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.**
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.
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.
Three weeks ago I might have convinced myself that the Blue Jays were going to win the East. Now they’re sitting in the middle of the pack and even that might be too high. Such is the cost of losing your 24-year-old would-be ace to a torn ACL in mid-March. The Marcus Stroman injury goes beyond just normal spring training sadness. For a Jays team that owns the longest active playoff drought in the sport and spent its offseason building a roster geared to end said drought, it was a devastating stomach-punch, letting the air out of the Toronto-hopeful before the team could even break camp.
Calling Stroman an ace at this point is probably a bit aggressive. After all, he has just over 300 professional innings since being taken as the 22nd overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft, and only 130 of those innings came at the major league level. But Stroman demonstrated the kind of frontline potential in his rookie season that got the baseball world buzzing, leading most prognosticators to ink him as the Jays top dog heading into 2015. His injury, suffered on a bunting drill of all things, leaves the JayBirds with a rotation comprised of veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, newcomer Marco Estrada, and youngsters Drew Hutchison and Aaron Sanchez. That is a rotation that can win, certainly, but barring either a blockbuster trade for someone of Cole Hamels-ilk or a major breakout from either Hutchison or the rookie Sanchez (who actually ranked ahead of Stroman as Toronto’s number 1 prospect by Baseball America heading into 2014), the upside is severely hampered by Stroman’s absence.
On the flip side, Toronto’s offense has a shot to be one of the very best in baseball in 2015. Already armed with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, two of the most lethal hitters in the American League, the Jays went out and added Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson to the fray, effectively turning their duo into a quartet. The Jays signed Martin away from Pittsburgh with an $82-million-dollar deal over 5-years, returning the Canadian backstop to his home country. Martin hit .290/.402/.430 for the Bucs in 2014, a line that would look fantastic on anyone in the current offensively-depressed era, nevermind a catcher who also contributed with elite defense and superb catcher-framing skills. While his bat is due for some regression, a move from one of the league’s most notorious pitcher’s parks in Pittsburgh to the launching pad in Toronto will certainly help soften the blow.
The Jays sent shockwaves through the industry just a week or so later when they acquired the 29-year-old Donaldson from Oakland in exchange for third baseman Brett Lawrie, pitchers Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin and shortstop prospect Franklin Barreto. The A’s dealt away Donaldson on the heels of back-to-back seasons in which he posted 6+ WAR and placed in the top six in AL MVP voting. With Martin, Bautista, Encarnacion and Donaldson lined up behind Jose Reyes at the top of Toronto’s lineup every night, the Jays have a good shot at eclipsing the 723 runs they scored in 2014, a total that was already best in the division and fourth best in the AL.
Path to the Playoffs: Even if Stroman were healthy, this was not a team without questions. The Jays will likely enter the season with rookie starters at second base (Devon Travis), center field (Dalton Pompey) and in the rotation (Sanchez), and a bullpen littered with volatility. Beyond that, Bautista and Encarnacion, potent as they are, continue to climb towards their mid-thirties and carry with them the increased health risks that go along with that. Still, the Jays have enough firepower to compete for one of the two AL wild card spots at the very least, and could still steal the East if the rest of the division stumbles.
The projection systems don’t like the Orioles this year. That isn’t really saying much, because the projection systems never seem to like the Orioles. That hasn’t stopped them from posting three consecutive winning seasons, including a 96-win stampede of the division last year en route to their first ALCS trip since 1997. The O’s have outplayed both their preseason projections and their BaseRuns record in both of their playoff campaigns, so Buck Showalter’s boys should be used to defying the odds by now. When they did it in 2012 with a ridiculously good record in one-run games, people called it a fluke. Those people were right, as their prowess for winning close games regressed heavily in 2013. Last year, however, the birds were legitimately a very good team, posting a 91-win season even by BaseRuns standards. As Joe Sheehan noted in a newsletter piece written last August, the Orioles infield defense was a major and underrated contributor to their success, and allowed their pitchers to thrive despite not being strikeout artists.
The ceiling for the rotation could be determined by roster construction more than anything else. It would seem the obvious choice for the final rotation spot, behind Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez, would be Kevin Gausman, the 24-year-old righty who posted 2 WAR in just 113 innings in 2014. The Orioles have yet to announce their plan, however, and there remains some belief that Baltimore could give that job back to Ubaldo Jimenez, the erratic 31-year-old to whom Baltimore gave $50 million in a four-year deal signed last offseason. Jimenez was brutal to the tune of a 4.81 ERA and 13.9% walk rate in 2014 before temporarily losing his rotation spot in mid-August. Provided the Orioles don’t let their pride get the best of them and limit Jimenez’s innings, the rotation could offer some nice room for growth even aside from Gausman. De-facto ace Chris Tillman is coming off back-to-back 200 inning seasons with sub-4 ERAs and holds more swing-and-miss potential as well as he enters his age-27 season. Former top-5 overall prospect Dylan Bundy also lurks in the minor leagues as a potential second-half boost as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery.
Offensively the O’s have taken their lumps this offseason, losing longtime right fielder Nick Markakis to the Braves, as well as last year’s home run leader, Nelson Cruz, to the Mariners. Instead of adding any high-profile replacements, Baltimore will trust their core players to make up that difference. Manny Machado, for instance, posted a 6-win season two years ago at the age of 20 before tearing a ligament in his left knee at season’s end. Machado was limited to just half a season last year, both in recovering from that knee injury and then suffering a new one altogether by tearing a ligament in his other knee in August. Machado remains just 22 years old, is a defensive wizard at third base and has oozes upside in his bat. As long as he doesn’t have a third knee we don’t know about, a full season from him will go a long way toward filling the void left by Cruz and Markakis. Beyond Machado, bounce-back seasons from Matt Wieters and Chris Davis would also be welcome developments for O’s fans. Wieters played just 26 games in 2014 before undergoing Tommy John surgery, and will look to reclaim his role as one of the most productive offensive catchers in the league. Davis followed up is mammoth 53-homer 2013 crusade with a frustrating season in which he hit half as many dingers and saw his average sink to a lowly .196.
Path to the Playoffs: Returns to prominence from Machado, Davis and Wieters, coupled with the consistently elite production from center fielder Adam Jones should allow the Orioles to continue scoring runs at a productive clip. Provided Machado isn’t hampered by either of his two knee surgeries, the infield defense should help the pitching continue to over-perform its peripherals as well, with room for more if Tillman and Gausman can take steps forward. The O’s were so far ahead of the division in 2014 that even building in some regression should leave them in the thick of the pennant race. But if the hitters either don’t return to full strength or find themselves back on the DL in 2015, the downside is sinking all the way to last place in what should be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball.
The Red Sox have been yo-yoing up and down the American League East for the past three seasons now, finishing in last place in two of those years while sandwiching a first place finish and World Series title in-between. If you were to simply buy into the pattern then it would seem 2015 is a year on the upswing. There are compelling reasons beyond just standings symmetry to believe in the BoSox this year however, and the work they did to remake the roster this past offseason tops that list.
The Red Sox had plenty of work to do this winter, particularly on the pitching front. Exiting the season with just two probable members of their 2015 rotation in Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly, the Sox would have to either break the bank for premier free agents like Max Scherzer or their own homegrown Jon Lester, or opt to build their rotation in more creative ways. After being spurned by (or spurning, depending on your perspective) Lester and seeing him sign with the Cubs, the Red Sox opted for the latter. Through a couple of interesting trades and a buy-low free agent signing, the Sox remade their rotation with Wade Miley, Justin Masterson and Rick Porcello. Boston acquired the 28-year-old Miley from Arizona by dangling a pair of young arms in Rubby De la Rosa and Allen Webster. Miley is coming off three straight seasons of over 190 innings with varied results, posting a 4-WAR season in 2012 before posting more modest totals of 1.9 and 1.7 in the two years since. The Sox then signed Masterson to a low-risk, one-year deal. An investment in Masterson, originally drafted by Boston in 2006, is a bet that he can regain the stuff that made him a solid mid-rotation starter from 2010-2013 with the Indians and not fall victim to the same pitfalls that saw his ERA shoot into orbit in 2014. Porcello, arguably the best of the three acquisitions, came over from Detroit in a rare major-league talent swap that filled needs for both teams, sending outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to the motor city. What Porcello lacks in dominance and ace-level stuff he makes up for with an elite groundball rate and remarkable consistency, posting 2-3 WAR for four consecutive years despite just turning 26 in December.
As interesting as the rotation overhaul is, the lineup is what promises to be Boston’s bread and butter for 2015. The Red Sox made some big splashes in December by adding arguably the two most sought-after position players in this year’s free agent class, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval comes to Beantown fresh off his third World Series win in the past five years with San Francisco and his switch-hitting bat should feel much more at home at Fenway as opposed to the hitter’s hell that is AT&T Park. Ramirez joins the Kung Fu Panda in coming over from the NL West, as he departs the Dodgers to return to the team that signed him as an international free agent all the way back in the year 2000. Ramirez will man the Green Monster in Boston, shifting away from the shortstop position that he’s played for the vast majority of his career. The move will allow Boston to keep Xander Bogaerts at his home position in 2015 in hopes that he can begin to evolve into his superstar-level talent. After showing flashes of that talent in the 2013 postseason, Bogaerts struggled mightily last year, his first full season with the big club. Instead of allowing that failure to remove the some of the shine from his future, recognizing that Bogaerts won’t reach his 23rd birthday until this October should restore the faith his breakout is more of a ‘when’ than an ‘if’.
Boston’s lineup is scary. It’s not scary just because of Ramirez and Sandoval. It’s not even scary just because of the recurring presence of veterans like Dustin Pedroia, Mike Napoli or David Ortiz, who simply refuses to succumb to his age. The combination of those things combined with Boston’s depth is what makes them so daunting for the opposition in 2015. The Red Sox added major offensive pieces despite already having a solid variety of options around the diamond, giving them unparalleled depth to call upon whenever they need it. Napoli need a few days off? Pencil in Allen Craig, who posted an .830 OPS or better in each year from 2011-2013 before crashing and burning in 2014. Has Shane Victorino gone down with another injury? Not to worry. The Red Sox have options that are likely even better than him ready to plug in at a moments notice, like the 22-year-old phenom Mookie Betts. Betts took the world by storm last year by posting .355/.443/.551 and .335/.417/.503 lines at Double and Triple-A respectively, before earning a ticket to the show and rewarding the Sox with a .291/.368/.444 line in 52 games. In just a year’s time, Betts has moved from just the #7 ranked prospect in Boston’s system to the type of untouchable commodity that promises to be a cornerstone of the franchise for years to come. And if you can concoct a scenario in which the Sox lose both he and Cuban-signee Rusney Castillo to injury or underperformance, Boston still has defensive whiz Jackie Bradley Jr. and super-utility-man Brock Holt to fit the bill.
Path to the Playoffs: It’s premature at this point to call Boston a dominant team. The pitching rotation, despite its creative assembly, is still very suspect. The volatility of players like Buchholz and Masterson can wildly swing the needle for Boston. If the Sox fade in 2015, suffice to say that will be a major contributing factor. But the sheer collection of talent they’ve amassed on offense, combined with their ability to deal from their pool of youngsters to bolster the rotation with a Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto mid-season if need be, offers Boston the best shot at dominance of any team in the division.
2015 Idiot Prediction: 92-70
2015 American League East 1. Boston Red Sox 92-70** 2. Baltimore Orioles 85-77 3. Toronto Blue Jays 84-78 4. Tampa Bay Rays 80-82 5. New York Yankees 76-86