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

Say WHAT? Wrapping Up The Past Week in Baseball

If I had to sum up last week in one word, it would be wacky. In the past week alone, almost 40 major leaguers changed teams, including top free agents Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury. We break down all of the weeks action below.

MONDAY:

The week kicked off in Toronto, with the Blue Jays sign free agent catcher Dioner Navarro to a two year deal. The Nivaro signing allowed the Blue Jays to non-tender their current catcher, J.P. Arencibia. Later that afternoon, the Pirates traded for catcher Chris Stewart from the New York Yankees. In other small moves, Willie Blomquist signed a two year deal with the Seattle Mariners, and Scott Kazmir signed a 2 year, $22 million deal with the Oakland A’s, finishing the Bartolo Colon era in Oakland. Then, later that night, the biggest news from that day broke. The Nationals acquired widely underrated starting pitcher Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray. This trade allowed the Nationals to fill the hole they lost when Dan Haren signed with the Dodgers. For the Tigers, the trade freed up a rotation spot for highly anticipated pitcher, Drew Smyly. Another trade from that night was a surprising one; The Baltimore Orioles trade closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland A’s for INF/OF Jemille Weeks. The reason that this is so surprising is because the moneyball belief is that a team doesn’t need a proven closer in order to succeed. However, acquiring Johnson is going against that belief. That night was also the non-tender deadline, where players like Justin Turner, Ronnie Belsario, Daniel Hudson, and former 2009 Rookie of the Year winners, Chris Coghlan and Andrew Bailey.

TUESDAY:

This was possibly the biggest, non-winter meetings day in offseason history. The day started off with AJ Pierzynski signing a one year deal to go to the world champion Boston Red Sox. The A’s remained very active in acquiring Josh Linbolm and Craig Gentry from the Rangers, and Luke Gregorson from the Padres. The Padres recieved outfielder Seth Smith as part of the Gregorson deal. Then, the Rays got themselves another defensive catcher in Ryan Hanningan in a three way trade with the Reds and the Diamondbacks. The Rays also got struggling relief pitcher Heath Bell in that trade. The rebuilding Astros decided that they wanted to acquire a center fielder, so they traded Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barns for Dexter Fowler, who is coming of a career year. Another rebuilding team making some moves were the Marlins: they signed catcher Jarrod Saltalamachia to a 3 year, $21 million deal. The Yankees signed second baseman Kelly Johnson, as they prepared for Robinson Cano going to another team. They also signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a 7 year, $153 million deal, the third largest contract for an outfielder. The Tigers finally got a good closer in Joe Nathan, and the Rockies found a replacement to Todd Helton with Justin Morenau. In total, 17 major leaguers were moved in this one day, alone.

WEDNESDAY:

Wednesday was a very slow day, in terms of this week. The biggest news was probably that Paul Konerko was re-signing with the White Sox. Konerko, who had one of the worst years of his career, will most likely platoon with DH Adam Dunn in 2014. Also reported that day was the fact that Seattle was going to be a major suitor for Robinson Cano.

THURSDAY:

Another slow day in terms of this week. Norichka Aoki was traded from the Brewers to the Royals. At the time, this trade seemed odd, as it seemed that Carlos Betran was close to signing with the Royals to a three year deal. For the Brewers, the trade allows Ryan Braun to move from Left Field to Right Field and opens up a spot for outfielder Khris Davis, who shinned last year when Braun was serving his 50 game suspension. Edward Mujica changed world series teams, as he signed a one year, $8 million deal with the Red Sox. Brian Wilson returned to the Dodgers on a one year, $10 million deal. Lastly, the Marlins signed INF Rafael Furcal, in hopes that they can convert him into a second baseman.

FRIDAY:

Friday was also an extremely busy day in baseball. It started off early, with reports that Robinson Cano and the Mariners were no where close to a deal. Then, about an hour later, Jon Heyman reported that Cano had signed a 10 year, $240 million deal with the Mariners. That deal ties Cano with the Mariners until 2023, when Cano is 41 years old. It is also the third biggest contract ever, behind Alex Rodriguez’s two contracts when he signed with the Rangers and then the Yankees. Soon after Cano it was announced that Cano was leaving New York, another Yankees announced he was leaving, but only across town. The Mets signed Curtis Granderson to a 4 year, $60 million deal. Right after that deal was announced, the Astros announced that they had agreed to signed starting pitcher Scott Feldman to a 3 year, $30 million deal. Recently non-tendered players like Ryan Webb and J.P. Arencibia found themselves new homes on Friday: Webb signed with the O’s while Arencibia signed with the Rangers. The Nationals signed OF Nate McLouth to a two year deal to help fill out their bench. Carlos Beltran ended up signing with the Yankees on a three year, $42 million deal. The Yankees weren’t done there as they signed Huroki Kurdoa  to a one year deal. And lastly, Mike Napoli ended up back in Boston, signing a two year, $32 million deal.

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Because of this crazy week before the winter meetings, we might have one of the most boring meetings ever, with the top free agent available being Matt Garza. However, look for top players like David Price, Mark Trumbo, and even Chris Sale to be on the move this week via trade. Hopefully, this week will be as fun as last.

The Night Before Fistmas

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‘Twas weeks before Christmas at Nationals Park,
The ballpark was empty, and awfully dark,
But in one little office, a man sat in wait,
Wondering how he could make his team great
His name was Mike Rizzo, and he hatched a plan
To trade for a starter, but who’d be his man?
Jeff Samardzija is cheaper, but not all that great.
And that Max Scherzer fella? Too expensive, I’ll wait.
On Scherzer, Samardzija, and David Price too,
He asked about all, but not one would do
He was perplexed, even puzzled, confounded, confused!
He’d thought of most everything, but not been enthused!
Till one day it hit him, as he sat in the dark,
“What about Fister?” He’d ask on a lark.
So he called up Dombrowski, GM of Detroit,
To see what team weaknesses he could exploit.
“I hear you have excess of starters to trade,
“I like your guy Fister,” Mike hoped and he prayed,
That Dave didn’t want him, or didn’t think highly
Of his pitcher, Doug Fister, maybe he preferred Smyly.
“He’s tall, but with no real mechanical flaws,”
He mentioned, just hoping there’d be no guffaws.
“We know you’ve been trying to free up some cash,
“By trading a starter from your loaded stash
“In this sort of thing, we’d be keen to help out,
“We’ll work out a trade, and it won’t be a rout.”
And Dave thought for a while; his cheeks seemed real rosy
He responded to Mike, “Hey, we like Lombardozzi!
“He plays all positions, he can field, he can hit,
“But he helps us the most on account of his grit.”
Rizzo sat in his chair, pondering what he had heard.
A taker for Lombo? Wow, that’s just absurd!
“And throw in that Krol guy,” Dombrowski then quipped.
“And we also wonder, “Can Jordan be flipped?”
But Rizzo was steadfast; Jordan wouldn’t move.
“Maybe Rob Ray, maybe then you’ll approve?’
Rizzo let out a smile, he’d gotten his guy,
And he hoped that his even-keeled tone would belie
The joy that he felt; he’d accomplished his goal!
He’d gotten Doug Fister, and hadn’t lost Cole.
And all throughout Natstown, the people rejoiced,
The pitcher they got was their number one choice.
Beloved by the coaches and also the SABRs,
They stood in approval of Mike Rizzo’s labors.
They went onto Twitter and said, with good reason,
World Series or Bust! And to all, a good season.

Nationals Acquire Doug Fister From Tigers

Doug Fister is now a Washington National

Doug Fister is now a Washington National

Today, we took a look at five starting pitchers the Nationals could look to acquire via trade.  And yet, immediately after we hit the “Publish” key, baseball made a fool of us, as it does us all from time to time.  Yes, tonight, the Nationals have acquired one Douglas Wildes Fister from the Detroit Tigers, a move that we at Serious Jammage certainly did not see coming.

Now, this move shouldn’t come as a complete surprise.  The Nationals had been mentioned in possible trades for Tigers’ starters Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, and it stands to reason that if the Tigers were willing to trade those two, they would be willing to trade Fister.  But still, this deal came seemingly out of nowhere; before the winter meetings, and with the buzz around the Nationals at an absolute minimum.

And really, this move makes a great deal of sense for the Nationals.  Washington, with three starters already under contract that could be aces on other teams, were not willing to pay the high price for a Scherzer or Price.  But Fister, a more-than-solid starter with two years of team control left, is a perfect fit for the team.

Now, how good is Fister?  Better than you might think.  He is not a strikeout pitcher — his 7.2 K/9 over the past two years is a little under league average.  He also allows an average of more than a hit an inning, again slightly worse than league average.  But what he lacks in dominance, he makes up for with the ability to limit walks; his BB/9 over the last two years is 12th in baseball.

Fister throws a curveball, changeup, occasional slider, and several different varieties of fastball — nothing comes out of his hand straight.  Because of the movement on his pitches, Fister is an extreme groundballer; over the past two years, he has a 52.9% groundball percentage, 6th best in baseball.  And as you would expect, he has been hurt by the Tigers’ poor infield defense, as his .316 batting average against on balls in play (BABIP) stands at .316, 5th-worst in the league (former teammate Rick Porcello, also a groundball pitcher, had a league-worst .330 BABIP).  Though he has had the most productive years of his career there, a move out of Detroit (and into the National League) can only do him good.

Because of this high BABIP, the advanced metrics like Fister even more than the conventional ones.  While his ERA was a solid 3.67 last year, his FIP was a very strong 3.26.  Thus, Fister has been of the more valuable pitcher in baseball.  According to fWAR, he has been worth 8.1 wins over 2012 and 2013, tied for 13th in baseball — with Gio Gonzalez.

The Nationals will be sending Robbie Ray (LHP, 5th-best prospect in the Nationals’ system according to Baseball America), along with possibly utility player Steve Lombardozzi and lefty reliever Ian Krol.  The loss of Ray is big, but not insurmountable, loss for the farm system — the 22-year old Ray, drafted in the 12th round 3 years ago, and lured away from college by a substantial signing bonus, struck out over 10 per 9 at single-A Potomac and AA Harrisburg. But in Fister, they get a player with a track record of production (as Rizzo described him, a “talented, young veteran… battle-tested through playoff experiences”), who can hold down a spot in the rotation until the next wave of prospects begin to surface.

For the win-now Nationals, this this seems to be a move they couldn’t afford not to make.