2015 Idiot Predictions: American League East

Trying to predict a baseball season, anytime, is stupid. Trying to predict a baseball season in the year 2015? Where dominant teams are extinct and every team is aiming for the 85-90 wins that might sneak them into the playoffs? Easily one of the dumbest things you could possibly do. Sure, you read a bunch of articles and studied a bunch of stats. You think you have it all figured out. And then all of a sudden the Kansas City Royals are in the World Series. Stupid you for thinking you could outsmart baseball. Predicting baseball seasons is for idiots.

Let’s try to predict a baseball season.

Of all the dumb and unpredictable divisions in baseball, the AL East might just be the dumbest and most unpredictable. Fangraphs 2015 projections literally have four of the division’s five teams winning between 80 and 82 games this year. You might as well pick the names out of a hat. Six months from now I’ll look like an idiot for writing this, and I’ll deserve it. But until then, here’s a reasonable attempt to sort through this nonsense division and figure out who will still be standing when the dust settles.

 

**Note: 2014 BaseRuns Record information can be found at FanGraphs, and is their method for determining how good a team actually was in 2014 based on their underlying statistics, essentially stripping away any luck or flukey-ness from a team’s actual record.**

5. New York Yankees

2014 Record: 84-78 
2014 BaseRuns Record: 79-83
 
Runs Scored: 633 
Runs Allowed: 664

The Yankees won 85 games two years ago. They got there despite amassing over 900 combined DL days from their projected starting lineup alone. They lost their catcher (Cervelli, 155 days), first baseman (Teixeira, 164 days), third baseman (Rodriguez, 127 days), fill-in first/third baseman (Youkilis, 140 days), shortstop (Jeter, 163 days), left-fielder (Granderson, 113 days) and designated hitter (Hafner, 60 days.) Aside from Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner, their 2013 Baseball-Reference lineup looks like an April Fool’s gag.

Look at that OPS+ column. That team won 85 games. Eight-five.

Last year the Yankees won 84 games. They got there despite amassing nearly 500 combined DL days from their projected starting rotation alone. They lost their incumbent ace, CC Sabathia, to season-ending knee surgery (141 days.) They lost their newfound ace, Masahiro Tanaka, to a partially-torn UCL (74 days.) They lost Ivan Nova to Tommy John surgery (162 days), Michael Pineda to a shoulder strain (99 days) and fill-in starter David Phelps to elbow inflammation (39 days.) The only projected rotation member to avoid the DL was Hiroki Kuroda. Save for him and midseason trade acquisition Brandon McCarthy, their 2014 Baseball-Reference rotation looks like an April Foo– er, ok you get the point.

The only reasonable explanation for the Yankees contending the past two seasons involves Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi meeting for midnight seances in Monument Park. But even the ghosts of pinstriped past might not be able save the Yankees in 2015. If you were playing baseball bingo with old, brittle and expensive players then the Yankees would win without even having to use the free space.

If you could count on the Yankee rotation to bounce back health-wise, they’d have a shot at being extremely good. A healthy Tanaka might be the second best starter in the American League behind Felix Hernandez. Michael Pineda finally fought his way back onto the field and showed flashes of the brilliance he demonstrated as a 22-year-old rookie in Seattle. Sabathia’s peripheral numbers have indicated he’s been much better than his surface stats would indicate, despite being on the downswing of his career. And a combination of Ivan Nova/Adam Warren and 25-year-old flamethrower Nate Eovaldi, acquired in an offseason trade with Miami, would round out the staff with upside to spare. But in a world where even the most durable of pitchers are routinely bitten by the injury bug, a gamble on Tanaka’s elbow, Pineda’s shoulder and Sabathia’s knee surviving a full season feels like the Yankees are hitting on 19.

When you double down on that gamble with an offense that offers just as much risk without nearly the same reward, you have the potential for disaster. The Yankees project to have exactly one offensive starter under the age of 30 in 2015, shortstop and Derek Jeter-replacement Didi Gregorious. Gregorious should be a sizable upgrade for New York over Jeter based on his defense alone, but it’s hard to have faith in the rest of the offense to produce much more than last year’s squad that scored a measly 633 runs, worse than all but two American League teams. Even if the rotation were to stay mostly healthy in 2015, the Yankees path to contention would likely need to include renaissance years from at least a couple of Carlos Beltran, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, the youngest of which is 35 years old, a bounceback season from catcher Brian McCann, and continued health for Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and Chase Headley.

Path to the Playoffs: There is a road to 90 wins and a return to October baseball if the Yankees stay extraordinarily healthy and also use elite bullpen production to push the margins, something they’ve been able to do for the past few years. But at this point it feels like the strongest argument against the Yankees crumbling is simply that they have yet to crumble. After all, they haven’t posted a sub-.500 record since George Bush was in office, and I’m not talking about W. When you’re a winning team for almost a quarter-century and you continue to win through seasons like the last two, it gets hard to believe that the bottom can still fall out. That doesn’t mean it won’t.

2015 Idiot Prediction: 76-86

 

4. Tampa Bay Rays

2014 Record: 77-85 
2014 BaseRuns Record: 83-79

Runs Scored: 612 
Runs Allowed: 625

There’s a scene at the end of Friday Night Lights when Billy Bob Thornton is solemnly removing the names of his graduating seniors from his team’s depth chart and replacing them with new players for the following season. I imagine that this has been the life of every Rays fan for the past eight months. It started at last year’s trading deadline when Tampa dealt their ace, David Price. With the Rays floundering toward the bottom of the standings for most of the year, and knowing they would not be able to pay to retain Price who was just a year and a half away from free agency, they did what small market teams must do to survive and dealt him to the contending Tigers in order to recoup some value.

I don’t know if a fan ever becomes comfortable with star players leaving town, but at the very least, Tampa fans have come to expect it by now. They’ve lived through trades that sent Matt Garza and James Shields away. They’ve survived the B.J. Uptons and Carl Crawfords of the world scurrying away to fatten their pockets in free agency. They’d live through another two major deals in the next six months alone after dealing Price away, waving goodbye to both the presumed future of the franchise, Wil Myers, and the man who has produced more wins above replacement (WAR) for the team than anyone else over the past five seasons, Ben Zobrist. Making hard choices and saying goodbye to fan favorites has been the cost of doing business for Tampa Bay over the course of their existence. The Rays and their fans know that they must squeeze as much as they can out of every penny if they hope to compete with the financial juggernauts in New York and Boston.

What made this offseason different, made it feel more like the end of an era rather than a continuation of one, was not in losing anyone between the lines, but rather in losing the architects of the franchise itself. When general manager Andrew Friedman pulled up stakes and relocated himself to SoCal to head up the Dodgers front office, the Rays lost the man that was probably most responsible for turning the laughingstock Devil Rays, who didn’t win more than 70 games in any year of the first decade of their existence, into the smart, savvy team that has won 90 or more games in five of the seven years since. And when beloved manager Joe Maddon followed his lead and took off for the friendly-confines of Wrigley Field, they lost the man next-most responsible for that transformation.

It would be easy to look at those losses — an ace, a star, a potential future star and the arguably the best GM/manager combo in baseball — and simply declare that the Rays are done, as many already have. It’s easy to imagine Evan Longoria somewhere in St. Petersburg, peeling Joe Maddon’s name off a magnetic board and staring at it contemplatively as Explosions in the Sky hit their crescendo. But the reality is that the Rays still have a ton of talent, both in the front office and around the diamond. Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and the rehabbing Matt Moore already represent the cream of the crop in terms of AL East pitching rotations, and the oldest among them is just 27 years old. After ranking dead last in the American League in runs scored in 2014 however, the Rays might find themselves a bit more challenged offensively. Longoria is still one of the premier players in the game on both sides of the ball, but beyond him the Rays are thin. Even if you considered Steven Souza replacing Wil Myers in left field, and Nick Franklin/Asdrubal Cabrera replacing Zobrist and Yunel Escobar in the middle infield as washes (which they very well might be), it’s hard to see the Rays being much more dynamic than they were last year.

Path to the Playoffs: On paper, the Rays have the strongest pitching in the East by a wide margin. In a division without a dominant team, that could pave Tampa’s road to October all by itself. In practice, three key members of that rotation (Cobb, Smyly, Moore) are either already battling or still recovering from injuries. The upside is there for Tampa to ride their young horses to a division title. But when the goods are already damaged before the calendar hits April, the margin for error is slim.

2015 Idiot Prediction: 80-82

 

3. Toronto Blue Jays