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Projected Standings for the 2001 Season
By Tom Tippett
Copyright © 2001. Diamond Mind, Inc. All rights reserved.
How much will the new strike zone impact the game this year? Can the Rangers score 1000 runs with A-Rod, I-Rod, Galarraga, Caminiti et all? If so, will that be enough? Can the Rockies new rotation take them to the top of the mountain in the NL West? Which was the more important addition, Mike Mussina by the Yankees or Manny Ramirez by the Red Sox? If Mark McGwire stays healthy, can anybody touch the Cardinals in the NL Central? Did the A's and White Sox usher in a new era last year, or were they one-hit wonders? Are the young Marlins ready to take another big step toward becoming a legitimate contender?
Each spring since 1998, we've been projecting statistics and ratings for over 1500 players and running computer simulations of the coming season in an effort to answer questions like this. It's one of the most interesting projects we do each year, and there are always a few surprises. This article presents our projected team standings for the 2001 season with comments about the outlook for each team.
Before we get into that, however, it's worth taking some time to explain our methodology and talk about what we can and cannot expect to learn from an exercise such as this one.
The truth is, we can't predict the future any more than you can. We don't know whether Nomar Garciaparra's wrist problem will go away in two weeks or land him on the surgeon's table and wipe out half his season. Whether Frank Thomas is going to spend the season sulking about his suddenly mediocre salary instead of bashing balls over and off the new Comiskey fences. Whether the new strike zone will be enforced all year. Which of the many pitchers who had off-season surgery will suffer relapses and which will throw harder than ever. Or which GMs will alter the competitive balance through trades and salary-driven personnel decisions.
In light of the surprises that punctuated the 2000 season and the uncertainty that surrounds so many teams this spring, it may seem like a complete waste of time to publish these projected standings. In fact, in recent weeks, I've found myself thinking about all the times when smart people like Bill James, Peter Gammons, and Rob Neyer have written that predictions are silly. Well, they are silly, if all you care about is whether the predicted standings match what really happens.
In my view, this is a case where the journey is more important than the destination. The process of projecting player stats, setting up starting rotations, assigning bullpen roles, and choosing starting lineups for every team provides us with lots of food for thought. It forces us to take a hard look at all the roster moves that took place since October, evaluate injury reports, and make assumptions about how each team is going to approach the coming year.
And the learning process doesn't end when we've completed this preparatory work. When we begin simulating the season, there are always a few teams that fare better or worse than we expected. In those cases, we go back and take a closer look. Sometimes we conclude that our assumptions are on the optimistic or pessimistic side, and sometimes that closer look reveals something we hadn't seen before. This article is about what we learned, or at least what we think we learned, by running these simulations and taking that closer look.
I guarantee that you're going to disagree with some of what you see here. Maybe you're convinced that your favorite team will be this year's Athletics or White Sox. Perhaps you're certain that we're wrong about how the NL West race will come out. That's fine. If this article has any value for you, however, it will give you some things to think about that you may not have known already, things you can watch for as the 2001 season unfolds. That's how it works for me, anyway.
Last spring, for example, I was surprised to see that the simulations projected the Mariners to lead the AL in pitching despite a recent history of high-scoring teams that couldn't hold a lead. A closer look revealed that this outcome made sense, thanks to a good pitcher's park, a rebuilt pitching staff, and a defensive unit that was improved by the additions of Mike Cameron and John Olerud and the departure of Russ Davis. Without running the simulations, I could have guessed that they would be better than before, but I never would have guessed that they'd be that much better. (They went on to finish second in runs allowed, trailing only the Red Sox.)
I was also a little surprised to see that the Reds didn't appear to be mortal locks to win the NL Central with the addition of Ken Griffey. Why not? The outfield combo of Griffey and Bichette didn't project to be much better than the previous year's duo of Greg Vaughn and Mike Cameron, but nobody was talking about the loss of Vaughn's bat in this lineup. Well, as it happened, the new tandem was better than the old, but not by enough to keep the Reds in the race with St. Louis. And we were reminded of how difficult it is for one player to make that much difference on a baseball team.
On the other hand, our approach didn't provide any indications that the Phillies and Astros were about to collapse or that the White Sox would make their amazing run. Because unforeseen things will happen again this year, you may believe that pre-season predictions are silly. Or you may feel that the process of trying to generate pre-season projections can be an educational and thought-provoking exercise. I believe both statements are true.
We begin with team rosters that reflect all off-season player moves and include top prospects, even if they have never played in the majors. This adds up to 45-55 players per team, a total of 1500-1600 players.
Using major-league and minor-league statistics (from STATS Inc., Total Sports, and Howe Sportsdata), we evaluated the performance of these players over the past three years. Each stat line was adjusted for the level of offense in the league (inflating Eastern League stats, for example), the home park (for both major-league and minor-league stats), the effect of facing the DH (for minor-league and AL pitchers), and the competitive level (majors, AAA, AA). For each player, these adjusted stat lines were averaged (with more weight on recent seasons, performances at higher levels, and seasons with lots of playing time), adjusted for age, and then projected into the league and park where he will compete this year. We also projected each player's left/right splits and assigned ratings for skills such as baserunning, throwing, defensive range, and bunting. (For a more detailed description, see The Diamond Mind Projection System).
For each team, we put together a manager profile consisting of the starting rotation, bullpen assignments (closer, setup, long relief, mopup), starting lineups versus left- and right-handed pitching, platoons, defensive replacements, and utility roles. Among other things, these profiles enable us to reduce the projected playing time for players (such as Adrian Beltre) who are currently injured and expected to miss part of the season.
Then we played out the 2001 schedule using our Diamond Mind Baseball computer game. This program simulates every pitch, with a computer manager making all decisions about starting pitchers and lineups, game tactics (e.g. bunt, steal, hit and run, swing away, pickoff throws, pitchouts, baserunner advancements) and substitutions (pinch hitting, pinch running, relief pitching, defensive subs, injury replacements) using the information in the manager profiles. Anyone can be injured during the simulated season.
Because the outcome of any one season can be significantly influenced by luck -- which teams suffer fewer injuries, get the breaks in the close games, have a few guys with career years, and so on -- we simulated the season fifty times and averaged the results.
The net effect of this approach is to shoot down the middle, neither being overly optimistic or pessimistic about a team's chances. There's nothing wrong with being optimistic, of course, and this is the time of year when you should be optimistic about your team's chances. After all, this could be the year when everyone who struggled last year bounces back to normal, every youngster who played well in a three-week trial last year blossoms into a solid everyday player, the team stays pretty healthy all season, the older players have one good year left in them, the breaks go their way in the close games, and so on.
If we had simulated the season only once, some teams would have overperformed and some would have fallen short of their true level of ability. In other words, don't despair if your team is projected for only 79 wins. The real-life campaign won't be played fifty times, it will be played once. Teams with good-but-not-great talent can win 90 games if things go right, and no team has enough talent to survive a spate of injuries or off-years from key players.
The New Strike Zone
The Commissioners office and the umpires have asserted with great vigor that they will call the high strike this year. The umpires visited every team during spring training to demonstrate the new strike zone. And everyone is saying that they won't back off and revert to their former practices at any time during the season.
If the new strike zone is indeed larger than the old one, and if it is enforced all year, things can be expected to change. Walks would decrease. Strikeouts would rise if batters don't adjust and start swinging at more pitches. The extra strikeouts would depress batting averages. Hitters wouldn't be ahead in the count as often. Scoring would suffer. More balls would be put in play. Starters would be able to pitch deeper into games because they wouldn't be throwing as many pitches to each hitter. Game times would decrease.
I would welcome all of these changes. At this point, of course, we don't know for sure whether it will happen, and if it does, how long it will last and what the magnitude of the change will be.
We could have taken a wait-and-see attitude, but in addition to projecting the final standings, we include projected totals of runs for and against each team. And that means we needed to make some assumptions about the impact of the new strike zone. So we did what we usually do: we went looking for some data.
Through the first fifteen days of spring training, covering 219 games from this season and 215 games from last year, the walk rate has dropped from 6.9 per game to 5.4, a decrease of 22%. The strikeout rate is up from 11.4 to 12.4, an increase of 9%. And scoring is down from 12.1 runs per game to 10.2, a drop of 16%. Those are big differences.
If you had asked us a week ago, we would have argued that the results from the early part of spring training may not be valid predictors of what will happen when the games count. After all, the hitters and pitchers would be seeing the new strike zone for the first time, and it might take time for everyone to make the adjustment. So the differences between last year and this year might be exaggerated if we took the pulse of the game too early.
And it did appear for a while that we were seeing some adjustments being made, because the large differences we observed during the first three days of spring training games had become much smaller during days four through seven. But that trend didn't continue. In fact, just the opposite happened, as the gap widened again during days eight through fifteen. At the moment, all indications are that walks are going to be way down, strikeouts are going up, and scoring will be noticeably lower this year. And those are the assumptions we used when running our simulations of the 2001 season.
We've never looked at this kind of information before, so we're not at all sure whether we can use spring results to predict the impact on the regular season. Even if we're wrong about the effects of the new strike zone, it shouldn't affect the projected standings very much, if at all. A few baseball writers have speculated that the new strike zone may not affect all players equally, that certain types of pitchers or hitters stand to gain or lose more from the change. But this is all speculation at this point, and we assumed that everyone would be equally affected.
In our simulations, the park ratings were based on three-year averages for any stadium that has been open (and unaltered) for that period of time.
In the past, we rated new parks as neutral. Why? Because we're not aware of a good method for predicting the statistical impact of a park solely by looking at its dimensions. There are many other factors -- such as altitude, weather, and visibility -- that influence the offensive production in a park, and it's very difficult to assess those factors.
This year, however, we've taken a stab at estimating these effects. For the altered parks, we figure we know enough about the general characteristics of the parks to make small adjustments in the right direction. While these adjustments are somewhat subjective, they are guided by our experience in doing park ratings for 15 years, and we think they're a little closer to the truth than if we just assumed they were neutral.
- Milwaukee's new stadium, Miller Park, is deep down the foul lines but pretty normal in the gaps and center field, so we're projecting the park to be close to neutral overall.
- Pittsburgh's PNC Park is a little on the small side, so we're projecting it as a good park for hitters.
- Camden Yard in Baltimore has been altered for the first time since it opened. To give their young pitching staff a little help, they have moved home plate back by seven feet and rotated the field slightly, so we decreased the homerun factors and increased the factors for singles, doubles and triples to account for the larger outfield.
- in Chicago, Comiskey Park has been altered in several ways. Some seats have been added down the left- and right-field lines, making foul territory a little smaller in those areas. The bullpens have been moved and some bleacher seats added, so the outfield fences are closer to home plate across the board. The park is not quite symmetrical any more. To reflect these changes, we increased the homerun factors and reduced the rates of doubles and triples.
- to make room for the new ballpark in Cincinnati, they've had to alter the existing stadium. Home plate has been moved back ten feet, the outfield fences brought in by twenty feet, and the fences raised to compensate for the reduced size of fair territory. Part of the exterior wall of the stadium is being torn down, and this could change the wind currents in a park that used to be completely enclosed. They have also changed over to a grass surface. We projected it to be a better park for offense -- specifically, that the smaller dimensions would cause more balls to leave the yard, the high fences would produce more doubles, and the switch to grass would eliminate some of the artificial-turf doubles we've seen in the past.
- Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia will have a new playing surface of the type used in Tropicana Field last year. We didn't notice a meaningful change in the park effects in Tropicana, so we're assuming this change won't have much of an impact at Veterans Stadium, either.
The Unbalanced Schedule
For the first time, teams are going to be playing more games against divisional opponents than other teams in the league, and that means that strength of schedule is going to be playing a much larger role this year than ever before. It's been a small issue in recent years, because the unbalanced nature of inter-league play has created the potential for teams to be squeezed out of the playoffs by virtue of facing stronger inter-league opponents. (Just ask the 1999 Reds, who might have qualified for post-season play if not for an extra series against Cleveland.)
This year, however, teams will face their divisional rivals 18-20 times each, the rest of the league 6-9 times each, and the corresponding division in the other league 3-6 times each (for a total of 18 inter-league games). So the teams in tough divisions aren't going to have the opportunity to beat up on the league's weaker teams as often, and that will hurt them in the wildcard chase. We figure the teams in the two Western divisions will be most affected, since they will not only beat up on each other within their own divisions, they also face the other league's best division in inter-league play.
The unbalanced schedule will also have an impact on the stats of individual players and teams because the mix of road ballparks will change. In the days before inter-league play, we knew that teams would visit every other stadium in the league the same number of times. Inter-league play disturbed this balance a little, but the new schedule does so to a larger degree. The teams in the NL West will be making one more trip into Coors Field, for example, but they'll also get one more crack at each of three pitcher's parks in the division (Pac Bell Park in San Francisco, Dodger Stadium, and Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego) and some of the pitcher's parks in the AL West (Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland, Safeco Field in Seattle, and Edison Field in Anaheim). This shouldn't affect the competitive balance within those divisions, but it will hurt the hitters and help the pitchers on those teams.
Here are the projected final standings, based on the fifty seasons we simulated:
AL East W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC Boston 98 64 .605 - 883 684 35.0 10.5 New York 94 68 .580 4 783 670 15.0 20.0 Toronto 78 84 .481 20 737 762 Baltimore 69 93 .426 29 658 775 Tampa Bay 62 100 .383 36 640 855 AL Central W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC Cleveland 96 66 .593 - 872 709 42.0 1.0 Chicago 86 76 .531 10 809 792 7.0 3.5 Detroit 75 87 .463 21 743 800 1.0 Kansas City 74 88 .457 22 710 783 1.0 Minnesota 66 96 .407 30 655 797 AL West W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC Oakland 91 71 .562 - 806 700 27.5 1.5 Texas 88 74 .543 3 901 826 14.5 10.0 Seattle 85 77 .525 6 700 654 7.0 2.5 Anaheim 77 85 .475 14 709 742 1.0 NL East W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC Atlanta 97 65 .599 - 742 602 41.0 7.0 New York 88 74 .543 9 676 615 7.0 13.0 Philadelphia 78 84 .481 19 705 716 1.0 2.0 Montreal 75 87 .463 22 651 709 1.0 .5 Florida 67 95 .414 30 639 753 NL Central W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC St. Louis 89 73 .549 - 781 711 26.5 2.0 Houston 88 74 .543 1 844 800 19.5 7.5 Cincinnati 80 82 .494 9 734 746 .5 4.0 Chicago 75 87 .463 14 748 805 2.5 Milwaukee 74 88 .457 15 713 777 Pittsburgh 72 90 .444 17 721 797 1.0 NL West W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC Colorado 90 72 .556 - 902 806 26.5 5.0 Arizona 87 75 .537 3 700 665 14.0 4.0 San Francisco 82 80 .506 8 740 734 6.5 Los Angeles 79 83 .488 11 673 690 3.0 5.0 San Diego 70 92 .432 20 595 695
In the American League, ten of the fourteen teams qualified for the playoffs in at least one of the simulated seasons. Toronto's failure to qualify even once was a bit of a surprise, but during the winter they lost their #1 starter (David Wells) and their divisional rivals each added a supremely talented player (Mike Mussina to the Yankees, Manny Ramirez to the Red Sox). It was no surprise that Tampa Bay and Baltimore, two of baseball's worst-managed franchises -- I'm referring to the front office, not the field manager -- were shut out.
Once again, the talented Cleveland squad was the surest bet thanks to a weak division. White Sox fans are sure to be up in arms over this, but there are reasons (which we'll discuss in the team comments below) to believe they'll have trouble repeating. In the east, the Red Sox appear to be slightly better than the Yankees, but both teams have a lot of question marks, and the race could go either way, especially if you believe that George Steinbrenner will open his wallet to acquire as much new talent as he needs to hold off the Sox. In the West, Oakland is favored, but not by much, and it should be a terrific race.
The AL wild card race seems most likely to come out of the East because there are two very good teams who are favored by the unbalanced schedule. While the west coast teams bloody each other, New York and Boston can feast on Tampa Bay, Baltimore, and four other sub-.500 teams (including their inter-league opponents from the NL East). Apart from these two teams, there are seven others projected to win 74-88 games, and any one of them could be playing in October if things fall their way.
With few exceptions, the National League seems totally up for grabs, with thirteen of the sixteen teams making the playoffs at least once. I'll get into this in more detail in the team comments below, but the only teams that seem to have no chance are Florida (which overachieved last year) and San Diego. Even though Milwaukee failed to make the post-season in any of the fifty simulations, they are projected for 74 wins, good enough to be in the wildcard race if the stars are aligned in their favor.
The NL wildcard could come from anywhere. The East has an edge based on strength of schedule, but the wildcard went to one of the other divisions in more than half of the simulations. The West division teams face the toughest schedules, but that division contains more good teams than any other, and one of them could easily overcome the schedule and make it to October anyway.
In this section, I'll discuss anything that I thought was surprising and mention any key assumptions that we made in setting up the rotations and lineups for the simulations.
The headings recap the team's average win-loss record and the percentage of time each team won their division or the wildcard. Unless otherwise noted, player statistics represent his average performance in these fifty simulated seasons. And any time I say that someone 'created' so many runs, I'm referring to the Runs Created formula developed by Bill James.
Boston Red Sox (98-64, division title 70%, wildcard 21%)
It seems strange to describe the Red Sox as a pitching-and-defense team, but they are coming off two straight league ERA titles, and as long as Pedro remains Pedro, the rest of the staff just needs to be average in order to put this team near the top of the pitching rankings. The non-Pedro part of the staff has actually been a little better than average in each the past two seasons even though they've churned through a lot of arms in the process. Manager Jimy Williams and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan will try to work the same magic again this year, as the Sox loaded up on potential starting pitchers this past winter in the hope of filling out the rest of the rotation and handing a few leads to its strong bullpen.
But there are still a lot of question marks about this staff. Rolando Arrojo has already lost his spot in the rotation. David Cone is nursing a sore shoulder. Bret Saberhagen is apparently throwing very well but won't be ready to start the season. Hideo Nomo has been hit hard this spring. Tim Wakefield is a reliever one week, a starter the next, then a reliever again, and he's none too happy about it. Frank Castillo has looked good but was hurt last year. Tomo Ohka and Paxton Crawford are promising but still somewhat unproven. The bullpen looks deep, but the team hasn't yet settled on a lefty (from among Pete Schourek, Kent Mercker, and Sang Lee) and long reliever Hippolito Pichardo, a key player last year, is nursing an arm problem.
Even though the offense was unimpressive a year ago, scoring runs should not be a problem for this lineup. Manny Ramirez makes them a lot better by himself. They're bound to get much more out of their third basemen this year with the addition of Chris Stynes and the possible return of John Valentin. And a few of the guys who had off years can be counted on to bounce back, at least a little. The big concern, of course, is the wrist problem that has forced Nomar Garciaparra to wear a cast for the past three weeks. We assumed he'd miss about 20% of the season, but wrist injuries can take a long time to heal, and he could easily miss a lot more time than that.
If everyone is healthy, this will be a very strong lineup from top to bottom. The heart of the order -- Garciaparra, Ramirez, and Carl Everett -- may be the best in baseball. With Stynes and Jose Offerman setting the table, plus Dante Bichette, Troy O'Leary and/or Trot Nixon, Brian Daubach (or perhaps Morgan Burkhart), and Jason Varitek rounding out the batting order, there won't be many easy outs for enemy pitchers.
So far this spring, nothing has gone right for this team. If the events of this spring portend those of the regular season, the Sox won't win anything. But there's plenty of talent on this team, and the race in the AL East should be a real barn-burner from start to finish.
New York Yankees (94-68, division title 30%, wildcard 40%)
The Yankees, who bolstered their starting rotation with the signing of Mike Mussina but did little else to upgrade the team (other than saying good-bye to David Cone), are projected to win seven more games than they did in the 2000 season. From that angle, this appears to be a reasonably optimistic projection. On the other hand, projecting the three-time world champs to finish anywhere but first -- with the same cast of characters plus Mussina -- seems a little foolish.
As it was a year ago, age is a factor. In fact, with the additions of David Justice, Glenallen Hill, and Henry Rodriguez, the starting lineup is older than the one we wrote about last spring. Mussina replaces David Cone in the rotation, but Roger Clemens and Orlando Hernandez are a year older, too.
They won last year despite down years from Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill, and Scott Brosius. (By the way, we said the same thing about these three guys last spring, as they didn't play well in 1999 either.) And they won last year even with Chuck Knoblauch's chronic throwing problem, one that continues to this day and may even be getting worse. If he is forced out of the lineup altogether, the Yankees may underperform our projections, because we assumed he would be their everyday leadoff hitter and wouldn't be horrible in the field. Late word is that they're trying him in left with Alfonso Soriano at second, a move that would help the defense but keep more powerful bats (Justice, Hill, Rodriguez) out of the lineup more often.
Even with a bullpen weakened by the loss of Jeff Nelson (to Seattle via free agency), the Yankees project to lead the league in pitching. Seattle allowed fewer runs in our simulations, but they were assisted greatly by a pitcher-friendly home park, and their total would have been higher than New York's if both teams were in average parks. The average and best-season performances of the starters in our 50 seasons were quite impressive:
-- Average -- --- Best --- ERA W-L ERA W-L Clemens 3.46 14-8 3.24 20-6 Mussina 3.29 15-10 2.28 22-7 Hernandez 3.74 13-9 2.86 19-5 Pettitte 3.42 14-8 2.56 21-8
This could be an incredible team if all of the older players come through with one last big season and if a couple of younger guys such as Soriano or Nick Johnson can contribute. But they had only the fifth-best record in the league last year, and they're not immune to the effects of aging just because they wear pinstripes.
Toronto Blue Jays (78-84, no post-season appearances)
If you'd done a poll of astute baseball people a year ago, asking which young team was poised to make a great leap forward, I'll bet the Blue Jays would have received a lot more votes than either the Athletics or White Sox. They had David Wells plus a cadre of promising young arms and some good young hitters who produced the fifth-best offense in the league the year before. But the Jays didn't break out last year because (a) they stopped getting on base and fell to 8th in scoring despite leading the league in homers and (b) their young starting pitchers bombed out and dragged the staff down to an 11th-place finish in runs allowed. Not only did they fail to improve, they were outscored by 47 runs on the season.
This year's squad is projected to finish 8th in scoring, the same as last year. They should get a lot more out of second base, either from Homer Bush or a replacement. But it's asking a lot for Carlos Delgado to duplicate or exceed his MVP-caliber production from a year ago. And the team didn't bring in any new blood on offense, so any improvement will have to come from the current cast.
The pitching should be better, if only because some key guys were so bad last year. Roy Halladay has to be better than his 10.64 ERA of last season, and even if he's not, it's unlikely that he'll be given as many starts this time around. Chris Carpenter showed some signs of getting straightened out last September. But they'll miss Wells and Frank Castillo, and several others (such as Esteban Loaiza and newcomer Steve Parris) will have to step up just to match what Toronto got from those two.
The status of Mike Sirotka is a big question mark. We assumed he wouldn't pitch at all this year, but if he's able to take his regular turn all season and pitch at his established level, you can bump up the Jays projected win total to the 82-83 range. We have Joey Hamilton taking a regular turn despite his history of arm problems, but his projected performance was mediocre because he hasn't pitched well in several years. If he returns to the form he showed in 1994-95, it could add a few more wins. But this team is a long way from having the pitching they need to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees.
Baltimore Orioles (69-93, no post-season appearances)
I guess it's no surprise that the Orioles would compile the fourth-worst record in baseball, unless you're surprised that they did as well as this. After all, they won only 74 games last year and must now make do without their best pitcher, Mike Mussina, and their best hitter, Albert Belle, whose degenerative hip condition forced him to cease all baseball activities forever.
With Belle out of the lineup, the offense looks to be the third-worst in the AL, narrowly edging out Tampa Bay and Minnesota to avoid the basement in that category. Chris Richard should be able to replace some of Belle's production, and David Segui should help at first base, but the rest of the lineup is filled with older players (Brady Anderson, Cal Ripken), guys who are better with the glove than the bat (Jerry Hairston, Mike Bordick), and some who don't excel on either side of the ball.
Surprisingly, the pitching projects to be a little better than it was a year ago, in part because the defense should be stronger with Brady Anderson out of center field and Belle out of right. Scott Erickson, who had a 7.87 ERA in 16 starts a year ago, won't drag the staff down as much, because he'll be better or won't play as much or both. He's expected to be back no sooner than August, so we gave him only a handful of starts in our simulations. Pat Hentgen adds depth to the staff, and the O's should have Jose Mercedes for the entire season instead of the 20 starts he made a year ago. A lot depends on Chuck McElroy's ability to make a successful transition from reliever to starter; he averaged a 9-10 record as a starter in our seasons. (The Orioles have planned this move all winter, but now there's talk that McElroy may return to the bullpen, with Willis Roberts starting.)
Tampa Bay Devil Rays (62-100, no post-season appearances)
The Devil Rays are this year's winner of the not-so-coveted award for the team projected to be worst in all of baseball. (We need to come up with a cute name for this trophy before next year.) It's not hard to find the reasons why -- they are projected to finish last in the AL in both runs scored and runs allowed.
Let's look at the offense first. They have two good hitters, Greg Vaughn and Ben Grieve, plus two aging veterans (Vinny Castilla and Fred McGriff) who could be above-average hitters if they play well this year. But these four won't get much help, and odds are the Rays will have the worst team on-base percentage in the league for the second successive season. Future star Josh Hamilton could be on the scene by year's end, but it's not fair to ask him to save this team when he's never played above A ball.
The pitching was surprisingly good last year (8th in runs allowed), so we need to dig a little deeper to see why this group is projected to slide all the way to the bottom. First off, Tampa Bay gutted its bullpen in the past eight months, trading Mark Guthrie, Jim Mecir, and Rick White last season and closer Roberto Hernandez during the winter. They'll try to patch together a new one using guys like Tanyon Sturtze, Esteban Yan, and Ken Hill, but the late innings could be very scary.
The rotation could be reasonably good or it could be downright awful. Our projection system evaluates performance over the past three years; while the surprisingly good efforts of Albie Lopez, Bryan Rekar, and Paul Wilson last year have helped their projections for this year, their weaker performances in the two prior years carry some weight, too. If they can repeat what they did last year, this staff will be better than our simulations suggest. Further, the Rays are also hoping that Wilson Alvarez and Juan Guzman can come back. Both are thought to be a few weeks away. We set things up to have Ryan Rupe and Travis Harper take their places for a month before Alvarez and Guzman rejoined the rotation.
If I was a betting man, I'd say that the pitching will be better than we've projected, perhaps good enough to get this club out of the cellar and into fourth place. But without more run support, there's only so far the pitching can take them.
Cleveland Indians (96-66, division title 84%, wildcard 2%)
Cleveland had the AL's best record (46-30) after the break last year, and if they hadn't come up a game short of the wildcard, I believe they could have done some serious damage in the post-season. Consider the following comparison between the Indians and the division-winning White Sox:
For Against Diff Cleveland OPS .837 .775 .062 Chicago OPS .826 .780 .046 Cleveland TBW 3357 3042 315 Chicago TBW 3245 3037 208 Cleveland runs 950 816 134 Chicago runs 978 839 139
The first part of this chart uses on-base-plus-slugging (OPS), one of the best measures of a team's ability to generate offense, to compare these two teams with their opponents. Using this statistic, you'd have to say that Cleveland outperformed the White Sox on both sides of the ball. The second measure compares the teams using total bases plus walks (TBW), and the conclusion is the same. Most of the time, differences like this would translate into a division title for the Indians. But the White Sox offense was extremely efficient last year, managing to score 28 more runs than Cleveland despite creating fewer of the offensive events that produce runs.
Wins and losses are the name of the game, of course, and I don't want to take anything away from the terrific season the White Sox enjoyed a year ago. They won because they produced in the clutch and used their strong bullpen to close games out when they got ahead. I'm simply trying to point out that even though the Indians suffered a lot of injuries last year -- losing Manny Ramirez for 44 games and going through a record number of pitchers -- Cleveland still led the league in net statistical production or whatever you choose to call the differences in the table above. In other words, there was a ton of talent on this team a year ago, and most of that talent is still there.
The Indians will be without Ramirez this year, but they've got plenty of reasons to be optimistic anyway. Kenny Lofton played hurt for the first half last year, and he could be himself for the entire year this time around. They signed Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks to replace Ramirez. And they still have Roberto Alomar, Jim Thome, Russell Branyan and others who can put crooked numbers on the scoreboard in a hurry.
And don't forget about the pitching staff. The Indians somehow managed to finish 5th in pitching despite all the injuries, and they'll go into 2001 with one of the league's deepest rotations -- anchored by Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley, and Dave Burba -- and a very deep bullpen. Finley and Burba are getting up in years, so age is a risk, and Charles Nagy is pitching without any cartilage left in his elbow, but this should be a good staff again this year. And with the offense this team can generate, they can get by with being less than great.
Chicago White Sox (86-76, division title 14%, wildcard 7%)
Our simulations suggest that the White Sox will have trouble repeating as division champs, and that may come as a surprise to anyone who watched this team tear through the AL last year, especially when you figure that they've added a #1 starter in David Wells to the mix.
The offense doesn't figure to produce as many runs this year. Last year's edition was fourth in the league in on-base percentage and third in slugging, but they hit so well with runners on base that they led the league in runs by a good margin. Perhaps this is a great collection of clutch hitters who can repeat that performance, but it's more likely that they will struggle to recapture that magic this year. Chicago also had several players with career years last year, and it would be asking a lot for all of them to match or improve upon those results. One of those players, Charles Johnson, isn't with the team any more.
The pitching, which was in the middle of the pack in 2000, also figures to slip a little. Wells will help solidify the rotation, but he allowed 266 hits in 229 innings last year and is coming off a poor second half. And he'll turn 38 in a couple of months. James Baldwin had a great first half last year, but he's coming off surgery and has never had a full season with an ERA under 4.42. Cal Eldred is also coming off surgery, while youngsters Kip Wells and Jon Garland are highly-regarded but unproven at the big-league level. The bullpen should continue to be a strength.
Detroit Tigers (75-87, wildcard 2%)
This represents a 4-game drop from their finish last year and reflects a modest improvement in their offense and a significant decline in their ability to keep the other guys from scoring. The big off-season moves for this club were the multi-player trade with the Astros and the decision to let Juan Gonzalez leave via free agency.
Offensively, the trade with Houston added two important pieces to their puzzle. New leadoff hitter Roger Cedeno has a .388 on-base percentage in the past two years and enough speed to lead the league in steals. And while new backstop Mitch Meluskey cannot match the defensive skills of the departed Brad Ausmus, Meluskey packs a lot more punch at the plate. Filling out the lineup are solid hitters like Damian Easley, Bobby Higginson, Tony Clark, Dean Palmer, and Juan Encarnacion (who needs to be more patient at the plate). Even shortstop Deivi Cruz has developed some pop in the last couple of years. This isn't the Indians or the White Sox, of course, but they can do some damage, especially when they get away from their spacious home park. Clark has a history of injuries and Palmer is nursing a shoulder problem; our simulations assumed both would be okay. The offense will suffer if they miss time or cannot play at their established level.
The starting rotation -- Jeff Weaver, Brian Moehler, Dave Mlicki, Chris Holt, Steve Sparks -- won't exactly strike fear into the hearts of enemy hitters. None of them is projected to have a sub-4.00 ERA, even with the advantages of a bigger strike zone and a very pitcher-friendly home park. The bullpen was pretty good last year, not so much because anyone was really good, but because nobody was terrible. Todd Jones saved 42 games, though he can't be regarded among the top closers in the league. The rest of the pen consists mostly of guys with projected ERAs in the fours and fives, even with the help of the big ballpark.
Kansas City Royals (74-88, division title 2%)
A surprisingly productive offense led the Royals to a 77-win season in 2000, but they haven't done anything to improve the team since then. In fact, their only big off-season move involved trading away Johnny Damon in a three-team deal that brought closer Roberto Hernandez, and even though their bullpen has struggled to close games the past two years, it's hard to see how 70 innings from a closer can replace 700 topflight plate appearances from a leadoff hitter. In our simulations, Hernandez pitched quite well, but he didn't have as many leads to protect because of Damon's departure.
Without Damon at the top of the lineup, KC is projected to slide from 5th to 9th in the league in scoring. His successor in left field, Mark Quinn, should provide a solid bat. And the team should get more out of Carlos Febles and Carlos Beltran this year. But Jermaine Dye and Mike Sweeney will be hard-pressed to match their big 2000 seasons, and the bottom of the lineup is looking pretty weak.
The news is better on the mound, with the addition of Hernandez and the return of #1 starter Jose Rosado lifting the Royals from 13th to 9th in pitching. (We learned this week that he may not be ready for opening day, but we had already assumed Rosado would miss about 20% of the season.) If Kansas City makes a big move this year, it will be because two or three of their young pitchers suddenly step up.
Minnesota Twins (66-96, no post-season appearances)
Sorry, Twins fans, but there's not a lot to say about this team that we haven't already said in recent years. Once again, they are projected to be near the bottom in scoring because they don't have nearly enough power. They have a few guys who can hit for average and get on base, but they need a bunch of young players to break out all at once if they're going to make any noise offensively.
The pitching could be better, but we're still waiting for Brad Radke and Eric Milton to make the move from solid inning-eating starters to genuine top-of-the-rotation aces. Mark Redman has shown signs of being a good third starter, but Joe Mays is coming off a bad year. And they don't have anyone else who has yet established his ability to start at the big-league level -- we had Matt Kinney as the #5 starter, but he hasn't pitched well this spring and averaged only a 5-15 record and a 5.78 ERA in our simulations. The bullpen could be reasonably good, especially if LaTroy Hawkins builds on his success last year and emerges as a legitimate closer, but there are no stars among the relievers on this team, either.
Oakland Athletics (91-71, division title 55%, wildcard 3%)
The defending division champs are favored to repeat this year, but it won't be easy. Their division is the toughest in the league and their inter-divisional foes come from the best division in the senior circuit. The Athletics won't play a weak team -- one that we've projected to win fewer than 77 games -- until May 22nd, when they begin a two-week stretch against Kansas City, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Baltimore. After that is another six weeks stretch of tough games (with the possible exception of a three-game set with San Diego). If they can survive until then (July 17th), things get a little easier, with 31 of their last 69 games against the weaker sides in the league.
Because they face so many good teams, many of whom play in pitcher's parks, Oakland isn't expected to pile up the runs the way they did a year ago. So their projected drop from 3rd to 5th in the offensive rankings doesn't mean they're not as good as they were a year ago. In fact, they could be better with the addition of Johnny Damon at the top of the order, the return of John Jaha, and a platoon of Jeremy Giambi and Adam Piatt upgrading the right field position. Even if Jason Giambi can't repeat his MVP season, there's little reason to be concerned about this team's ability to score runs.
One possible worry is the new strike zone. As I mentioned earlier, we assumed that the strike zone would affect everyone the same way, neither favoring nor punishing certain types of players. For that reason, we don't think the new strike zone will affect the competitive balance very much, if at all. But this Oakland attack is built around walks and homers, and if walks are down 22% league-wide, as they have been this spring, and if homers decline because pitchers are ahead in the count more often, it's possible that the A's could be hurt more than most.
Last year, Oakland finished third in the AL in pitching, just ahead of the Yankees. With Mike Mussina on board in New York and Kevin Appier no longer in Oakland, the A's dropped to fourth in our simulations. But they still have the nucleus of a very good rotation, with Tim Hudson averaging a 14-8 record and a 3.49 ERA, Barry Zito at 14-8 and 3.13, and Gil Heredia at 12-10 and 3.97. If Mark Mulder is ready to move up a notch and if they can find a fifth starter -- we assumed it would be Omar Olivares, but it wouldn't make much difference if Mark Guthrie wins the job, as they are projected to produce similar results -- the rotation could be outstanding. The bullpen may be the weakest link on this team. Jason Isringhausen should be at least acceptable in the closer role. Jeff Tam and Jim Mecir should take care of the righty setup responsibilities, but the things get a little thin after that.
Whenever a young team makes a run like the A's did last year, it's hard to tell whether it was just one of those special years or whether these players are really that good. In this case, I believe they really are that good. Statistically speaking, they may put up some numbers that look disappointing on the surface -- because the schedule, the parks and the strike zone are conspiring against them -- but I'd be surprised if they were a one-year wonder. And if they can make it out of their division and get to October, they have the front-line talent to go a long way.
Texas Rangers (88-74, division title 29%, wildcard 20%)
Texas must be hoping that a good offense can beat a good defense, if not all the time, at least a lot of the time. Their attack looks to be the best in baseball (Colorado averaged one more run per season than Texas, but that was only because of Coors Field), while their mound corps was barely able to escape the cellar.
Offensively, this team was on track to score 1000 runs before we deflated everything to reflect the expected impact of the new strike zone. Simply put, the team is loaded at almost every position if people stay healthy and guys like Ken Caminiti and Andres Galarraga don't suddenly get old. It's saying something when Gabe Kapler (.274, 17 homers) is the worst hitter in your lineup. In his first season with the Rangers, Alex Rodriguez averaged .303 with 43 homers, 119 runs scored, and 120 RBI. He stole only 15 bases, but who needs to run in the middle of this lineup?
The question is whether they can hold down the other guys. If not, they'll have a season similar to the one the Astros suffered through last year, watching big leads get blown, or falling behind early and coming up just short in a comeback bid. Four of the five members of their projected starting rotation -- Rick Helling, Kenny Rogers, Ryan Glynn, Doug Davis, and Darren Oliver -- are pitching well this spring. Oddly, the one who's not is Rick Helling, the supposed ace of this staff. One key is how much they get out of their retooled bullpen without John Wetteland. They're counting on a comeback from Jeff Zimmerman and a bunch of newly-added veterans, particularly Mark Petkovsek, Pat Mahomes, and Jeff Brantley. Mahomes and Brantley don't project to be very good because they're coming off bad seasons, and Tim Crabtree is untested as the new closer.
I'm reminded of a story that was recently told by Tommy Heinsohn, the former Boston Celtic player and coach. He believes that success in basketball starts with offense, because the points you score determine how good your defense needs to be. Heinsohn said that he once told his team, "we're averaging 114 points per game. All I'm asking you to do is hold the other guys to 113." The Rangers can win the division if they can hold the other guys to five runs per game. But can they?
Seattle Mariners (85-77, division title 14%, wildcard 5%)
Randy Johnson left during the 1998 season. Ken Griffey after the 1999 season. Alex Rodriguez moved on this past winter. And they keep on winning, or so it appears. They didn't get anything other than draft picks and payroll savings from the A-Rod sweepstakes, but the Johnson and Griffey deals helped them rebuild their pitching and defense, and together with a pitcher-friendly park, that's how they'll try to win again this year.
In a way, the money saved by not signing Rodriguez has already been put to use. Seattle paid $13 million to win the right to negotiate with seven-time Japanese batting champion Ichiro Suzuki, then signed him for $21 million over the next three years. Compared with the $75 million that A-Rod will earn in the first three years of his deal with Texas, that gives GM Pat Gillick about $41 million to spend improving the club in other ways.
This is the first time a Japanese position player has made the jump to the American big leagues, so there's no history to guide us in projecting his performance. And we looked over Suzuki's career stats from Japan, deflating them as we would the stats of a AAA player. Truth is, we don't know whether the Japanese leagues are in fact comparable to AAA ball, and we don't know much about their ballparks, though we suspect they are a little smaller than ours. As a result of these assumptions, Suzuki wound up averaging .290 with 12 homers in our simulations. (Keep in mind that this is in a park that strongly favors pitchers). Because he won seven Gold Gloves in Japan, we rated him to play very good defense in right field.
The Mariners pitching depth took a major hit this year when starter Gil Meche and super-prospect Ryan Anderson went down. Meche is out until at least mid-season with a frayed labrum, and we assumed that he wouldn't play a meaningful role all year. Anderson is done for the year after he had surgery for a torn labrum. Fortunately, the M's still have enough arms to field a solid pitching staff, especially if Jamie Moyer bounces back from the poor year he had in 2000. The addition of Jeff Nelson makes an already-deep bullpen even deeper.
Anaheim Angels (77-85, division title 2%)
This is a solid but unspectacular team that should be within shouting distance of the division leaders all year but doesn't seem to have quite enough to get over the hump. Nevertheless, there's enough talent on this team to contend if a few things go right.
Mo Vaughn is out for the year, and they'll miss his bat in the middle of the lineup. But they won't miss his defense, and newcomers Wally Joyner at first and Jose Canseco at DH should fill in nicely. They still have Darin Erstad, Troy Glaus, Tim Salmon, and Garret Anderson, and while it would be asking a lot to have all four match the career years they posted in 2000, they'll put some runs on the board. It's less clear whether 2B Adam Kennedy and the shortstop crew -- we set things up with Benji Gil starting for a couple of months until Gary Disarcina is ready -- can do their part, and there's very little depth at these positions if the starters falter or get hurt.
The Angels are banking on a trio of young starters -- Ramon Ortiz, Jarrod Washburn and Scott Schoeneweis -- to head up the rotation. They picked up two veterans, Ismael Valdes and Pat Rapp, to fill out the rotation, though neither is projected to pitch well and Valdes is having a terrible spring. They have almost no depth, so if anything happens to their starters, they're in big trouble.
Atlanta Braves (97-65, division title 82%, wildcard 14%)
Winners of six straight division titles, Atlanta seems well-positioned to make it seven. No other team qualified for the post-season more often in our fifty seasons.
With John Smoltz returning, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine coming off good seasons, and Kevin Millwood only two years removed from his best season, this staff projects to lead the league in pitching yet again, though only by a small margin over the Mets. Atlanta's staff is built around a terrific rotation and a pretty good bullpen, while New York's is just the opposite. For the Braves, Maddux averaged a 16-8 record with a 2.84 ERA, Glavine was 14-8 and 3.02, Smoltz returned to post a 15-7 record and a 3.09 ERA, and Millwood was a respectable 13-8 and 3.19. John Burkett is the #5 starter.
This forecast could prove to be optimistic, however, because we don't really know whether Smoltz will be healthy, whether age will begin to catch up with Maddux and Glavine, and especially whether Millwood has figured out what went wrong last year. Smoltz has a 9.00 ERA and Millwood has given up 26 hits in 9-1/3 innings so far this spring, and Smoltz is now saying that he might start the season on the disabled list. The other three starters have a combined 1.46 ERA in Florida.
Offensively, this is a good-but-not-great team that finished 5th in scoring in our simulations. They are led, of course, by Andruw and Chipper Jones. A full season from leadoff hitter Quilvio Veras would provide a big boost, but the rest of the lineup will be nothing to get excited about if Brian Jordan, BJ Surhoff, and Rico Brogna cannot improve upon their play in recent years. Catcher Javy Lopez is out for a while with a fractured finger, but we assumed he'd be back before it costs him much playing time.
New York Mets (88-74, division title 14%, wildcard 26%)
Good pitch, good glove, no hit. That's the recipe for the Mets in 2001, who qualified for the playoffs in 40% of our seasons, a rate exceeded by only four other teams in the National League. That might seem a little low for the defending league champs, but they outscored their opponents by only 69 runs last year and then lost one of their best pitchers (Mike Hampton) during the winter.
Let's start with the pitching. Gone are starters Hampton and Bobby Jones. While their replacements, Kevin Appier (10-12, 4.14 ERA) and Steve Trachsel (11-10, 3.53) will help, they can't entirely make up for the loss of Hampton. Still, with Al Leiter, Rick Reed and Glendon Rusch returning, I'd guess that at least twenty other teams would gladly swap rotations with the Mets. And there may not be a better bullpen in baseball this year. Rick White, Donne Wall, Turk Wendell, John Franco, and closer Armando Benitez will make it very hard for opposing teams to rally.
But it looks as if the Mets are going to have trouble scoring runs. Edgardo Alfonzo and Mike Piazza are big-time hitters. Todd Zeile and Robin Ventura are getting up in years but still have something left. But with Rey Ordonez returning at shortstop, they won't get any offense from that position. And the outfield of Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton, and Timo Perez is average, at best, offensively.
Philadelphia Phillies (78-84, division title 2%, wildcard 4%)
This seems optimistic to me, and it probably does to you, too. A year ago, this was a team on the rise. Six months later, they crawled to the finish line with 65 wins, tied with the Cubs for the worst record in baseball. I'm not sure which is more surprising, their collapse or the fact that they were a borderline contender in our 2001 simulations.
It starts with a massive changing of the guard on the mound. Veterans Curt Schilling and Andy Ashby headed up the rotation last year. This time around, they'll be counting on Omar Daal to bounce back, Bruce Chen to build on his promising start, and three others -- Randy Wolf, Robert Person, and Paul Byrd -- to contribute a lot of solid innings. The bullpen has also been rebuilt, and it will be up to Ricky Bottalico, Jose Mesa, and Rheal Cormier to hold those leads in the late innings.
The Phillies offense was 6th best in the NL two years ago before plummeting to the basement in 2000. Doug Glanville and Mike Lieberthal are projected to bounce back, while Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Anderson should provide more offense than the Phils got from the middle infielders last year. If Bobby Abreu and Scott Rolen continue to hit, and Pat Burrell and Travis Lee improve with experience, this could be a good lineup again. In our simulations, they bounced back to 10th in the league, a rise of six places.
Montreal Expos (75-87, division title 2%, wildcard 1%)
Montreal is projected to finish with the same 75-87 record they posted in these simulations a year ago. They were shut out of our virtual post-season then, but this time they managed to qualify a couple of times because the Braves and Mets don't appear to be as strong.
If Montreal does indeed contend for post-season play, they'll do it with healthy, talented young pitchers. I emphasize the word healthy, because their 2000 season was essentially destroyed by injuries to Tony Armas, Carl Pavano, Mike Thurman, and Ugueth Urbina. Pavano isn't due back until May, and Armas has struggled in spring games, but the others are back and pitching well in Florida. During the winter, Dustin Hermanson was traded to the Cardinals in a package that brought 3B Fernando Tatis and starter Britt Reames. Reames has also pitched well in the Grapefruit League, so there's plenty of reasons to be optimistic about a rotation that includes Javier Vazquez (perhaps the best of the bunch), Pavano, Armas, Thurman, and Reames. Hideki Irabu and Chris Peters are also in the mix.
The bullpen won't be as strong as the rotation, though the returns of lefty setup man Graeme Lloyd (who missed all of last year) and closer Urbina will help immensely. This young staff finished 6th in the NL in pitching in our simulations.
The lineup contains one superstar (Vladimir Guerrero), three good hitters (Tatis, Lee Stevens, and Jose Vidro), and a bunch of question marks. Are youngsters Peter Bergeron and Milton Bradley ready to take over the other two outfield spots, and if not, can Geoff Blum make the transition from 3B to LF? Will they get any offense from SS Orlando Cabrera or C Michael Barrett? The answers appear to be no, for the most part, meaning that opposing pitchers will be able to ease up after they get past the #5 hole in the batting order. Montreal projects to finish 14th in scoring, partly because they just don't have the hitters, and partly because they have to face the Braves and Mets pitchers more often this year.
Florida Marlins (67-95, no post-season appearances)
That the Marlins won 79 games last year was surprising in two ways. First, most experts thought this young team was still a year or two away. Second, they were outscored by 66 runs, and that run margin normally produces only 74 wins.
Still, I was not expecting to see the Marlins struggle so much in our simulations. The lack of offense wasn't news, really, as they were 15th in scoring last year and duplicated that finish in our fifty seasons. Because they are a very young team, and because they signed Charles Johnson during the winter, you'd figure that they would be getting better, perhaps enough to move up the scoring table. But there is a countervailing force at work, too.
Our model for projecting performance looks at what each player has done in the past three seasons. More weight is placed on recent efforts, but the first two seasons count, too. That means than any player coming off a career year is projected to give back a little ground. And the Marlins had a lot of guys with career years last year, and none of them are projected to do quite as well in 2001. For players who are in the prime of their careers (or beyond), this has proven to be a very reasonable way to project their performance. But does it make as much sense for young players, guys who are 27 years old or younger when they have a breakout season?
I haven't studied this question in detail, but I decided to take a quick look at it last week. I looked for active players who had taken a big leap forward at a young age, and when I found one, I checked out what they did the next year. Not having enough time to do more, I stopped looking after the first 28 seasons that fit this pattern. On nine occasions, the player followed up with an even better year, twice he matched it, and 17 of those seasons were noticeably worse than the peak season they followed. And we're talking about some pretty good hitters here, folks. Among the 17 who pulled back from their highs were Barry Bonds, Sean Casey, Carlos Delgado, Andres Galarraga, and Juan Gonzalez.
A similar story emerges on the pitching side of the equation. Several Marlins pitchers had surprisingly good seasons a year ago, and as a group, they're projected to slip back a little this year. I'm not all that impressed with their bullpen, either. In particular, closer Antonio Alfonseca had an ERA over four and put 107 runners on base in 70 innings, yet somehow managed to get through the season with 45 saves in 49 chances. The bad news is that he's likely to blow more saves this year if he doesn't pitch a lot better than that; the good news is that he was much better in the second half, and if that proves to be a harbinger of the 2001 season, the question of whether he was lucky in 2000 will be moot.
Even though I can understand why the projections came out the way they did, my gut feel is that this is the team most likely to outperform its projected win total.
St. Louis Cardinals (89-73, division title 53%, wildcard 4%)
The Cardinals ended the 2000 season ranked fourth in runs and seventh in runs allowed among National League teams, and that combination was good enough for a division title. While the cast of characters will be a little different this year -- Pat Hentgen, Eric Davis, Fernando Tatis, Will Clark and others have moved on -- the team produced very similar results in our simulations. More often than not, they repeated as division champs, and they ranked third and seventh in runs and runs allowed, respectively.
On offense, the biggest question is whether Mark McGwire can play the full season. He claims he's 100% after off-season knee surgery, so we projected him as an everyday player. As a result, he averaged .270 with 60 homers and 129 RBI in our fifty seasons. The next biggest question is who's going to play third base. Although Placido Polanco could see some time there, we gave the job to Craig Paquette. Finally, two of their three starting outfielders, Ray Lankford and JD Drew, have struggled against lefties in the past. We set things up with Lankford in a left-field platoon with Bobby Bonilla and Drew as the everyday RF, but there's been talk that the Cardinals are shopping for a right-handed batting outfielder.
The big question about the pitching has to be Rick Ankiel's wildness. We projected his performance based on what he did in the regular season last year and the minors before that, and he posted a 14-7 record and a 3.09 ERA for us. If he gets his head together, he clearly has the talent to do that well or better. If not, the Cards become much more beatable. But there may be some good news, too. Matt Morris and Alan Benes were terrific pitchers before getting hurt, and both are taking their regular turn in spring games. If either or both of them can return to their peak level (and stay healthy all year), it would provide some insurance in case Ankiel struggles. And if all three are in top form, look out.
Houston Astros (88-74, division title 39%, wildcard 15%)
The offense that finished second in the NL in scoring last year is intact, except for Brad Ausmus replacing Mitch Meluskey, and all indications are that they'll continue to be one of the scoring leaders again in 2001. They could improve -- a healthy Craig Biggio makes them better at the top of the order, and Julio Lugo will be available for the whole year if he can handle the defensive chores at short. Ausmus won't hit as well as Meluskey did in 2000, and the big three -- Jeff Bagwell, Moises Alou, and Richard Hidalgo -- will probably fall short of the extraordinary seasons they had a year ago. But this should continue to be one of the best offenses in the league.
Like their neighbors in Arlington, Texas, this team will go as far as their pitching can take them. The rotation has the potential to be reasonably good, assuming Shane Reynolds can return from his injury sometime in April, Jose Lima rebounds from his horrendous 2000 season, and Scott Elarton continues to develop. Veteran Kent Bottenfield adds some needed depth. Youngsters like Octavio Dotel and Wade Miller are in the mix as well.
The bullpen could be a lot better than it was last year. Closer Billy Wagner is hitting 100 on the radar gun again after missing much of last season. And the rest of the pen has been rebuilt through trades (Doug Brocail, Nelson Cruz), free agency (Mike Jackson), and rehab (Jay Powell, who pitched in only 29 games last year).
Keep in mind that Houston's disastrous 2000 season doesn't really reflect the talent on this team. They finished with a 72-90 record despite being outscored by only 6 runs because they were atrocious (15-31) in one-run games. With better health and an improved bullpen, we're likely to see a team that is even better than the one that posted a 42-33 record after the break last year. Don't be at all surprised to see this team win the Central division title.
Cincinnati Reds (80-82, division title 1%, wildcard 8%)
With the trade for Ken Griffey on everyone's mind, a lot of people were picking Cincinnati to win the Central division title at this time last spring. Things don't seem quite so rosy a year later. Thanks to a series of salary-related moves, the starting rotation isn't as deep -- Denny Neagle was traded away at the deadline last year and Steve Parris was dealt to Toronto after the season -- and the offense could suffer a little now that Chris Stynes is in Boston.
The walls have been brought in about ten feet to make room for construction of the new stadium that is going up next door. To compensate, the fences have been raised, but we still expect offense to increase in this environment. That will help the offense and hurt the pitching, at least superficially.
Overall, the Reds offensive production was comparable to what they did in 2000 after adjusting for the effect of the new strike zone. Jason LaRue will be the full time catcher, and he's expected to provide a little more punch than they got from the Taubensee-Santiago platoon in 2000. Most of the other regulars are projected to match their 2000 production, though Barry Larkin's numbers suffered from our age adjustment.
The Reds pitchers finished 6th in the NL last year but dropped to 10th in our rankings. Some of the decline relates to the loss of Neagle, some to the change in the ballpark, and some to the fact that the unbalanced schedule pits them against some very good offenses (notably the Cardinals and Astros) more often. But there are plenty of reasons to believe they could be better than this. They'll have Scott Williamson in the rotation for the full year. Osvaldo Fernandez and Pete Harnisch are pitching very well this spring. The bullpen is very deep, especially with Mark Wohlers throwing strikes again. If Rob Bell and Elmer Dessens pitch well, Cincinnati will be in the hunt.
Chicago Cubs (75-87, division title 5%)
Hmmm. Last March, I wrote that "things could hardly get any worse than they were last year, when the pitching staff fell apart and some veterans (now departed) stopped hitting altogether. But the 2000 edition looks a little more respectable, with our simulations showing improvements of about 60 runs on both sides of the ball." As you know, not only did they fail to improve upon their 67-95 record of 1999, they fell to 65 wins and tied for the worst record in baseball. Now we're back to suggest that the Cubs will be a little better this year. It remains to be seen whether the foundation for that improvement is any stronger than it was last time, but I'll lay it out and let you decide.
The biggest improvement is on offense, with Chicago moving up into the top third of the league in scoring after finishing 11th last season. Wrigley Field has historically been a good park for hitters, but scoring was 19% lower in Chicago's home games than it was on the road last year, and that's a big part of the reason for their low ranking. Our simulations were run with park factors that take the last three years into account, so our simulated Wrigley didn't suppress offense nearly as much as the real one did in 2000. But personnel changes are also a very important factor in their turnaround.
As always, any talk about the Cubs lineup must begin with Sammy Sosa, who averaged .294 with 56 homers and 134 RBI in our fifty seasons. Todd Hundley (.254 with 32 homers) should be a major upgrade from the Joe Girardi - Jeff Reed tandem. They'll miss Mark Grace's ability to get on base, but Matt Stairs will provide more power. Bill Mueller will start at third, and even though he's coming off a poor season, he should help them by getting on base and playing steady defense. They'll have Rondell White for the entire season, assuming (as we did) that he stays healthy. Prospect Roosevelt Brown is ready to step in should Damon Buford falter in center field, though the Cubs have seemed reluctant to give him a shot for some reason.
The pitching outlook isn't as promising. The only additions to a staff that finished 15th in runs allowed are Tom Gordon, Jason Bere, Julian Tavarez, and Jeff Fassero. If Gordon is in top form, he'll be a big upgrade from Rick Aguilera. But Bere hasn't had a good season in four years, while Kevin Tapani had a 5.01 ERA in 2000 and has been hit hard this spring. Jon Leiber and Tavarez should prove to be dependable starters, but neither is going to be a star. The big question is whether Kerry Wood can marshall his enormous talent, find the strike zone, and stay healthy enough to have a breakout season.
Milwaukee Brewers (74-88, no post-season appearances)
This forecast represents a one-game improvement over their 73-89 record in 2000. The offense projects to be a little better and the pitching a little worse.
Just about everyone in the Brewers lineup is projected to improve either a little or a lot over their 2000 performance, in many cases because we're projecting Miller Park to be more hitter-friendly than County Stadium. But that's far from the whole story. The most significant increases result from a rebound by Jeromy Burnitz, a full season from Richie Sexson, and the addition of Jeffrey Hammonds (replacing Marquis Grissom).
Jeff D'Amico had a monster year for the Brewers in 2000, but can he repeat it? It's hard for anyone to repeat at that level, let alone someone who missed two years with arm problems and had never performed at that level even before the injury. So he could be better than the 11-11 record and 3.45 ERA he compiled in our simulations. Then again, he could run into more physical problems or revert to the level he was at before the injury. This spring, he has a 21.60 ERA and hasn't pitched in a game in the last two weeks. Instead, he's throwing on the side as he tries to work through some stiffness in his biceps.
Two other starters, Paul Rigdon and Ben Sheets, are also big question marks. Both are pitching very well in the Cactus League, but neither is a proven commodity. Rigdon has a career ERA of 5.15 in 16 career starts and Sheets has never pitched in the majors, though he thrived in the pressure-packed atmosphere of the Olympics last fall. There are exceptions, of course, but rookie pitchers rarely set the world on fire. Sheets went 11-13 with a 4.41 ERA and Rigdon was 9-11 and 4.64 in our simulations. Both are respectable marks for rookie pitchers, but there's plenty of room for improvement if either or both of these guys proves to be one of those exceptions.
Pittsburgh Pirates (72-90, division title 2%)
From the Pirates perspective, our simulation results are a virtual carbon copy of their 2000 season. The Bucs are projected to improve from 69 to 72 wins and to finish in almost exactly the same place in both runs and runs allowed. It's odd that a losing team would stand pat, but that's basically what the Pirates did during the winter, adding two players -- pitcher Terry Mulholland and right-fielder Derek Bell -- who weren't very good last year.
If their failure to upgrade their personnel wasn't bad enough, now they're trying to cope with injuries to their three best starting pitchers -- Kris Benson, Francisco Cordova, and Jason Schmidt -- all of whom are hurting to one degree or another. We assumed that Cordova would miss 60% of the season (he may be out for the year) and that the other two would take their regular turns. If Benson and/or Schmidt can't do that, the 72-win forecast could prove to be optimistic.
We also assumed that Bell would be the everyday right fielder even though John Vander Wal is projected to be a much better player. If the Pirates wise up and recognize that Bell is no longer deserving of a spot in the starting lineup, it could add a few wins to their total.
Colorado Rockies (90-72, division title 53%, wildcard 10%)
First in scoring, last in pitching, and first in the NL West. The first two are the direct result of playing in baseball's best hitter's park, one that inflates scoring by a whopping 63%. The latter is the direct result of spending a mountain of cash to land one of baseball's best left-handed starters, Mike Hampton.
Allowing for the effects of Coors Field, I'd rate this offense as the fifth- or sixth-best in the league. There are some genuine stars in Todd Helton and Larry Walker (if he's 100%) who would put up big numbers anywhere, a few other good hitters (Jeff Cirillo and possibly Ron Gant), and a bunch of other guys who look like good hitters only because Coors boosts their batting averages by 30 points and their power numbers even more. Even if this isn't one of the best lineups in the league, it's still above average and good enough to win with.
You'd never know it by looking at the raw numbers, but on a park-neutral basis, this projects to be one of the top three pitching staffs in the league. In fact, they're comparable to (but not quite as good as) the Mets in overall talent and in composition -- both have an ace lefty (Hampton vs Al Leiter), several solid starters, and excellent bullpens. At the moment, it appears that they may go into the season with as many as four lefties in the rotation (Hampton, Denny Neagle, Brian Bohanon, and possibly Ron Villone, though righty John Thomson may grab the last spot). In his first virtual season in Colorado, Hampton posted a 13-8 record and a 4.05 ERA.
Arizona Diamondbacks (87-75, division title 28%, wildcard 8%)
I was a little surprised to see Arizona finish this high in the standings. I guess I'm still thinking about the team that fell so far short of expectations last year. They started very well (33-19 through May) but got continually worse as the season progressed, coughing up a big lead and posting the division's worst record in the second half.
However, there aren't many teams that can compete with a one-two punch like Randy Johnson (16-7, 2.61) and Curt Schilling (13-11, 3.78), and in our simulations the D-backs rode those two to a 3rd place ranking in runs allowed. That ranking is now in jeopardy. We assumed that Todd Stottlemyre would be in the rotation and have learned in the past few days that he has a shoulder problem that will keep him out indefinitely. Bobby Witt, who has pitched extremely well this spring, may bail them out and step into the rotation, but if he reverts to past form, Stottlemyre's loss will be felt. The bullpen, featuring closer Matt Mantei, looks solid.
Age is the big question on offense. The lineup is built around Matt Williams (35 this year), Luis Gonzalez (33), Steve Finley (36), and Jay Bell (35), all of whom are projected to decline a little this year. The addition of Reggie Sanders should provide a big upgrade in right field, and Erubiel Durazo looks like he's fully recovered from the wrist problems that sapped his power last year. But with Mark Grace at first and Sanders in right, Durazo may have trouble getting into the lineup -- he averaged only 168 atbats per season in our simulations.
The offense finished 11th in the NL in scoring, but if Johnson and Schilling have big years, they should score just enough runs to be in the races for the division title and the wildcard.
San Francisco Giants (82-80, division title 13%)
As I write this, I'm hearing the voice of Ricky Ricardo from the I Love Lucy show bellowing his trademark "Lu-u-u-cy! You got some 'splainin to do". After all, how could the team with the best record in the National League and the best run differential in baseball (+178) fall this far this fast?
Reason number one is age. Five members of the starting lineup -- six if you include Eric Davis as part of a right field platoon -- are in their thirties and therefore subject to the age adjustment in our projection model. The effects of that adjustment are fairly small for each player, but when several key hitters are in the decline phase of their career at the same time, it adds up.
Reason number two is the tendency for players with career years to retreat toward their career averages the next season. Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, Livan Hernandez, Felix Rodriguez, and Robb Nen fall into this category.
Third is the loss of Ellis Burks. Armando Rios and Eric Davis cannot hope to match the production that Burks gave them from right field last year.
Next, the Giants had several pitchers whose Eras were lower than you'd normally expect given the hits, walks, and homers they gave up. In most cases, those things tend to even out over the years. In other words, if they pitch the same way in 2001, they would be expected to give up more runs. Four members of their starting rotation -- Hernandez, Shawn Estes, Russ Ortiz, and Kirk Rueter -- fall into this category.
Finally, the unbalanced schedule works against the Giants, just like it does every other team in this division. That wouldn't affect their chances to win a division title, but it hurts them in the wildcard race.
The cumulative effect of these changes is enough to drop them from 3rd to 6th in the NL in scoring and from 4th to 9th in runs allowed. I'm not sure I believe all this, to be honest with you. Dusty Baker has a way of getting more out of his players that you would ever imagine, and he may be able to do that again this year. A number of key players are getting up in years, but they may have one more good (or great) year left in them. And their pitchers may continue to demonstrate a unique ability to work out of jams without giving up the big hit that can turn a game around. But there are some red flags here, and a repeat victory is anything but a sure thing.
Los Angeles Dodgers (79-83, division title 6%, wildcard 10%)
Sometimes I wonder how the Dodgers manage to stay competitive with the front office making so many questionable moves. Perhaps it's starting to catch up with them, as they slid from 86 wins last year to a losing record in our simulations.
Their pitching, which (with the help of a favorable ballpark) ranked fourth in the NL in runs allowed, is still strong. Kevin Brown and Chan Ho Park are a very strong duo at the head of the rotation, and they spent big bucks to keep Darren Dreifort and add Andy Ashby behind them. Dreifort hasn't really reached the potential that many feel he has. Ashby didn't pitch well last year and is struggling this spring. And the #5 spot looks weak, with Ramon Martinez and Eric Gagne battling for that position. So there's no assurance that the rotation will be as good or better than last year despite their largesse.
The bullpen seems unsettled, too. They traded Antonio Osuna the other day (he was still with the Dodgers when we ran our seasons), and while the right-handers seem reliable enough, it's far from clear who will provide left-handed relief. Carlos Perez and Onan Masaoka (sent to minor-league camp yesterday) were our choices, but neither is a sure thing.
Offensively, the Dodgers dropped from a real-life 8th place finish last year to a 13th place finish in our simulations. Tom Goodwin is not the answer in the leadoff spot, and why they traded for Marquis Grissom is a mystery to me. Gary Sheffield isn't projected to match his big 2000 season. Adrian Beltre is out while recovering from abdominal surgery; nobody knows for how long, but we guessed that he would miss 5-6 weeks.
San Diego Padres (70-92, no post-season appearances)
The Padres have two good hitters -- Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko (versus righties, anyway) -- and a whole bunch of below-average players. And, no, I didn't forget about Tony Gwynn, who compiled a decent .291 batting average but didn't walk enough or hit for enough power to be considered a league-average hitter, let alone a good hitter at a position where you expect to get a lot of offense. So this lineup appears destined to finish last in the majors in scoring.
The pitching staff, which ranked 9th in the 2000 season, moved up to 5th in our rankings. They are helped by playing a schedule that puts them in a lot of good pitcher's parks, including their own, but they also have one of the game's best closers in Trevor Hoffman and three good young starting pitchers in Adam Eaton, Brian Tollberg, and Matt Clement. The rotation is rounded out by veterans Woody Williams and Bobby Jones. And they may get Sterling Hitchcock back for the second half. (We assumed he'd play about half the season.)
What if the Yankees had signed Ramirez and Mussina had gone to the Red Sox instead. What if Alex Rodriguez signed with the Mets, not Texas? To answer these questions, we ran another fifteen seasons with these five teams set up accordingly and all other teams unchanged.
Swapping Mussina for Ramirez helped the Yankees. They went from 94 wins to 96 and won the division 7 times in 15 tries. The Red Sox won the division the other 8 times; each team took the wildcard on six occasions. New York qualified for post-season play 87% of the time, up from 70% in our first set of fifty seasons. Ramirez was a major force -- Boston scored 61 fewer runs without him and New York added 47 to their total. So was Mussina, but not to such a large degree; he cut the Sox runs allowed by 39 runs, while the Yankees allowed 22 more without him.
Replacing Rey Ordonez with Alex Rodriguez added 71 runs to the Mets offense. Ordonez is a better defensive player, but A-Rod is no slouch in the field either, and the runs that Ordonez was able to save were dwarfed by the extra offense that Rodriguez provided. The net effect was an additional 6 wins, good enough for five division titles and ten opportunities to play in October. New York qualified for post-season play 67% of the time, up from 40% without A-Rod. When Texas had Royce Clayton at short instead of Rodriguez, it scored 83 fewer runs and saw its post-season chances drop from 49% to 20%.
These figures almost certainly overstate the effect of the A-Rod signing on both teams. If New York had landed him, would they have had the money to go after Kevin Appier and Steve Trachsel? In our simulations, we left those two pitchers on the Mets so we'd get a better feel for the impact that Rodriguez would have, all other things being equal. The same is true in Texas -- if they weren't on track to sign Rodriguez, owner Tom Hicks may have used that money to go after other big-name free agents.
What if . . . well, I'm sure you can come up with lots of questions of your own. The point is that we (and our customers) can update rosters, adjust the projected stats for individual players, and change the manager profiles in order to answer other questions. And this is a big part of the fun. We can't tell you how the season will really come out, but we can provide a pretty good laboratory for playing out a variety of scenarios.
I can't remember the last time there has been so much uncertainty at this stage of the spring. There are plenty of very good teams, but none are dominant and all have questions they'll need to answer. This reflects to some degree the fact that every club finished the 2000 season with a winning percentage between .400 and .600, a level of parity never before seen. And that the big events of the winter -- A-Rod to Texas, Hampton to Colorado, Mussina and Ramirez winding up on division rivals, Atlanta standing still except for the return of Smoltz, the wayward arms of Ankiel and Knoblauch, Burks leaving San Francisco, Beltre's failed appendectomy, two new stadiums and changes to four others, the strike zone, and the unbalanced schedule -- have muddied the waters instead of clarifying matters.
I'm always filled with anticipation at this time of the year, but that feeling is stronger than ever right now. There are so many possibilities this year, and I think we could be in for one of the most interesting and exciting seasons we've seen in a long, long time. In a way, that makes our projected standings that much more likely to be proven "wrong". So be it. Given a choice between (a) having clear-cut favorites and a boring season that confirms our springtime forecast, and (b) looking forward to a season full of surprises, it's no contest. I'll take the uncertainty.