will throw two injury risks — Dustin McGowan and Brandon Morrow — and a 23 year old prospect, Drew Hutchinson.  But if the Jays can miraculously stay at something resembling full strength throughout the season, they could finally live up to the expectations heaped on them before the 2013 season.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: New York Yankees

Last year, despite scoring 21 fewer runs than they allowed, and despite frequently starting the likes of Eduardo Nunez, Chris Stewart, and Lyle Overbay, the New York Yankees managed to contend until the last week of the season, finishing with a record of 85-77.  And this offseason, they bought nearly every player available on the open market, spending a total of $491 million to acquire the likes of Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Masahiro Tanaka.  But despite the spending spree, the Yankees still have gaping holes in their infield — one talent evaluator called it “the worst in baseball.”  They’ve lost superstar second baseman Robinson Cano, their first baseman is coming off a major wrist injury, their best third baseman is suspended for the year, and their shortstop is 40 years old and on the doorstep of retirement.  The pitching staff has question marks as well — formerly reliable ace C.C. Sabathia is coming off his worst career season and has seen his velocity drop precipitously over the past three seasons.  The team is old everywhere (nobody in the starting lineup is under 30) , and simply doesn’t have the depth to weather the inevitable attrition that comes with the injuries of an aging team.  For the first time since the 1980s, a spending spree won’t be enough to fix what ails the New York Yankees.

WHY WILL THE RAYS WIN THE EAST?

It seems amazing that the Tampa Bay Rays could possibly be the favorites in a division that contains both the defending world champion Red Sox and the free-spending Yankees.  And yet, the Rays have compiled such an impressive amount of talent that it seems a fifth playoff appearance in seven years is not only possible, but likely.  The team’s stable of pitching depth is so impressive that the Rays could have traded away former Cy Young winner David Price in the offseason and still had one of the best rotations in the sport.  And unfortunately for the rest of the American League, they hung onto Price, who will headline a rotation that includes three other pitchers whose ERAs sat under 3.30 in 2013.  The lineup, led by Evan Longoria and James Loney at the corners, as well as Ben Zobrist and Desmond Jennings up the middle, is no slouch either.  They have a payroll that projects to be among the bottom five in the league, but the Rays have their best opportunity yet to prove that money isn’t everything.

CENTRAL

Can James Shields help make some magic happen for the Royals in 2014?

Can James Shields help make some magic happen for the Royals in 2014?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Detroit Tigers (89-73)

2. Kansas City Royals (85-77)

3. Cleveland Indians (79-83)

4. Chicago White Sox (69-93)

5. Minnesota Twins (65-97)

SLEEPER TEAM: Kansas City Royals

This may be the best shot the Royals have towards breaking the playoff drought that has lasted since their only World Series title in 1985.  They have a bona fide ace in James Shields, a superstar talent in flamethrower Yordano Ventura, and a bullpen that last year was easily the best in the American League.  Offensively, the 2013 season saw Eric Hosmer break out at age 23, posting a .302/.353/.448 slash and 3.6 bWAR, and the Royals have another breakout candidate this year in 25 year old Mike Moustakas.  Elsewhere on the diamond, the Royals finally solved their long-standing second base problem by signing the reliable Omar Infante, and made a savvy pickup in outfielder Norichika Aoki.  Of course, the Dayton Moore-led front office also made a couple missteps this offseason, handing Jason Vargas a 4 year, $32 million contract and allowing Ervin Santana to escape while simultaneously re-signing Bruce Chen.  Thus, the back of the rotation is shaky, with Vargas and Chen joining the adequate but unspectacular Jeremy Guthrie.  Their pitching will likely regress, but the Royals have a real shot to usurp the Tigers and bring the AL Central crown back to Missouri for the first time.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Cleveland Indians

After 94 losses in 2012, the Indians shocked the baseball world in 2013 with a scalding second half that enabled them to win 92 games and a wild card berth.  They did so on the backs of an emerging superstar in Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Yan Gomes, as well unlikely resurgences from  key members of their pitching staff, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir.  Unfortunately for the Indians. Jimenez and Kazmir are gone, Jimenez heading to Baltimore and Kazmir to Oakland.  Gomes’ 2013, in which he hit .294/.345/.481 with 11 home runs in 88 games, might be sustainable (he hit a freakishly similar .287/.345/.484 in his 5-year minor league career), but it also might not.  And in order to accommodate Gomes, the Indians have moved the defense-challenged Santana to third base (a position he hasn’t played regularly in eight years), where he could either be a revelation or a tire fire.  The Indians have too many question marks, too many things that have to break that way. It’s impossible to feel confident predicting success for them, but don’t rule out another surprise season.BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Cleveland Indians

WHY WILL THE TIGERS WIN THE EAST?

The Tigers, even without Doug Fister, have one of the most formidable rotations in the major leagues.  Their rotation is so good that reigning Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer is the team’s number 2 starter, behind 2011 AL MVP/Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.  And Scherzer might not even be better than the team’s 3 starter, Anibal Sanchez, the 2013 AL ERA leader.  The lineup has more holes than it has in the past (especially at shortstop), but with reigning MVP Miguel Cabrera alongside Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter, the Tigers should hit enough to back up that outstanding pitching staff.

WEST

The addition of Prince Fielder may not be enough to slow the Rangers' fall.

The addition of Prince Fielder may not be enough to slow the Rangers’ fall.

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Los Angeles Angels (92-70)

2. Oakland Athletics (89-73)

3. Texas Rangers (84-78)

4. Seattle Mariners (74-88)

5. Houston Astors (59-103)

SLEEPER TEAM: Los Angeles Angels

It’s a little hard to call that plays in Los Angeles and has some of the most notable stars in the sport a sleeper.  But after four years without a playoff berth, and two years of disappointment in the shadow of the Albert Pujols contract, it’s difficult to find a prognosticator who’s bullish on LA’s other team.  And for good reason — the Angels struggled mightily in the first half of 2013, finishing with a 79-83 overall record.  Albert Pujols, their highest-paid player played in only 99 games, and hit a career-low .259 with just 17 home runs.  Josh Hamilton, the superstar who hit 43 home runs the year before signing a 5 year, $125 million deal with LA, hit fewer than half that in his first year of the contract, with an on-base percentage that barely cracked .300.  So why be optimistic?  Because despite the struggles of Pujols and Hamilton last year, the two are still superstar talents primed for ascension back to their career norms.  And of course, the Angels have recent $144.5 millionare Mike Trout, unquestionably the greatest talent in the game right now.  Despite having a thin pitching staff that features C.J. Wilson, Jared Weaver, and not much else, the Angels still seem likely to be buoyed by their superstars to a strong finish in 2014.

 BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Texas Rangers

After the greatest five-year run in the history of the franchise, it seems the door is finally shutting on the Texas Rangers dynasty.  Last year, the team’s formerly prolific offense slid back to the middle of the pack, posting a .737 OPS, which ranked 8th in the league, and a 99 OPS+.  So the Rangers spent heavily this offseason to rectify this problem, signing free agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and taking on Prince Fielder’s contract in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler.  Choo is a solid addition, but the Fielder trade, which opened a spot on the infield for top prospect Jurrickson Profar, seems more a lateral move than a positive one — after all, Kinsler was second among Rangers’ position players with 4.5 bWAR last year.  Additionally, the pitching staff looks very thin behind Cy Young candidate Yu Darvish, who is injured and will not start Opening Day.  In his stead, the Rangers will give the Opening Day nod to Tanner Scheppers, the first player since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 to make his first major league start in his team’s first game.  Behind Darvish, Scheppers and Martin Perez, the Rangers will go with Joe Saunders and Robbie Ross, neither of whom inspires confidence.  And frankly, neither do this year’s edition of the Rangers.

WHY WILL THE ANGELS WIN THE EAST?

The Angels are a team of superstars, and as previously mentioned, this might be the year that those superstars finally perform up to expectations.  Their division is weakened from previous years by injury and attrition, leaving the Angels a prime opportunity to finally reach the lofty heights owner Arte Moreno has spent heavily to reach.  Also, Mike Trout.

AL MVP: MIKE TROUT, LOS ANGELES ANGELS

AL CY YOUNG: JUSTIN VERLANDER, DETROIT TIGERS

AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: YORDANO VENTURA, KANSAS CITY ROYALS

FIRST AL MANAGER FIRED: RON GARDENHIRE, MINNESOTA TWINS

AL WILD CARD GAME: RED SOX OVER ATHLETICS

AL DIVISION SERIES: RAYS OVER RED SOX, TIGERS OVER ANGELS

AL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: RAYS OVER TIGERS

WORLD SERIES: RAYS OVER CARDINALS

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Extensions: The Braves Take a Play from the Rays

Among the so-called Big Four sports in the United States — football, baseball, basketball, and hockey — the national pastime is unique in the wide payroll disparities between its franchises.  The NFL and NHL  have both a hard salary cap and a hard salary floor in place; there are fixed parameters in which each team’s payroll must fall.  The NBA lacks a hard cap, but it’s soft cap means that there are only a few exceptions that allow teams to exceed the cap, most of them designed to keep star players in their original cities.  By contrast, the MLB lacks any kind of salary cap, hard or soft.  While the MLB does have a luxury tax if a team exceeds a certain annual payroll (set at $189 million for the next three years), teams with excess resources (like the Yankees or the Dodgers) have no problem paying the tax and continuing to spend.  Thus in baseball, you can end up with two teams, one (the Yankees) with a payroll over $228 million, and another (the Astros) with a payroll that barely exceeds $22 million.  It would appear that baseball, with its wide payroll gaps, would stand no chance of achieving the on-field parity of a league like the NFL.

And yet, that really hasn’t proven to be the case.  As ESPN’s Jayson Stark argues every year, by almost every objective measure of parity — number of teams to make playoff appearances, number of World Series winners — baseball comes out on top.  How can teams like the Rays, with payrolls less than half the size of their division-rival Yankees and Red Sox, still manage to compete?  They have to be very smart.  If you are one of the teams with limited financial resources — limited by a small market or bad TV contract — it becomes a necessity to figure out which players can provide value while, due to their age or skill set, can be had cheaply.

The Atlanta Braves, thanks to one of the worst television deals in baseball, are one of those teams.  Their TV deal, a 20-year contract signed in 2007, pays them less than $20 million a season, and is said to be worth between $200 million and $400 million over the life of the deal.  By contrast, the Dodgers recently agreed to a 20-year TV contract with Time Warner Cable that will pay them $300 million dollars.  Not over the life of the contract.  Per year.  The Braves’ market, the 15th-largest in baseball, isn’t nearly big enough to overcome a TV deal that poor.  The Braves’ payroll has stagnated; it was roughly the same in 2013 ($90 million) as in 2000 ($86 million).  And with revenues elsewhere on the rise — the Braves’ payroll ranked 3rd in 2000, but slipped to 16th in 2013 — the Braves, who have enjoyed extraordinary success over the past two decades, will need to take cues from other successful small-market teams to continue competing.

So how have the Rays done it?  Of course, it has started with brilliant drafting, and a keen eye for talent.   The key pieces of the Rays’ 7 year run of success — Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, David Price, Matt Moore, James Shields, etc. — were either drafted by the Rays or acquired (in Zobrist’s case) before they had made an impact on the major league level.  But where the Rays’ real brilliance shows is in the way they make sure that their homegrown talent stays in Tampa at below-market rates.  With the exception of Price, all the players mentioned above signed extensions that have proven to be team-friendly (Longoria has done it twice, signing a 6 year, $17.5 million contract in 2008, then a 6 year, $100 million extension on top of that in 2012).  The players don’t sign these extensions out of the kindness of their heart; the Rays approach them early on in their careers, before the game has made them rich, and get them to trade the opportunity to break the bank later in their career for the certainty of financial security today.  Shields signed his deal (which gave the Rays three more years of team control) with less than two years of service time.  Moore’s deal, which gave the Rays two more years of team control, was signed after Moore had played less than a month in the MLB.  And Longoria signed his first extension with six days of major league experience under his belt.

This offseason, the Braves have gone on an extension binge, to some extent aping the strategy of the Rays.  Freddie Freeman, in his first year of arbitration eligibility, got an 8 year deal said to be worth $135 million.  Otherworldly closer Craig Kimbrel, also in his first year of arbitration, signed a 4-year deal, with a club option for a fifth year that could make the deal worth as much as $58.5 million.  And young starter Julio Teheran, with just one year of service time, signed a 6 year, $32.4 million deal with a $12 million option that could keep him in Atlanta through the 2020 season.

The Teheran extension is far and away the most team-friendly, with the Braves paying only $6 million a season until 2020 for someone who has the potential to be a top-flight major league starter.  But both the Kimbrel and Freeman deal have the potential to greatly benefit the team.  The Kimbrel deal is far and away the biggest given to a reliever who wasn’t a free agent.  But Kimbrel, with his incredible save and strikeout numbers, was due to make a killing in arbitration — his incredible statistics actually broke Matt Swartz’s arbitration model.  The deal gives the Braves’ cost certainty as well as two more years of team control at a rate that, if Kimbrel keeps producing the way he has been, will be far below market-value.

The Freeman deal has a far greater amount of guaranteed money, so it might be harder to see as a good deal for the team.  But Freeman broke out this year, posting a career-high 5.4 bWAR and finishing fifth in the MVP vote, and at the age of 23, seems to be a better candidate to improve than regress.  Assuming the cost of a marginal win is $5 million, Freeman needs only to average 3.4 bWAR over the life of the contract to be worthy of the money, and he has the potential to be worth far more than that.

By extending players who were multiple years away from free agency, the Braves have almost admitted their own constraints, recognizing they have to act more like a small-market team than one with unlimited resources.  But as the Rays have shown, those constraints do not have to adversely affect the product a team puts on the field.  As unlikely as it seems, in baseball, anything is possible.

Further Reading: The Raysification of the Atlanta Braves by Grant Brisbee

Nationals Acquire Jose Lobaton

As pitchers and catchers reported to Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Florida today, the Washington Nationals made a move that left them with one more catcher, and one fewer pitcher.  The Nationals made a deal to acquire catcher Jose Lobaton, from the Tampa Bay Rays, in exchange for right-handed pitching prospect Nathan Karns.

One of the Nationals’ biggest needs at this point in the offseason was a backup catcher for Wilson Ramos, and Lobaton is well-suited to fill that position.  With Ramos’ injury history, the Nationals felt the need to acquire a backup catcher they could trust in the event of an injury, and Lobaton has far more of a track record of success than the Nationals’ internal options, Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon.  In 100 games last year that included 76 starts behind the plate, Lobaton hit .249/.320/.394, good for a .714 OPS and league-average 100 OPS+.  And while this was the 29-year old Lobaton’s first year of big league offensive success, he hit well in the minor leagues, compiling a .751 OPS in 10 minor league seasons.  Lobaton can step in for Ramos on occasion without a serious loss of offensive production (especially against righties, against whom Lobaton had a .744 OPS last year, comparable with Ramos’ career .760 mark), and could conceivably take over if Ramos went down.

While the Nationals get a valuable piece in Lobaton, they also lose one in Karns.  And the Rays, who had a logjam at catcher (with Lobaton, Jose Molina, and the newly acquired Ryan Hanigan all vying for playing time), must be thrilled with receiving a player of Karns’ caliber for what amounted for them to spare parts.  Karns, the ninth-best prospect in the Nationals’ system according to Baseball America, has impressive stuff and the stats to match it, with a minor league strikeout rate of 10.7 batters pr nine innings.  He struggled in a 12-inning stint for the big club last season, but there were numerous positive signs from his three appearances, including 11 strikeouts in those 12 innings.

But Karns is far from the perfect prospect.  He has a long history of injuries, including major shoulder surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2010 season.  Because of the surgery, Karns got a very late start on his professional career, and is already 26 years old, with only 316 professional innings under his belt.

Perhaps most importantly, the Nationals don’t seem to have room for Karns in their starting rotation, in either the present or the future.  The Nationals have at least seven starters — Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark, and Taylor Jordan — who both sit above Karns on the depth chart, and are under contract for at least the next two seasons.  While added pitching depth is never a bad thing, odds are that Karns will not see big league action as a starter any time soon.  And by the time there is an open spot in the Nationals’ rotation, Karns will be 28 years old, and the next wave of prospects (Lucas Giolito, AJ Cole and the like), will be ready for the big leagues.

Karns is a talented arm, and for the Rays, turning a backup catcher into a talented young arm is the type of deal that has made them so successful in their small market (additionally, the Nationals might or might not be getting two other players in the deal).  But a Nationals team in position to win now has to be willing to pay a big price to fill the small holes that could be the difference between championship and disappointment.

UPDATE: According to Adam Kilgore, the Nationals are receiving two prospects from the Rays in the deal, both of whom are in the top 30 in the Rays’ system.  And according to SBNation’s Chris Cotillo, one of them is left-handed pitcher Felipe Rivero.  Rivero, the 20th-best prospect in the Rays’ system after the 2012 season, put together a strong season at high-A Charlotte, posting a 3.40 ERA in 127 innings, though with less-than-impressive strikeout totals (only 6.4 per nine innings).  The 22-year old Venezuelan has a fastball that tops out at 94 MPH, with a a strong curveball and an improving changeup (scouting report via this website).

UPDATE II: The deal is now official:

In addition to Lobaton and Rivero, the Nationals receive 22-year old minor league outfielder Drew Vettleson.  Vettleson, drafted 42nd overall in the 2010 draft (as compensation for the loss of catcher Gregg Zaun), was rated by Baseball America as the 9th best prospect in the Rays system in 2010 and 2011, and as the 11th best after the 2012 season.  He hits from the left side and throws from the right, although in high school, he showed the ability to pitch with both arms.  Vettleson had something of a down year in 2013; his power dropped off from the previous two years, leaving him with a respectable but unspectacular .274/.331/.388 triple-slash at High-A Charlotte.