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Projected Standings for the 2002 Season
By Tom Tippett
Copyright © 2002. Diamond Mind, Inc. All rights reserved.
If the real thing bears any resemblance to our computer simulations, we're in for one of the most interesting and exciting baseball seasons in decades. There is a very short list of things that we can be fairly sure about -- the Yankees are about as close to a lock as you can get in baseball, while four teams (Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Kansas City) have no meaningful chance to contend in the AL. And everything else, and I mean everything else, is up for grabs.
Each spring since 1998, we've projected statistics and ratings for over 1500 players and then carried out computer simulations of the coming season in an effort to see how the teams stack up on paper. In this article, we'll give you an overview of our projection methodology, present our projected team standings for the 2002 season, and comment on the outlook for each team.
Using major-league and minor-league statistics (from STATS Inc. and the Howe Sportsdata division of SportsTicker), we evaluate the performance of these players over the past three years. Each stat line is adjusted for the level of offense in the league, 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 are 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 in the coming year. We also project each player's left/right splits and assign ratings for skills such as baserunning, throwing, defensive range, and bunting.
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 Matt Williams) who are currently injured and expected to miss part of the season.
Then we play out the schedule using our Diamond Mind Baseball 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.
And 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 simulate the season fifty times and average the results.
Interpreting the results
The effect of averaging these results 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.
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. Maybe you're convinced that your favorite team will defy our projections like the Twins and Mariners did a year ago. If so, that's fine. You never know when things are going to come together in an almost magical way and produce a stunning result like the 1969 Miracle Mets, the 1991 Minnesota Twins, or, to borrow from another sport, this year's New England Patriots. Nobody predicted that those teams had a snowball's chance to win it all, but they did it anyway.
We're not saying we can predict the future any more than you can. We don't know whether Nomar Garciaparra and Ken Griffey will bounce back to their peak levels, whether young phenoms like Adam Dunn and Josh Beckett will live up to all the hype over a full season, whether Mo Vaughn will rediscover his Fenway stroke now that he's back on the east coast, whether Pedro can still throw hard for 200 innings, which general managers will alter the competitive balance through trades or salary-driven personnel decisions, or whether someone will make like Albert Pujols and come out of nowhere to challenge for the MVP.
But the process of projecting performance, 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. In other words, if this article has any value, it has less to do with the final standings than it does with giving you some things to think about and watch for as the 2002 season unfolds.
Projected final standings
Here are the projected final standings, based on the fifty seasons we simulated:
AL East W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC New York 104 58 .642 - 919 680 45.5 1.5 Boston 92 70 .568 12 851 727 4.5 24.5 Toronto 77 85 .475 27 781 839 1.0 Baltimore 66 96 .407 38 721 861 Tampa Bay 61 101 .377 43 696 902 AL Central W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC Chicago 89 73 .549 - 827 762 40.5 .5 Minnesota 81 81 .500 8 791 796 6.5 Cleveland 78 84 .481 11 827 852 3.0 .5 Kansas City 64 98 .395 25 725 906 Detroit 63 99 .389 26 708 883 AL West W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC Oakland 96 66 .593 - 850 669 31.5 6.0 Seattle 91 71 .562 5 792 691 10.0 9.5 Texas 88 74 .543 8 901 830 6.5 5.5 Anaheim 82 80 .506 14 769 751 2.0 1.0 NL East W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC Atlanta 88 74 .543 - 748 686 25.5 5.0 Philadelphia 83 79 .512 5 735 706 13.0 1.5 Florida 82 80 .506 6 753 736 7.5 3.0 New York 80 82 .494 8 704 717 4.0 1.8 Montreal 69 93 .426 19 705 830 NL Central W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC St. Louis 90 72 .556 - 797 711 28.8 5.0 Houston 87 75 .537 3 837 783 13.8 11.0 Chicago 81 81 .500 9 779 781 4.8 2.0 Cincinnati 80 82 .494 10 785 796 3.0 3.3 Milwaukee 73 89 .451 17 735 832 .5 Pittsburgh 72 90 .444 18 689 765 NL West W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC San Francisco 88 74 .543 - 772 717 22.5 4.3 Colorado 85 77 .525 3 967 931 12.0 5.0 Arizona 84 78 .519 4 729 713 11.0 5.0 Los Angeles 79 83 .488 9 706 709 2.0 2.5 San Diego 77 85 .475 11 728 765 2.5 1.0
Ten of the fourteen AL teams qualified for the playoffs in at least one of the simulated seasons. That's the same number as last year and, in my opinion, is an accurate reflection of the makeup of the league. The four teams that were shut out have one thing in common -- a lousy track record when it comes to personnel decisions in recent years -- so it's no surprise that they're the ones on the outside looking in. And it's going to take a while to turn these franchises around; in Baseball America's latest prospect rankings, the Devil Rays (15th), Tigers (18th), Royals (21st) and Orioles (29th) aren't exactly contending for the Organization of the Year award.
But there could be some real fireworks among the ten good teams in the league. Boston has an edge in the wildcard race because they get to feast on Baltimore and Tampa Bay a total of 38 times, but the West is so strong that the #2 team in that division has a very good shot to be playing in October. It's also quite possible that three or four of these teams will separate themselves from the pack and win more than 100 games, putting an early end to the races but setting up some intriguing postseason matchups.
The National League could set a new standard for parity this year. Fourteen of the sixteen teams made the playoffs at least once, and the other two (Montreal and Pittsburgh) are still very respectable. In its best season, the Expos won 84 games and missed the wildcard by only three. Pittsburgh never seriously contended for the postseason, but they rarely embarrassed themselves, either.
Some of our simulations produced pennant races for the ages. One resulted in a three-way tie for the Central lead between the Cubs, Astros, and Cardinals. Eight other division races -- four in the East, one in the Central, and three in the West -- wound up in a two-way tie. And 14 of 50 wildcard races ended up tied, with one of them involving three teams. One season produced a division winner with a 90-72 record, another with an 89-73 record, and a third where two teams tied at 89-73.
Every NL division contained at least three teams that either won outright or tied for the division lead at least 10% of the time. And the wildcard could come from anywhere -- the East division took it in 23% of our seasons, the Central 43%, and the West 36%.
In this section, 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, any mention of a player's statistics is a reference to his average performance in these fifty simulated seasons.
Along with the general team comments, I'll often list one or more "difference makers". Some people use this term to refer to superstars, guys who can make the difference between winning and losing a championship. That's a perfectly good use of the term, but I'm using the term here to mean someone who might contribute a lot more or a lot less in reality than in our simulations, and who therefore could make a difference in his team's projected finish.
One good example is a pitcher like Scott Erickson, who is coming off a major injury and was struggling mightily even before he was hurt. As a result, he's not projected to be very good at all, but if he's able to return to peak form and win 16-18 games for the Orioles, that would make a big difference in their outlook.
Another good example is Adam Dunn, who had an astounding 2001 season and is projected to be a major force in the Reds lineup. If he has a sophomore slump, the Reds chances to contend will be significantly reduced.
New York Yankees (104-58, division title 91%, wildcard 3%)
George came into some money and decided to go shopping. Well, to be more accurate, he asked his personal shopper, GM Brian Cashman, to make the selections for him. Let's take a quick look at George's wish list...
1. A game-breaking offensive player at first base.
Well, Cashman once again spent George's money very wisely, signing former MVP Jason Giambi to play first and Rondell White for left field, trading for 3B Robin Ventura, bringing back lefty starter David Wells, inking free agent setup man Steve Karsay, and dealing for John Vander Wal to provide a platoon partner for Shane Spencer in right and provide insurance in case White can't shake the injury bug that has nagged him for so many years.
These moves clearly make them a dominant team, but they're not the only reasons why this team will be better than it was a year ago. Shortstop Derek Jeter should be healthier after battling leg injuries for much of last year. And they've made room for one of baseball's top prospects, 1B/DH Nick Johnson, to play every day.
Age is a bit of a factor. Some of last year's older players are no longer in pinstripes, but some of the newcomers aren't all that young, and roughly half of their key players have missed part of spring training with nagging injuries of one sort or another. But their margin for error is huge, and it will take a lot more than a few muscle pulls to keep them out of the postseason.
Difference makers: None. They're already projected to be the best team in baseball, so there's not much point in speculating about positive surprises. And they can absorb three or four negative ones and still win the division.
Boston Red Sox (92-70, division title 9%, wildcard 49%)
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
New owners (John Henry et al), a new CEO (Larry Lucchino), a new acting general manager (Mike Port), a new field manager (Grady Little), a new pitching coach (Tony Cloninger), a new center fielder (Johnny Damon), and several new starting pitchers (including John Burkett) have provided some reasons for optimism after last year's embarrassing late-season meltdown.
Some things are the same, however. If this team is to contend, the guys who have been here a while (Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, and to a lesser extent, Trot Nixon and Derek Lowe) have to stay healthy and perform at their peak levels. And even if they do, they'll probably still be looking up at the Yankees in the standings. In one of our simulated seasons, almost everything went right, the Sox won 109 games, and they still finished three back of New York thanks to a season-ending four-game losing streak.
Difference makers: Moving to a DH league and a hitter's park, Dustin Hermanson posted an ERA in the low 5's in our simulations. He could be better than that if he realizes the promise he showed a few years ago, or the Sox could go with Juan Pena or someone else who's having a better spring ... Carlos Baerga projects as a below-average hitter, but arrived in camp in much better physical condition and could help the Sox fill holes at second and third ... Any of the key guys who were hurt last year (Pedro, Nomar, Varitek) may struggle to reach their established level of performance.
Toronto Blue Jays (77-85, wild card 2%)
Despite a series of cost-cutting deals that saw the departure of Alex Gonzalez, Brad Fullmer, Billy Koch, and Paul Quantrill during the winter, the Jays averaged only three fewer wins in our simulations than they had in the 2001 season.
The offense figures to score a few more runs. They still have Shannon Stewart, Carlos Delgado, Raul Mondesi, and Jose Cruz. The loss of Gonzalez doesn't hurt much; even with him, Toronto was only 9th in the AL in offensive production out of the shortstop position, and Felipe Lopez should do a little better than that. Newcomer Eric Hinske (.249, 27 homers, 21 steals) bolsters the 3B position by providing the same power but more walks and steals than Tony Batista was giving them before he was put on waivers and claimed by Baltimore last year.
The pitching is a big question mark. Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay, and Brandon Lyon have provided some reason for optimism, but Lyon is untested and neither Carpenter nor Halladay has yet to compile a full season of superior results. Mike Sirotka wasn't able to pitch last year. Kelvim Escobar may prove to be a capable closer, but it's too soon to tell whether his ability to throw hard will be enough to make him a true relief ace. And the left side of the defense is highly suspect -- Hinske and Lopez made a ton of errors in the minors and project to make about 70 between them this year. Add it all up and you get a team that projects to finish ninth in the league in runs allowed.
Still, for a team that is cutting costs and beginning a partial rebuilding process, a finish near .500 isn't all that bad, especially when you share a division with two of the top payrolls in the game.
Difference makers: Hinske and Lopez, if they can somehow manage to keep their errors down around the league average ... Vernon Wells, if he turns out to be one of those guys who's better in the bigs than in the minors. He gets a lot of hype, but he doesn't walk much, has never hit 20 homers in a season, and averaged only .253 with 13 homers in our simulations ... any of the young pitchers if they suddenly figure things out.
Baltimore Orioles (66-96, no post-season appearances)
It sure looks as if Baltimore fans are in for more of the same. They won 63 games in 2001 and nudged that up to 66 in our simulations. The 2002 edition scored and allowed a few more runs, not because the talent has changed, but because home plate has been moved back to its previous location after being situated in a more pitcher-friendly manner for one season. No major off-season deals were made, and except for the return of Scott Erickson, nothing much happened within the organization, either. It's awfully hard to say where this franchise is going, unless it's nowhere.
Difference makers: Erickson, who has had four good seasons in his 11-year career, and could push the O's win total into the low 70s if he has another one ... Chris Richard, if he can recover from his injury to play more than the couple of months we gave him.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays (61-101, no post-season appearances)
For the second year in a row, the Devil Rays 'won' the award for the team projected to be worst in all of baseball. But even though there doesn't seem to be much reason for hope in 2002, there is some talent in their minor-league system, and the Rays may begin to climb the standings one of these years.
In our simulations, they averaged 696 runs. That's 24 more than they scored last year but still the worst mark in the league. Like the Orioles, Tampa Bay stood pat during the winter, neither adding nor losing any impact players. And they did nothing to replace Fred McGriff, their only offensive bright spot from last year, whom they dealt to the Cubs last August.
Any improvement will have to come from youngsters like Toby Hall, Aubrey Huff, Brent Abernathy, and Jared Sandberg. But, other than Hall, none of these guys has done enough in the past three years to earn a good projection for the coming season, and the starting lineup includes five guys who are expected to reach base less than 32% of the time. That's not a recipe for success.
Tampa Bay's pitching staff finished second last in the AL in staff ERA, and unlike the cellar-dwelling Rangers, the Devil Rays didn't acquire any new talent. They're counting on Tanyon Sturtze, Joe Kennedy, Paul Wilson, and Ryan Rupe to improve, and while that may happen, they have a long way to go before they start to resemble some of the better staffs in the league. And with Nick Bierbrodt having all sorts of trouble throwing strikes this spring, the #5 rotation slot is up for grabs all of a sudden. The good news is that Wilson Alvarez appears ready to make a contribution after two full years on the sidelines, and that should cushion the blow if Bierbrodt cannot get straightened out.
Last year, I wrote that "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." I would have lost that bet, since the pitching was awful and Tampa Bay did indeed finish last, but there's a decent chance that forecast will come true this year.
Difference makers: Alvarez, if he's healthy and able to pitch at a league-average-or-better level ... Jesus Colome, if he harnesses his power and is given a major role to play on the staff ... Ben Grieve, if 2001 turns out to be an aberration and he has a monster year.
Chicago White Sox (89-73, division title 81%, wildcard 1%)
Our simulations suggest that the White Sox are the clear favorite to win the division, but with powerful teams like New York, Boston, Oakland, Seattle, and Texas in the league, they'll be hard pressed to grab the wildcard spot if they don't manage to beat the Twins and Indians.
The White Sox led the league in scoring in 2000 but fell back to 6th a year ago, partly because they overachieved two years ago and had to make do without Frank Thomas in 2001. The batting order won't look a lot different this year. Kenny Lofton takes over for Chris Singleton, Jose Canseco is gone, and Thomas is back. In our fifty seasons, this group averaged 827 runs, an increase of 29 over last year, and good enough for a virtual tie for 5th in the league in scoring.
The pitching, which was surprisingly average in 2001 despite an unbelievable series of serious injuries, appears to be a strength this time around. Todd Ritchie joins an impressive group of youngsters (including Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland) who got a chance to show their stuff because all the other starters were hurt. The bullpen should continue to be an asset.
Difference makers: Adding Lofton doesn't project to help because he underperformed the guys who played CF for the Sox last year, but he could be a catalyst if he bounces back to peak form ... we assumed that Jim Parque would take a regular turn and pitch at his established level, but he's been having trouble with his velocity this spring, and the club seems be leaning toward starting the season with Jon Rauch and/or Dan Wright in the rotation.
Minnesota Twins (81-81, division title 13%)
Because our projection system evaluates performances from the past three seasons, teams that make a sudden leap forward are often projected to give up some of those gains the next year. And that often proves to be a reasonable forecast.
For instance, the 1999 Reds leapt from 77 wins to 96 and a tie for the wildcard before slipping back to 85 wins in 2000. The same year, Arizona went from 65 wins to 100, then dropped back to 85 wins in 2000.
The 2000 season saw the White Sox go from 75 wins to 95, but they fell to 83 in 2001. Florida went from 64 wins in 1999 to 79 in 2000 before slipping a bit to 76 wins last year.
On the other hand, Oakland and Seattle have improved each year since 1998. In both of these cases, a steady flow of new talent reinforced and built on the gains previously made.
Which group will the Twins fall into? And will this year's Twins look more like the team that led the AL Central by six games at the all-star break or the one that was 30-45 the rest of the way? Our results put them right in the middle on both counts, able to hold onto the gains they made last year but unable to take another step up.
The 2002 roster looks a lot like the 2001 roster, a stand-pat approach that is similar to some of the other teams that slipped back in the season following the big leap. But there is some new blood that should mitigate against a significant retreat. Michael Cuddyer and Dustin Mohr are bidding for outfield jobs, and while Matt Lawton (before the trade) and Brian Buchanan were no slouches a year ago, a big-time season from someone like Cuddyer could provide a real shot in the arm.
I'm not quite as high on Minnesota's pitching as I think some others are. After a strong start that was helped enormously by some of the best team defense I've ever seen, the Twins staff finished 7th in the league in ERA. Brad Radke is a very reliable pitcher, but not someone who has shown that he can consistently outpitch the other team's #1 starter. Eric Milton is only 26 and getting better every year, but he has never had an ERA in the 3's and still gives up a lot of hits even with that great defense behind him. Rick Reed suffered from the move out of Shea Stadium and into a DH league, and it remains to be seen whether he'll bounce back. Joe Mays was the best starter on the staff last year, but posted a 5.56 ERA a year before. And youngster Kyle Lohse was knocked around pretty good in his first half-season. All in all, this looks like a very solid rotation that is backed up by a suspect bullpen, a staff more likely to finish in the middle of the pack than rise to a championship level.
Difference makers: Lohse or Johan Santana could give them more out of the #5 slot. We gave the job to Lohse even though he projects to be far worse than the league average, so there's quite a bit of upside potential here ... Cuddyer could win the RF job from Buchanan and put up a Rookie-of-the-Year season.
Cleveland Indians (78-84, division title 6%, wildcard 1%)
Of the three teams of the nineties, the Yankees are still dominant, the Braves are still good, and Cleveland has suddenly stopped trying to compete with the league's best.
In a way, it started when the Indians allowed Manny Ramirez to leave via free agency after the 2000 season, though they could hardly be blamed for failing to match the $20 million per year the Red Sox gave him. Shortly after that, Cleveland looked pretty darn clever when they signed Juan Gonzalez, Ellis Burks, and Marty Cordova for less total money and proceeded to win the division.
But another offseason has seen Gonzalez, Cordova, Kenny Lofton, and Dave Burba leave via free agency. With Roberto Alomar and John Rocker also departing in a pair of trades that didn't bring much in return (partly because the key player in the Alomar trade, Alex Escobar, tore up his knee and will miss the season), the Indians have little to show for all these moves.
That's not to suggest Cleveland will be a terrible team in 2002. They still project to finish 6th in the league in scoring thanks to Jim Thome, Russell Branyan, Matt Lawton, and Burks. But they scored 897 runs last year, second only to Seattle, and averaged only 827 in our simulations.
Despite the impressive debut of C.C. Sabathia, the Indians dropped from 5th in the league in pitching in 2000 to 9th in 2001. In our fifty seasons, they allowed 30 more runs per season and sunk to 10th in the rankings. Bartolo Colon was once viewed as a budding star who could break out at any moment, but now we know he's 28 years old, not 25. He's still a good pitcher, but his ceiling now seems much lower. We're projecting Sabathia to be very good again this year, but he put on a lot of weight this winter and, even though he has pitched well this spring, some team officials are worried. There is potential good news in Danys Baez, who pitched very well in relief last year and is in the rotation now.
The outlook for the rest of the staff isn't so good. Chuck Finley is coming off a lousy year and has not pitched well this spring. Even if he does bounce back, it's not clear how much they'll get out of the #5 starter. We assumed Ryan Drese would win that job, but he projects to have an ERA around 5.00 and hasn't had a good spring. Omar Olivares, Charles Nagy, and Tim Drew are also in the mix, but Olivares's ERA has been north of six the last two seasons, Nagy has to prove that his elbow is healthy enough to pitch effectively, and Drew's career ERAs are 8.39 in the majors and just shy of 5.00 in AAA.
The bullpen that was so deep a year ago is now a little thin, with Steve Reed and Steve Karsay having been traded for Rocker last summer. Rocker is now in Texas, giving the Tribe nothing to show for the 140 innings of solid relief that were dealt away. They still have Bob Wickman, Paul Shuey, Ricardo Rincon, and David Riske, but that likely won't be enough help for this rotation.
Difference makers: Milton Bradley hasn't done enough to earn a strong projection, but he's had a good spring and could be a positive surprise in center field ... Travis Fryman is projected to improve on a lousy 2001 season, but if last year and his terrible spring are any indication, he may never again be healthy enough to hit big-league pitching. If not, this offense won't score as many runs as we're projecting.
Kansas City Royals (64-98, no postseason appearances)
I suppose if you really want to find something good to say, you'd have to admit that the Royals added more talent than they lost this winter. (Of course, after trading Johnny Damon and Jeremy Giambi in 2000 and Jermaine Dye last year, there wasn't much grade A talent to lose in the first place.) Newcomers Michael Tucker, Bryan Rekar, and Chuck Knoblauch will make the team a little stronger. Other than Jose Rosado, who hadn't pitched in two years anyway, the club didn't lose anyone important.
But after finishing 10th in scoring and 11th in pitching last year, this team needs a lot more to turn things around. And it's hard to see where they're going to find the kind of impact players who can make a difference this year. In Baseball America's rankings of minor-league talent, the Royals are 21st.
Difference makers: Come July, Mike Sweeney could be the next big hitter to be traded. If they make this move, KC could easily lose 100 games. And if they go in this direction, let's hope they get a lot more in return than they did when Damon, Giambi, and Dye were moved.
Detroit Tigers (63-99, no postseason appearances)
Last year, Detroit finished one spot below Kansas City in the rankings for both scoring and runs allowed, but managed to finish a game ahead of the Royals anyway. Unlike the Royals, the Tigers made a bunch of moves this winter, though none of them are likely to make a big impact.
One solid bat was added in the person of Dmitri Young, and utility man Craig Paquette will make a contribution. But they traded Juan Encarnacion (to get Young), lost Tony Clark on waivers, saw Roger Cedeno go to the Mets via free agency, and let Deivi Cruz go without finding anyone else to play shortstop. So Detroit averaged even fewer runs in our simulations than they did a year ago, even with Mitch Meluskey's bat in the lineup almost every day as either the catcher or the DH.
The pitching staff finished 12th in runs allowed while working in one of the best pitcher's parks in the game. That staff is largely intact for the coming year, so there's little reason to believe they'll be a whole lot better this year. The club does have some good arms in the minors, so things might look brighter in a year or two.
Difference makers: None.
Oakland Athletics (96-66, division title 63%, wildcard 12%)
This has to be considered one of the bigger surprises of our simulation project. Despite the loss of Jason Giambi, Oakland took the division flag three times as often as the defending champion Seattle Mariners, owners of that gaudy 116-46 record from a year ago. Let's see if we can figure out how this happened.
Observation number one is that Seattle's 2001 winning margin of fourteen games significantly overstated the talent gap between these two teams. Using the Bill James pythagorean method, it's possible to predict a team's win total from the number of runs they scored and allowed. This method projected Seattle for 111 wins and Oakland for 106. But the Mariners were very strong in the clutch and churned out five more wins than normal, while Oakland came up four short. The five-game margin in their pythagorean projections is more indicative of the talent of these two teams, and it's worth noting that Oakland's 58-17 record after the all-star game had many people saying they were the best team in baseball.
Observation number two is that the Athletics were fourth in the league in scoring (while playing in a pitchers park) without the benefit of a bunch of career years. One key player (Jason Giambi) was much better than expected, and one (Johnny Damon) was much worse, but both of them are gone. The guys who are still there were right around their normal level, and most of them are young enough to be improve on those strong performances. Plus, the offseason additions of Carlos Pena and David Justice should partially replace Giambi and Damon. Seattle, on the other hand, is an older team that played out of its mind last year.
Observation number three is that Oakland had the league's second-best staff in 2001, finishing just behind the Mariners and well ahead of the third-place Yankees. The only important member of the staff who won't be back is closer Jason Isringhausen, and he's been replaced by the equally capable Billy Koch, a man who could easily emerge as one of the game's dominant relief aces. The net result is a staff that led the AL in pitching in our fifty seasons, narrowly edging out the Yankees and Mariners for that honor.
Difference makers: Carlos Pena, if he needs time to adjust and cannot match the numbers (.256 average, .361 OBP, 27 homers) he put up in our simulations ... Mulder, Corey Lidle, and Eric Hiljus, if their very strong 2001 showings turn out to be fluke seasons.
Seattle Mariners (91-71, division title 20%, wildcard 19%)
If you're reading these comments in order, you already have a bit of an idea of where we're going here. If not, it's worth taking a moment to scroll up and take a glance at the Oakland comment.
Obviously, whenever a team is projected to drop by 25 wins from one year to the next, we need to take some time to see if that really makes sense. I'll start by referring you to Rob Neyer's February 8th column on ESPN.com, in which he looked at the ten teams since 1900 with .700 winning percentages. On average, those teams saw their winning percentages drop by 100 points, the equivalent of 16 games in the modern 162-game schedule. The M's won 116 games last year, so an average decline would bring them down to 100. Rob ended his analysis with this forecast: "Actually, I think they'll do a bit worse, due to the age of their lineup and the question marks about their starting rotation. I think they'll drop to something like 95-67 ... "
Last year's team was great in every way. They led the AL in scoring with 927 runs despite playing in a pitcher's park. They led the AL in pitching; the park helped here, but even with that factor removed, they still led the league in fewest runs allowed. They led the AL in fielding percentage and allowed the second-fewest unearned runs in the league. They led the AL in stolen bases and lapped the field in stolen base percentage.
In our simulations, the offense suffered the most, falling to an average of 792 runs per season, 7th in the league. Is it really possible for a team to fall that far without major personnel changes? Well, I guess we'll find out, but let's begin by looking at the reasons why this happened in the simulations:
For a recent example of this phenomenon, consider the 2000 White Sox, who surprised a lot of people by leading the AL in scoring with 978 runs that year. Everybody in the lineup had at a good-to-great year, they hit in the clutch, and they were very healthy. They couldn't sustain it. The 2001 Sox scored 180 fewer runs and dropped to sixth in the league because the mix of good and bad years wasn't so favorable, the hitting wasn't so clutch, a couple of personnel moves didn't work out, and Frank Thomas missed most of the season with an injury.
The fact that the White Sox dropped so far so fast doesn't mean the Mariners will, too. I looked up the league leaders in scoring for both leagues for the period from 1996 to 2000. Those ten teams scored an average of 79 fewer runs the following year. The smallest decline was 38 runs, the largest was the 180 by the White Sox, and the second-largest was 116 by the 1999-2000 Diamondbacks. The AL leaders lost an average of 88 runs, the NL leaders an average of 69.
In other words, Mariners fans are very likely to be disappointed if they're counting on their offense to keep rolling. But a drop of 135 would be noteworthy, too, and recent history suggests that the real Mariners will outscore their virtual counterparts. Time will tell, of course.
On the other side of the ball, our fifty seasons should give Seattle fans more comfort. Even with the departures of Aaron Sele, Jose Paniagua, Norm Charlton, and Brett Tomko and the recent news that Ryan Anderson will miss another season, the Mariners finished third in the league in pitching, behind only the A's and Yankees.
Another factor in their relatively modest 91-71 simulated record is the strength of their division rivals. The Athletics are a very good team, the Rangers should be much better, and the Angels are the only fourth-place team to post a winning record in our simulations. Despite all that, it's still a very good team, and if they can avoid the injury bug, I won't be the least bit surprised if they are able to hold on to their division crown and go into the postseason as one of the favorites.
Difference makers: Bret Boone, who is projected to fall well short of matching his monster 2001 season, could add 3-4 wins by himself if he can do it again ... Gil Meche, if he's healthy and can step in for a struggling or injured starter ... Cirillo, if Coors Field really did mess him up and he gets back to what made him very successful in Milwaukee.
Texas Rangers (88-74, division title 13%, wildcard 11%)
The Yankees bought enough players to move ahead of Texas in the offensive rankings, but only by a little, and even if the pitching isn't quite as good as Rangers fans would like, at least they'll know that no enemy lead is safe. And it does appear as if the pitching has been improved by enough to put this club in the middle of the race, even if they're not the favorites.
Last year's offense was projected to be the best in the league but fell a little short of those expectations, finishing a very respectable third with 890 runs. The guys who fell short -- Ken Caminiti, Ruben Mateo, and Andres Galarraga -- are elsewhere now. Of the three players who took over -- Frank Catalanotto, Mike Lamb, and Ruben Sierra -- the first two are still here. So all the ingredients are in place for another big offensive year, especially if Ivan Rodriguez and Rusty Greer can stay healthy. In addition, super-prospect Hank Blalock is on the verge of winning the starting third base job.
But you already knew that runs wouldn't be a problem for this team. The real question is the pitching. New general manager John Hart cleaned house, so several of the hurlers who made large contributions to their league-worst team ERA are now elsewhere -- Darren Oliver is in Boston, Rick Helling in Arizona, Tim Crabtree in Los Angeles, Ryan Glynn in Milwaukee, and Pat Mahomes in Chicago, to name a few. Filling these slots with a bunch of average pitchers would make a world of difference by itself.
With the number of new arms in camp, the chances are very good that those replacements will be at least average. Topping the list is Chan Ho Park, now the Rangers #1 starter. The bullpen should be very deep with the arrival of Todd Van Poppel, Jay Powell, Rudy Seanez, and John Rocker. Another hopeful is prospect Mario Ramos, acquired in the trade that sent Carlos Pena to Oakland. The rest of the new hurlers lack the same pedigree, but if the club can find a couple of solid starters from a list that includes Ismael Valdes, Dave Burba, Hideki Irabu, and Steve Woodard, they'll have enough to challenge Oakland and Seattle.
Difference makers: Kenny Rogers, if he can recover his past form ... we ran the simulations with Mike Lamb starting at third and Blalock getting some playing time in the second half, but it now appears as if Blalock will win the job; that may not affect these results much because Blalock is projected to be only a little better than Lamb this year (Blalock's long-term value is much higher, of course) ... Ivan Rodriguez, if his knees continue to plague him ... Carl Everett, if he doesn't come all the way back from his knee operation ... Everett and Rocker, if they prove to be distractions.
Anaheim Angels (82-80, division title 4%, wildcard 2%)
I was surprised to see the Angels perform this well in our fifty seasons. They've added to an already-good pitching staff, so they figured to be competitive. But I didn't think they'd score enough runs.
Well, I guess the key word is enough. Among the ten AL teams that qualified for the postseason at least once, Anaheim was last in scoring. No big surprise there; this is a club that scored only 691 runs and ranked 12th in the AL in 2001. But they did manage to add 78 runs to their woeful total from a year ago, with most of the improvement coming from Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad, both of whom are projected to rebound from terrible years. Those two join with Troy Glaus, Garret Anderson, and newcomer Brad Fullmer to form a pretty good heart of the order. They didn't get too much help from the rest of the lineup in our simulations, but it was enough to get them to and just beyond the .500 mark.
Other than the discovery that Ramon Ortiz is three years older than previously believed, the outlook for the pitching staff is even better than it was at the end of last season. Among the pitchers who won't be back, only Shigetoshi Hasegawa has been a significant contributor in recent years, and he was hurt for a while and didn't have his best year in 2001. And they've added two proven starters in Aaron Sele and Kevin Appier.
Difference makers: David Eckstein, if he's unable to sustain the surprising success he had in 2001 ... Salmon, if his body has taken too much of a beating and he can't improve on his 2001 output.
Atlanta Braves (88-74, division title 51%, wildcard 10%)
Atlanta's decade-long run of division titles (excluding the strike-shortened season of 1994) is at risk. They're still the favorites, and pitching is still their main weapon, but the margin for error is getting smaller and smaller.
The addition of Gary Sheffield should go a long way toward rejuvenating an offense that slumped to 13th in the NL in scoring last year and almost cost the Braves a berth in the postseason. In our simulations, he hit .301, reached base at a .401 clip, banged out 35 homers, and knocked in 109 runs. That helped Atlanta climb to 8th in the league in scoring despite mediocre production from the corner infield positions.
The hallmark of this dynasty has been a seemingly endless supply of good pitching, but the mound corps isn't nearly as deep as it was a few years ago. Gone are starters John Burkett and Odalis Perez. And with the departures of Steve Karsay, Steve Reed, and Rudy Seanez, a big chunk of their surprisingly good 2001 bullpen left town this past winter.
What's left -- anchored by Greg Maddux (14-9, 3.20), Tom Glavine (12-9. 3.79), Kevin Millwood (11-10, 3.65), and John Smoltz (36 saves) -- is still very good. Good enough, in fact, to lead the league in fewest runs allowed. Youngsters Jason Marquis and Tim Spooneybarger will be counted on to make significant contributions this year, and they are capable of doing just that. But the Braves allowed 43 more runs in our simulations than they did in the 2001 season, and they are less prepared to cope if any of their veteran stars is hurt or gets old in a hurry.
Difference makers: Andruw Jones, if he finally has that MVP-caliber offensive season we've been waiting for ... any of the big three (Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz) if they're not able to perform at a very high level ... AOL/Time Warner, if they loosen the purse strings and allow the club to add talent at the trade deadline.
Philadelphia Phillies (83-79, division title 26%, wildcard 3%)
Even though the 2000 Phillies tied the Cubs for the worst record in baseball at 65-97, our 2001 projections had them at 78 wins and on the fringe of the wildcard race. That seemed optimistic to me at the time, so I was quite surprised when the Phillies won 86 games and hung with the Braves until the final weekend.
Last spring, the virtual Phillies finished 10th in the NL in scoring, and their real-life counterparts went on to rank 9th. Little has changed. Except for the return of Mike Lieberthal, who was limited to 34 games last year by a very serious knee injury, the starting lineup is the same. Lieberthal's return will help, but the influx of good young pitching in this division makes it tough for any team to score a lot of runs, and the Phillies once again finished 10th in scoring in our simulations.
The 2001 pitching staff was a surprise. Curt Schilling and Andy Ashby had been traded away the year before and the bullpen had been rebuilt around a few guys (Ricky Bottalico, Jose Mesa, and Rheal Cormier) with spotty records. But it worked. Very well, in fact. Philadelphia allowed only 719 runs, winding up 6th in the NL in that category. With a full season from Brandon Duckworth and another year of development from Randy Wolf, this group of lesser-known hurlers shaved a few more runs off that total in our simulations.
With the teams in this division so evenly balanced, the unbalanced schedule could play a decisive role. Philadelphia's natural rival is Baltimore, so they play the Orioles six times even though their inter-league matchups are with the AL Central. Meanwhile, the Mets square off with the Yankees and the Braves could come up against Pedro Martinez a couple of times in their six dates with the Red Sox.
Difference makers: Scott Rolen, if his desire to leave town forces the club to trade him before he becomes a free agent ... any of several members of a bullpen that surprised a lot of people in 2001 and could revert to their previous (not so good) levels ... Mike Lieberthal, if he cannot be himself on a knee that was ripped apart less than a year ago.
Florida Marlins (82-80, division title 15%, wildcard 6%)
Florida was better than expected last year, and the hitters deserve most of the credit. The offense added 11 runs to its 2000 output in a year when the expanded strike zone was taking an average of 49 runs away from everyone else. That's a net gain of 60 runs relative to the rest of the league. Meanwhile, the pitching staff that gets all the ink was reducing its runs allowed by 53 runs, only four more than you'd expect if the staff didn't improve at all and the only change was the strike zone. (So much for the notion that Charles Johnson's ability to handle the young pitchers would make them a lot better.)
It was pretty much the status quo during the winter, with no major player moves in either direction. (Few of the key players have been around long enough to earn free agency rights.) With one notable exception, this team will be almost exactly the same as last year's squad. That exception is Josh Beckett, the 21-year-old pitching sensation who has rocketed through the system, dominating hitters at every level. He made four impressive starts for the Marlins last year and is penciled in for a full tour of duty this year.
With the roster so static, any improvement must come from the farm system and the continued development of the youngsters. The team did improve in our simulations, but not by much, gaining 11 runs offensively and 8 more from pitching and defense. With the addition of Beckett, I thought the pitching would be even better. The starters did improve, but the bullpen wasn't up to the same standard. Still, I won't be shocked if the Marlins win the division.
Difference makers: It's been rumored that Florida wants to deal closer Antonio Alfonseca, and if that happens, we'll have to see whether Braden Looper is ready to take over ... Cliff Floyd has played 149 games or more only twice, but we're assuming he'll be able to do it again this year; if not, the offense will suffer accordingly.
New York Mets (80-82, division title 8%, wildcard 4%)
With all the high-profile acquisitions (Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Roger Cedeno, Jeromy Burnitz), I expected a lot more from this team, and I want to spend some time exploring why they trailed both Philadelphia and Florida in our simulations.
Here are a few things I noticed about the offense:
This team will need to score more runs, and it will, but I don't see how they'll increase their output by enough, unless the addition of Vaughn and Alomar creates some mystical force that makes everyone better. That has happened so far this spring, but we'll have to wait and see whether they can sustain it when the real games start.
The pitching was good last year and looks to be just as good this year. There's been a lot of turnover -- Kevin Appier, Rick Reed, Glendon Rusch, Donne Wall, and Rick White are gone, with newcomers Pedro Astacio, Shawn Estes, Mark Guthrie, Saturo Komiyama, and Dave Weathers now on board -- but the results of our simulations were right in line with the staff's 2001 totals.
Difference makers: Jeff D'Amico, who was awesome with Milwaukee in 2000 but hasn't been able to stay healthy, was a league-average pitcher in our simulations but could be much better than that ... then again, D'Amico could get hurt again and force Bruce Chen back into the rotation ... Bobby Valentine, one of the few managers in baseball history who has consistently produced more wins than expected given the runs scored and allowed by his teams ... the front office, if it makes a deal or two to inject more offense at the CF and SS positions.
Montreal Expos (69-93, no postseason appearances)
In November, the Expos were nominated for contraction, effectively making it impossible for them to make any roster moves during the winter. Their former owner, Jeffrey Loria, sold the team to the league so he could buy the Marlins. When he took over the Florida team, he took Montreal's staff, scouting reports, and even the computers, leaving the Commissioner's office to cobble together a front office and coaching staff for the Expos at the eleventh hour. Nobody really knows how much leeway that group will be given to make personnel decisions. And nobody knows whether the Expos will be folded after the 2002 season or moved to the D.C. area.
I can't help but think of the movie "Major League". It's been a while since I've seen it, but if memory serves, the owner does everything in her power to undermine the team so nobody will object when she moves it to another city. In the face of this adversity, the team and its manager are united by an "us against the world" attitude that carries them to the pennant.
This Montreal team has enough stars and potential stars to make a serious run at the division title. When contraction was still on the table, other franchises salivated over the prospect of picking up Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro, Orlando Cabrera, Javier Vazquez, Tony Armas Jr., or Carl Pavano in a dispersal draft. The supporting cast isn't really there, assuming young guys like Peter Bergeron, Brad Wilkerson, and Michael Barrett don't suddenly blossom all at once.
But the club is now owned by Major League Baseball, which tried to eliminate it a few months ago and has created a climate where moving the team would be regarded as a great solution by fans everywhere except Montreal. Wouldn't it be great to see life imitate art? To see this group of young players, grizzled veterans (Andres Galarraga, Jose Canseco, Henry Rodriguez), and interim management personnel stick it to baseball's contraction faction by making an unlikely run at the division title?
Difference makers: Fernando Tatis, whose power disappeared when he hurt his knee and hasn't yet played in a spring game, but who could give this club a huge boost if he could return to his 1999 form (when he batted .298 with 82 walks, 34 homers, and 107 RBI) ... recently acquired Chris Truby, who takes over at third until Tatis is ready ... starting pitcher Osvaldo Fernandez, who has had some success amid an injury-plagued career and has been pitching very well this spring.
St. Louis Cardinals (90-72, division title 57%, wildcard 10%)
Based on our simulations, this is the NL team that is most likely to reach the postseason. The Cardinals may have the league's best offense -- they ranked third in scoring in our fifty seasons but trailed two teams (Colorado and Houston) who get a big boost from their home parks. And their pitching staff could challenge for the league ERA title.
Neither of these projections should come as a surprise, as St. Louis finished fourth in scoring and third in fewest runs allowed last summer, and hasn't lost any key performers since then. Yes, Mark McGwire retired, but he was coming off a disappointing year and the addition of Tino Martinez will cushion that blow to some degree. Fernando Vina, Albert Pujols, JD Drew, and Jim Edmonds should ensure that the Cardinal bring enough runners home in 2002. And if they could get some offense out of the catcher position (where they ranked last in the league a year ago), they'd really be a force.
With Matt Morris and Darryl Kile heading up the rotation again this year, and top prospect Bud Smith and mid-season pickup Woody Williams available for a full season, the starting rotation should be strong. The #5 slot is a question mark. If Rick Ankiel can somehow fix his control problems, St. Louis might run away from the field. But we assumed he would struggle for at least part of the season, so we set up the simulations with Ankiel and Garrett Stephenson (who appears to be fully recovered after missing all of 2001) splitting the starts in that slot.
The bullpen isn't really a weakness, but it's not a strength, either. The club hopes that Jason Isringhausen will provide a better answer in the closer slot, and he should be a bit better than what they had last year.
Difference makers: Ankiel, if he regains his 2000 form and does it soon ... Pujols, if he cannot come close to what he did as a rookie.
Houston Astros (87-75, division title 28%, wildcard 22%)
Because Houston plays in one of the best hitter's parks in baseball, let's take a moment to study the impact of (recently renamed) Astros Field. In its brief two-year history, the park has increased scoring by 16%. National League teams averaged 4.7 runs per game last year, so over the course of 81 home games, the park added roughly 4.7 * .16 * 81 = 61 runs for both teams.
In 2001, Houston scored 847 runs and finished second in the league in scoring. Take away the 61 runs added by Astros Field and you'd have a park-neutral total of 786 runs, or 24 runs above the league average. The pitchers allowed 769 runs, a total that ranked 10th in the league. But if you subtract 61 runs to account for the home field, that number drops to 708, or 54 runs better than the league average. So the story of the Astros successful 2001 season is one of good hitting and very good pitching, not the other way around.
In our fifty seasons, that offense remained quite good, maintaining its second-place standing with 837 runs per season, second only to the Rockies. That's a drop of 10 runs compared with their 2001 total, and that's not bad when you consider that Moises Alou (.331, 27 HR, 108 RBI last year) and Vinny Castilla (.270, 23 HR, 91 RBI in 122 games in 2001) are no longer with the team. If OF Daryl Ward and 3B prospect Morgan Ensberg can come that close to replacing those guys, the Astros will be in very good shape.
The heart of the rotation is very young and very talented -- Roy Oswalt is 24, Wade Miller 25, Tim Redding 24, and Carlos Hernandez 21. Shane Reynolds and Dave Mlicki provide a veteran presence to round out the starting corps, but they're not enough to lead the team to the division crown if the young guns struggle. As it was a year ago, the bullpen is solid, with Octavio Dotel setting up, Billy Wagner closing, and several capable middle relievers bridging the gap to those two.
Difference makers: The bullpen could be weaker than expected if Hipolito Pichardo and Doug Brocail aren't healthy enough to carry their share of the load ... if Morgan Ensberg fails to hold the 3B job, newly-acquired Geoff Blum won't supply anywhere near the 27 homers Ensberg averaged in our simulations ... we set things up with Julio Lugo as the everyday shortstop, but it wouldn't surprise me if new manager Jimy Williams chooses defense over offense and gives the job to Adam Everett; if he does, I believe that will hurt the team a little.
Chicago Cubs (81-81, division title 10%, wildcard 4%)
I know long-suffering fans are expecting a lot more than a .500 record from this team. After all, the 2001 Cubs spent more time in first place than any other team in the division and were atop the standings as late as August 17th, then faded down the stretch (26-31 after July 31st) despite the acquisition of Fred McGriff in August. And now they have Moises Alou and (according to Baseball America) the top-rated farm system in baseball.
Last year's success was built on a much-improved pitching staff led by starters Kerry Wood and Jon Lieber and a bullpen that was rebuilt around Kyle Farnsworth, Flash Gordon, Jeff Fassero and Todd Van Poppel. The staff was unable to match that strong performance in our simulations, however. Gordon is out for at least half the year with a serious shoulder injury, so Farnsworth takes over as closer. He should be fine, but that move weakens a bullpen that lost Van Poppel and Dave Weathers during the winter and failed to bring in any proven replacements.
After you get past Wood and Lieber, the rotation doesn't compare well to those of the other top NL teams. Kevin Tapani, last year's #3 starter, has retired. His spot goes to Juan Cruz, who was 3-1 with a 3.22 ERA in eight second-half starts last year. But Cruz doesn't project to do as well in 2002, partly because his so-so AA numbers (4.01 ERA, 60 walks in 121 innings) don't look as good now that we know Cruz is 23 years old, not 21.
Top draft pick Mark Prior has been described as the best college pitching prospect since Roger Clemens, and some have speculated that he'll be part of the rotation very soon. But he didn't play professionally last summer and has a 9.00 ERA so far this spring, so even if he does get that chance, it's far from clear that he'll be a major contributor right from the start. Let's not forget that Clemens had a 4.32 ERA in his rookie season, and that was after getting 130 innings of seasoning in the minors. And Cubs fans may remember that Greg Maddux was 6-14 with a 5.61 ERA in his first full season at age 21. We didn't allocate any playing time to Prior in our simulations.
Offense was the club's weakness last year, so let's see if they're better this time around. That's not so easy to figure out because a lot has changed in the past twelve months. At catcher, we set things up to give Todd Hundley the majority of the playing time, while Joe Girardi got most of that work in 2001. McGriff is on board from the start. Someone has to take over for Eric Young at second base; we gave the job to Delino DeShields over rookie Bobby Hill because DeShields projects to be the better player this year. Alex Gonzalez takes over at short. The Cubs were hoping Bill Mueller could play more than a half season this year; we assumed that he will, but he's going to start the year on the disabled list.
In the outfield, Moises Alou takes over for Rondell White in left. With Michael Tucker gone, center field is a bit of a mystery. Until a few days ago, that job was Corey Patterson's to lose, so we made him the starter. But Roosevelt Brown projects to be a better hitter, so we gave 1/3 of the starts to Brown, figuring that Patterson will lose the job at some point. In fact, he may have lost it already. In right field, of course, is Sammy Sosa.
The net result of all of these additions and subtractions is a lineup that scored an average of 779 runs in our simulations. That's an increase of 15 runs over the group that ranked 11th in the league in scoring last season. I'm certain that Chicago fans are expecting a bigger jump than that.
Difference makers: Brown, if he wins the job and keeps it all year ... Cruz, if his eight big-league starts are a better predictor than his minor league record ... Mueller, if he doesn't get over his knee problems within the first month of the season.
Cincinnati Reds (80-82, division title 6%, wildcard 7%)
It's not difficult to pick out the reasons why Cincinnati produced 50 more runs in our fifty seasons than they did in their 2001 campaign. Ken Griffey was limited to 111 games last year, and Barry Larkin to 45. Adam Dunn will be on board for the whole year. Sean Casey had an off year and should bounce back, at least a little. Pokey Reese, a brilliant defender who was a major liability at the plate, is now with Pittsburgh, and Todd Walker will play second base. Even with the loss of Dmitri Young's bat, this is a much stronger lineup.
A little more unexpected is the 54-run improvement shown by the pitching staff. Cincinnati ranked 14th in runs allowed a year and was still 13th in our simulations, so it's not exactly a top-notch group. But some of the guys who struggled last year -- Osvaldo Fernandez, Rob Bell, and Pete Harnisch -- have moved on. Scott Williamson is back after missing almost the entire season. They have some added depth from offseason pickups like Brian Bohanon, Jimmy Haynes, and Gabe White. And they still have the heart of a good bullpen with John Riedling, Scott Sullivan, and Danny Graves.
Like I said, this isn't a great pitching staff, but it should be a little better than it was last year, and with more punch from the batting order, Cincinnati could be in the hunt.
Difference makers: Joey Hamilton, who has won a rotation spot but didn't factor into our simulations because his last good year was in 1998 ... Williamson, if he eventually assumes a spot in the rotation and can handle the workload without a decline in performance ... Jose Rijo, if he can come all the way back after being out of baseball for five years ... Graves, if he's moved to the rotation; we set things up with Graves as the closer, but it seems like manager Bob Boone changes his mind every couple of days ... Dunn, if he has a sophomore slump ... Larkin, if his recent groin strain portends an ongoing struggle to stay in the lineup.
Milwaukee Brewers (73-89, wildcard 1%)
The starting lineup features three major changes from last year: Eric Young replaces Ronnie Belliard at second base, Alex Ochoa replaces Jeromy Burnitz in right field, and Jeffrey Hammonds (when healthy) takes over for Devon White in center. Of the three, only Hammonds is projected to outhit the man he replaced. Matt Stairs was signed to provide another left-handed bat, but it's not clear where or how much he will play. Aided by a return to form of LF Geoff Jenkins, the Brew Crew offense basically matched its 2001 output in our fifty seasons, leaving it in the bottom half of the league.
The pitching, however, was a little weaker in our simulations than it was in 2001, when the Brewers ranked 11th with 806 runs allowed. Despite a strong first half from Ben Sheets, the starting rotation was nothing special last year, and any improvement is going to come from one or two youngsters that still have a lot to prove. Sheets is the furthest along and has been very impressive this spring, so he's the most likely to break out. Ruben Quevedo had some success at AAA last year but has struggled at the big-league level and is struggling again this spring. Top prospect Nick Neugebauer throws very hard but is trying to come back from arthroscopic shoulder surgery and has a history of wildness. Glendon Rusch and Jamey Wright fill out the rotation, but neither of them has cracked the 4.00 ERA mark in his career.
In the bullpen, Chad Fox moves into the closer role, at least until Curtis Leskanic is back. Fox should do very well if his elbow is okay. Apart from those two, there isn't much for enemy hitters to fear once they get into the Milwaukee pen.
Difference makers: Sheets, if he does have a breakout season ... Hammonds, if he either succumbs to the injury bug and leaves the Brewers searching for a replacement, or if he stays healthy and plays at his full potential ... Alex Sanchez, who has had a great spring and could provide another option in center field.
Pittsburgh Pirates (72-90, no postseason appearances)
It was a miserable 2001 season in the Steel City, with the Pirates finishing tied with the Devil Rays for the worst record in baseball. Brian Giles and Aramis Ramirez didn't get much help in a lineup that finished 29th out of 30 teams in scoring. The injuries to Kris Benson and Francisco Cordova were major factors in the Bucs' allowing more runs than any NL team that doesn't call Coors Field home.
The virtual Pirates added 42 runs per season to their 2001 output, but with the Mets spending big bucks to upgrade that lineup, Pittsburgh is still projected to have the worst attack in the majors. The good news is that Jason Kendall should be better than he was a year ago, and a full year of Armando Rios in right field might help, though John VanderWal did a nice job out there before he was traded to San Francisco. But that won't be enough to make a big difference.
The good news is that the pitching should be much better. The expected return of Kris Benson during the first half of the season will provide a big shot in the arm. Two of the pitchers acquired from the White Sox in the Todd Ritchie deal, Sean Lowe and Kip Wells, should make solid contributions. Dave Williams will be available for the entire season. But even with these improvements and the addition of defensive wizard Pokey Reese, the Pirates will be hard-pressed to climb more than a few places in the pitching ranks.
Difference makers: You can add 3-4 wins if Craig Wilson wins the first base job and hits as well this year as he did last year; we assumed he'd share the job with Young, with Wilson getting a little less than half the available atbats. Wilson may get some time in right field, too.
San Francisco Giants (88-74, division title 45%, wildcard 9%)
Last year at this time, my task was to explain why the Giants averaged only 82 wins in our simulations a year after running away with the West division title. The real-world Giants proved to be better than our forecast, winning 90 games and staying in the race until the final weekend thanks to a pair of unexpectedly mind-blowing seasons from Barry Bonds and Rich Aurilia and a late-season pick-me-up from Andres Galarraga.
(By the way, last year's simulations projected that San Fransisco would drop to 6th in scoring and 9th in pitching last year. They actually finished 5th and 9th, respectively, but won a few more games than you'd expect given their run margin.)
Those performances, along with another strong season from Jeff Kent, masked some serious weaknesses in the rest of the batting order. With Bonds and Aurilia unlikely to be in the stratosphere again, those weaknesses will be a little more evident. The Giants did add two players, Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Reggie Sanders, during the offseason, but Shinjo is better defensively than offensively, and the value of Sanders power will be somewhat offset by his new park and a subpar batting average. Our simulations saw the Giants attack slip from 799 runs to 772, a very respectable figure that was good enough for 6th in the NL.
With Jason Schmidt on board for the entire season, another fine year from Russ Ortiz, and a deep and talented bullpen, the Giants staff ranked in the top half of the league in our fifty seasons, allowing 31 fewer runs than it did last season. The cast of characters is pretty much the same, however, so some of that decline can be attributed to the less potent offenses of two division rivals, the Dodgers and Padres.
Difference makers: Schmidt, if he doesn't soon recover from the groin strain he's been battling ... Bonds, if he drops all the way back to 50 homers; he averaged 58 in our simulations ... Kent, if his broken wrist doesn't heal soon or if there's some fallout from the mystery surrounding the cause of that injury.
Colorado Rockies (85-77, division title 24%, wildcard 8%)
Last spring, we projected a division title for them, and now we're putting them in second place only a few months after they defied our cyber-forecast and finished last in the West. What's going on here?
The 2001 Rockies outscored their opponents by 17 runs. That's normally good for 83 wins, but an 18-28 record in one-run games helped drag them down to a 73-89 record and a last-place finish. History makes it abundantly clear that such deviations don't last. The 2000 Astros, for example, were almost even in runs but finished with a 72-90 record, then roared back to tie for the division title in 2001. There are many other examples like this.
So our 85-win forecast is only two games better than the Rockies would have been in 2001 had their record reflected the runs they scored and allowed. But do they more talent now? Or less?
Even though they led the league in scoring last year, it wasn't a sign of a great offense. Coors Field increased scoring by 47% last year. Applied to 81 home games and the league average of 4.7 runs per game, that means the park inflated things by 180 runs, both for and against the home team. That brings Colorado's run total down from 923 to a park-neutral 743, a figure that would have ranked behind eight other NL teams. The pitchers allowed a league-worst 906 runs, or 726 on a park-adjusted basis, meaning that Colorado's pitching staff was actually better than average.
Our simulations indicate that Colorado's offense is better this year but that the pitching has slipped a little. Let's start with the offense. Jose Ortiz takes over at second base. He struggled with the Rockies last year, but when you factor in his minor-league production, he projects to be a better hitter than he and Todd Walker were last year. Juan Uribe was given the shortstop job at mid-season last year, and a full season from him represents an upgrade from the Neifi Perez / Uribe combination of 2001. Two former Mets, LF Benny Agbayani and 3B Todd Zeile, are also expected to boost the offense a little a their positions.
On the pitching side, the bullpen took a beating in the offseason, with Dan Miceli, Mike Myers, Jay Powell and Gabe White now wearing different uniforms. The top of the rotation is in decent shape with Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, Shawn Chacon, John Thomson, and Jason Jennings. Colorado traded Pedro Astacio for Scott Elarton last summer, but Elarton's out for the year. New arrival Pete Harnisch might be able to step in, but he has his own health concerns.
Difference makers: Jack Cust, if he's used as trade bait to acquire a top-flight pitcher ... Harnisch, who will start the season on the disabled list but could return early in the year.
Arizona Diamondbacks (84-78, division title 22%, wildcard 10%)
The defending World Series champions have spent their entire history riding a roller coaster -- last in their debut season of 1998, first in 1999, third in 2000, and first again in 2001. Our projection of a third-place finish is right in line with that pattern.
The big story is on offense, where Arizona rode Luis Gonzalez to a 3rd place finish in scoring last year but fell all the way to 11th in our fifty seasons. Here's how that happened:
On the mound, the story hasn't changed much since October. Diamondbacks still have the best one-two punch in baseball in Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. At the time we ran the simulations, Todd Stottlemyre appeared to be back, which helped with a rotation that was very shaky in the 3/4/5 slots last year. Rick Helling was signed as a free agent, but he was very inconsistent last year (that's being kind) and has really struggled this spring. Miguel Batista and Brian Anderson round out the rotation, but neither is projected to be much better than a league-average pitcher, and both have been hammered this spring.
(By the way, I've talked about some pitchers who have been getting hit hard this spring, but be careful when you look at spring training numbers. The aggregate ERA of the 20 teams that train in Florida was 4.12 through March 19th. The collective ERA of the ten Cactus League teams was 6.05. Offense has been a lot higher in Arizona than Florida for as long as I've been tracking such things, and it's no reflection on the quality of the pitchers. Or the hitters, for that matter.)
The bullpen looks a little iffy again this year. Mike Myers gives them a valuable new weapon against lefties, but former closer Matt Mantei won't return for at least a few months and Byung-Hyun Kim has to prove that he won't be affected by the saves he blew in the World Series.
Difference makers: Erubiel Durazo, who could win the right field job and produce even more than Sanders did last year ... Stottlemyre, if the shoulder soreness he experienced this week turns out to be serious.
Los Angeles Dodgers (79-83, division title 4%, wildcard 5%)
LA finished 8th in runs for and against last year, which would indicate a very average team if not for the fact that they play their home games in one of baseball's best pitcher's parks. The offense was actually one of the best in the league. And the park obscured a very disappointing performance by the pitching staff.
With the departure of Gary Sheffield, however, the Dodgers will have a lot more trouble scoring runs. Brian Jordan is a better defender but nowhere near the hitter that Sheffield is. First baseman Eric Karros should bounce back, but even if he does, he won't be among the top producers at his position. And LA doesn't currently have legitimate bats in the middle of the diamond. Jordan may play center, which would make that position look a little stronger, but not strong enough to make this a championship-caliber lineup.
The pitching staff has been entirely rebuilt, one way or another, and if our simulations are any indication, it's better. Staff ace Kevin Brown returns after making only 19 starts in 2001. Andy Ashby is also back; he started only two games last year. Kazuhisa Ishii may become the latest sensation to cross the Pacific Ocean; his Japanese league stats project quite well here, and he was 10-10 with a 3.60 ERA in our simulations. (I hope it works out that way, since I just drafted him for my ESPN Fantasy Baseball team.) Hideo Nomo was signed as a free agent, and either Omar Daal or Odalis Perez should provide some good innings out of the #5 spot. All things considered, they shouldn't miss Chan Ho Park too much.
For the bullpen, the Dodgers traded for Mike Trombley last August and for Paul Quantrill during the winter. They'll add some depth, but the closer situation is still up in the air with Jeff Shaw's departure.
Difference makers: Ishii has struggled this spring and may not be able to contribute as much in real-life as he did in our simulations. With Eric Gagne and Terry Mulholland ready to step in, however, the team's chances won't suffer much if Ishii cannot do the job ... so far this spring, Eric Karros hasn't shown that he has fully recovered from his back problems.
San Diego Padres (77-85, division title 5%, wildcard 2%)
It's a bit of a long shot, but San Diego could be right in the thick of the race if things go their way.
The offense is a question mark. They impressed in 2001, rising to 6th in scoring after finishing 12th the year before. Last year's results are a little suspect, however -- the Padres were 13th in batting average and 12th in slugging but managed to squeeze a lot more runs out of their hits and walks than most teams do. The one thing they did really well was work the count. In fact, they led the majors in walks by a healthy margin.
But 81 of those walks are now in Boston in the person of Rickey Henderson, and I'd be very surprised if San Diego has as much success converting scoring chances this time around. The lineup features some very good hitters -- Phil Nevin, Ryan Klesko, and Ray Lankford -- who are even better than they look because Qualcomm Stadium is one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball. But even with the addition of top prospect Sean Burroughs, the batting order isn't very deep.
The pitching staff finished in the middle of the pack in runs allowed in our fifty seasons, which isn't all that good considering the park. Overall, the starting rotation is OK but nothing special, especially with Adam Eaton out for the year after Tommy John surgery. Brian Lawrence made a promising debut last year and should be interesting to watch. In the bullpen, Steve Reed adds depth, but with lefty setup man Kevin Walker out for at least half the season, closer Trevor Hoffman won't get as much help as he needs.
Difference makers: Pete Incaviglia, I suppose, if he can make a miraculous comeback after all these years ... two pitching prospects, Jake Peavy and Dennis Tankersley, could contribute later in the year.
I said it a year ago and I'll say it again. This could be one of the more interesting seasons we've seen in a long time. The American League could give us a couple of terrific divisional races, and even if it doesn't, we'll have a chance to see some very strong teams jockey for postseason position. The National League looks like a free-for-all.
In recent years, it has become popular to argue that we need major structural changes in baseball because too many teams go into the season knowing they have no chance to win. I don't think you can say that this year. By our reckoning, 24 of the 30 teams have a chance to reach the postseason. Some have much better odds than others, of course, and I'm not trying to say that market size and payrolls don't matter. They do, and I'm fully aware that some fans are going to have a very hard time getting excited about the 2002 season because their hometown teams are going nowhere and are unable to generate the local TV and radio revenue they need to turn things around quickly.
But the six teams that are out of the race before it starts have one thing in common: a recent history of bad management. No matter how the system is set up, baseball is a very competitive environment. There are only so many wins to go around, and if one team wins more than their share, somebody else has to lose. If one management team is especially astute, another management team is going to be lagging when it comes to scouting, drafting, developing players, handling the payroll, and making deals. Because those decisions have long-lasting effects, it takes time to fix a team that has gone astray for a few years. So we're never going to have a season where every team has an equal chance going in.
I believe most informed people would agree that some structural changes in the baseball system are necessary, even if it seems unlikely that the decision makers will soon agree on what those changes should be. But after an offseason where those issues dominated the headlines, I'm ready to focus on the action on the field, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how the season plays out.
If you pick up the schedule for any team and go through each series, how many times are you going to think "easy win"? Not very often, especially in the National League. Chances are the other team will be contending for a division lead or a wildcard spot.
And even if the visiting team is one of the few non-contenders, there's probably something worth going to the park to see. Montreal's coming to town? Sure, I'd love to see Guerrero and Vidro, and maybe Vazquez, Armas or Pavano is pitching tonight. Milwaukee? Perhaps Sheets or Neugebauer will be starting, and Geoff Jenkins will probably be in left. Pittsburgh has Giles, Ramirez, Kendall, Benson and a new stadium that I haven't visited yet.
Admittedly, I'm saying this as someone who has become more of a fan of the game than any one particular team. It's always more fun to listen to the radio and read the papers when the hometown team is doing well, but my ability to enjoy the season is no longer tied to the success of a favorite team. (Believe me, it used to be.) So if things aren't going well locally, I can get a lot of pleasure out of following other teams around the league.
For me, the only negative scenario is one where the season doesn't seem to matter because we pretty much know who's going to be there in the end. To some degree, that was true in the second half of the 1990s, when the Yankees, Braves, and Indians were always heavy favorites. But it was more true in the so-called glory days of baseball, when the Yankees would win almost all the time, the same teams finished at or near the bottom every year, and the poorer teams routinely sold their best players to the richer ones.
On the contrary, this should be a highly competitive and interesting season. Sure, it would have been even more interesting had the Yankees not spent all that money, but a number of other clubs are capable of winning the World Series, too. So instead of complaining about George, I'll be busy following the other races, monitoring the progress of a host of good young players, and trying to decide which games to watch on satellite each day. The 2001 season was fabulous, and I won't be at all surprised if 2002 proves to be at least as much fun.