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Projected Standings for the 2003 Season
By Tom Tippett
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 2003 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 JD Drew) 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 nor 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 Expos 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 Twins, or the 2002 Angels. 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 Kevin Brown and Ken Griffey will bounce back to their peak levels, whether young phenoms like Mark Teixeira will live up to all the hype right away, which general managers will alter the competitive balance through trades or salary-driven personnel decisions, or whether someone will make like Albert Pujols in 2001 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 2003 season unfolds.
Projected final standings
Here are the projected final standings, based on the fifty seasons we simulated on March 21st:
AL East W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC New York 104 58 .642 - 940 681 31.5 14.0 Boston 101 61 .623 3 905 664 18.0 26.5 Toronto 81 81 .500 23 821 827 .5 1.0 Baltimore 72 90 .444 32 692 791 Tampa Bay 54 108 .333 50 660 961 AL Central W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC Minnesota 90 72 .556 - 810 715 33.0 Chicago 86 76 .531 4 836 790 17.0 Cleveland 73 89 .451 17 792 851 Kansas City 70 92 .432 20 769 899 Detroit 56 106 .346 34 689 958 AL West W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC Oakland 95 67 .586 - 813 675 28.0 1.5 Seattle 91 71 .562 4 778 682 11.5 3.0 Anaheim 91 71 .562 4 783 677 10.5 4.0 Texas 73 89 .451 22 782 871 NL East W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC Philadelphia 91 71 .562 - 810 702 31.0 5.3 Atlanta 86 76 .531 5 756 720 14.5 2.5 Montreal 78 84 .481 13 718 767 2.5 2.8 Florida 76 86 .469 15 690 726 2.0 1.0 New York 74 88 .457 17 683 743 NL Central W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC St. Louis 89 73 .549 - 792 730 26.5 4.8 Houston 86 76 .531 3 799 752 15.5 4.5 Chicago 81 81 .500 8 727 717 7.0 3.5 Cincinnati 77 85 .475 12 753 790 1.0 Pittsburgh 71 91 .438 18 700 805 Milwaukee 65 97 .401 24 658 812 NL West W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC San Francisco 90 72 .556 - 789 693 22.0 4.5 Arizona 89 73 .549 1 739 662 21.0 8.3 Colorado 86 76 .531 4 907 852 4.0 9.5 Los Angeles 82 80 .506 8 692 687 2.0 3.2 San Diego 72 90 .444 18 657 740 1.0
In the American League, the gap between the haves and the have-nots appears to be wider than usual. Six of the fourteen teams were completely shut out, failing to qualify for the postseason in any of our fifty simulations. Texas has some talent but must contend with three strong division rivals. Cleveland's rebuilding program looks very promising but isn't quite ready to bear fruit. The other four teams aren't close to being competitive.
That said, because baseball doesn't sell out the regular season by allowing half its teams to make the playoffs, we could still see some terrific races that carry great import. The Yankees are the team to beat in the East, especially with the additions of Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras, but Boston is deeper offensively and in the bullpen, and should be able to push New York for much or all of the season. Statistically, there wasn't much difference between the Twins and White Sox last year (both outscored their opponents by about 60 runs) and both clubs can make a case that they're better now, so this race could go either way. The West gave us a great three-way battle last year, and all three teams are poised to contend in 2003.
The National League isn't quite as bunched as it appeared to be last spring, but with 13 of 16 teams qualifying for postseason play at least once in our fifty seasons, it's clear that just about anything can happen when the season is played for real. It wouldn't take much -- a few injuries, a few breaks, a couple of young phenoms taking the league by storm, some key trades -- to flip the standings on their heads.
Two of our simulations produced three-way ties for the wildcard. On ten occasions, two teams tied for first in a division. Thirty-percent of the division races were decided by two games or less, with many of these battles coming down to the final weekend or the final day. In one simulated season, only four games separated the five teams in the East. Only the Phillies showed the ability to run away and hide on a regular basis, winning the East by ten games or more in 11 of 50 tries.
In the NL, the wildcard could come from anywhere -- the East division took it in 23% of our seasons, the Central 26%, and the West 51%. In the AL, it seems unlikely that the wildcard will come out of the Central division, but if either the Yankees or Red Sox fall well short of expectations, the Central runner-up could indeed be in that race.
The impact of inter-league play
A significant factor for 2003 is the slate of inter-league games on the schedule for each team. The following table ranks the inter-league schedule for each AL team based on the 2002 winning percentage and number of games against each opponent. Every inter-league series is three games long, but some natural rivals meet twice. As you can see, the schedule hurts KC and Oakland and helps Minnesota and Boston:
Team WPct Opponents ## ---------------- ---- ------------------------ -- Kansas City .569 StL StL Ari Col LA SF 18 Oakland .551 SF SF Atl Flo Mon Phi 18 Texas .523 Hou Hou Atl Flo Mon NY 18 Anaheim .517 LA LA Flo Mon NY Phi 18 Detroit .512 Col Col Ari LA SD SF 18 Baltimore .501 Atl Phi Chi Hou Mil StL 18 Chicago .500 Chi Chi Ari LA SD SF 18 Tampa Bay .497 Atl Flo Chi Cin Hou Pit 18 Toronto .494 Mon Mon Chi Cin Pit StL 18 Cleveland .493 Cin Pit Ari Col LA SD 18 New York .491 NY NY Chi Cin Hou StL 18 Seattle .487 SD SD Atl Mon NY Phi 18 Boston .483 Flo Phi Hou Mil Pit StL 18 Minnesota .458 Mil Mil Ari Col SD SF 18
In the National League, this could play a meaningful role in the East, where Philly and New York have especially tough schedules, and the West, where Arizona and Colorado should have a much easier time:
Team WPct Opponents ## ---------------- ---- ------------------------ -- New York .582 NY NY Ana Sea Tex 15 Philadelphia .562 Bal Bos Ana Oak Sea 15 Milwaukee .539 Min Min Bal Bos 12 Montreal .538 Tor Tor Ana Oak Sea Tex 18 Florida .521 Bos Tam Ana Oak Tex 15 San Francisco .514 Oak Oak Chi Det KC Min 18 San Diego .505 Sea Sea Chi Cle Det Min 18 Los Angeles .484 Ana Ana Chi Cle Det KC 18 Atlanta .482 Bal Tam Oak Sea Tex 15 Chicago .480 Chi Chi Bal NY Tam Tor 18 Cincinnati .480 NY Tam Tor Cle 12 St. Louis .479 KC KC Bal Bos NY Tor 18 Houston .476 Tex Tex Bal Bos NY Tam 18 Pittsburgh .464 Bos Tam Tor Cle 12 Arizona .453 Chi Cle Det KC Min 15 Colorado .422 Det Det Cle KC Min 15
In this section, statistics refer to the average performance of a player in these fifty simulated seasons unless otherwise noted. Along with my comments about each team, I'll list one or more "difference makers". These are players or other factors that might cause the team to perform better or worse than they did in our simulations.
David Cone is a good example. He's coming out of retirement after being somewhat less than effective in his final two seasons. He doesn't project to be an asset to his team, but if the time off allows him to find some of that old magic, it could make a big difference in the outlook for the Mets.
In the following comments, we'll make frequent references to two articles that we published over the winter. Our position rankings article identified the offensive strengths and weaknesses of each team based on the OPS compiled by players at each defensive position during the 2002 season. Our team efficiency article compared the statistical output of each team (both on offense and defense) to the runs it was able to generate/prevent and to its win-loss record, pointing out certain teams that did more with less, and vice versa.
New York Yankees (104-58, division title 63%, wildcard 28%)
The offense that led the AL in scoring in 2002 looks to do the same this year. The Yankees were below average offensively at only two positions last year, left and right, and the addition of Hideki Matsui (who averaged 34 HR, 113 RBI, and a .954 OPS in our 50 seasons) should plug one of those holes quite nicely.
Much has been written about the surplus of starting pitcher candidates on this roster. If everyone is healthy, Joe Torre will have to make a tough decision, but it's the kind of tough decision that managers love. Someone may be unhappy about being sent to the bullpen, but this is a winning team with a proven ability to keep egos under control, and few teams are able to make it through a 162-game schedule without turning to its #6 and #7 starters at some point.
The bullpen is a little thin, and the bench even more so. But those are problems that can be fixed quickly enough if the team is willing to spend some money. And is there any doubt that the Yankees are willing to spend money whenever they feel the least bit threatened by the Red Sox?
Difference makers: After running the simulations, we learned that Mariano Rivera is likely to miss a good chunk of April with a groin pull ... age could catch up with a few guys all at once.
Boston Red Sox (101-61, division title 36%, wildcard 53%)
Here's a team that (a) finished second in scoring last year and then loaded up on offensive players, (b) allowed the third-fewest runs in the league in 2002 and rebuilt a weak bullpen in the offseason, (c) plans to challenge conventional wisdom by doing away with a designated closer, and (d) has the most interesting blend of veteran baseball minds and young analysts I've ever seen in a baseball front office. No matter what happens, it'll be fun to watch.
The 2002 Red Sox were weak at only two positions: first base, where Tony Clark and company were last in the AL in OPS, and second base, where defensive specialist Rey Sanchez batted .286 but didn't supply any walks in support of all those singles. The additions of Todd Walker, Bill Mueller, and a posse of first basemen should bring these positions up to the league average or better, making for a very potent lineup from one through nine.
Some say the Sox have sacrificed too much defense with the departures of Clark and Sanchez. The right side of the infield could indeed be a problem -- none of the first base candidates are known for their gloves and Todd Walker is sure-handed but average-to-below-average in range at second. On the other hand, Mueller should be an upgrade over Shea Hillenbrand at third, Hillenbrand may play some at first and could help solve that problem, Johnny Damon was bothered by a knee injury during the second half and could be even better in center this year, and Manny Ramirez can cover more ground if he feels he can go all out without risking another hamstring pull.
In our fifty seasons, Pedro Martinez was spectacular, averaging 20 wins, 281 strikeouts, and a 2.28 ERA. Even though Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield were unable to match what they did last year, they were good enough to give the Sox a formidable top three in the rotation. All they need out of their #4 and #5 starters is an ERA around the league average, and this will be a very good rotation.
The plan for the bullpen is to focus on matchups, using the most suitable reliever to put out fires anytime there's a threat in the later innings. If this means using their best reliever in the 7th inning, so be it. If it means more two-inning saves, so be it. This is very reminiscent of how relievers were used twenty or thirty years ago, and I think there's a lot to be said for running a bullpen this way. Will they stick with the plan? Who knows, but even if they revert to the more rigid approach of the past twenty years, there's still more talent and more depth in this pen than there was last year.
Difference makers: Pedro, if he's not the same dominant pitcher we've seen since 1997 ... Shea Hillenbrand, if he is traded and can bring a top player in return, or if he stays and plays a significant role ... Casey Fossum, if his horrible spring carries over into the season.
Toronto Blue Jays (81-81, division title 1%, wild card 2%)
The 2002 Blue Jays had one of the league's better offenses, and 2003 should bring more of the same. The heart of that lineup (Carlos Delgado, Eric Hinske, Josh Phelps, Shannon Stewart, and Vernon Wells) is still in place, and could be better with newcomer Frank Catalanotto and a full season from Orlando Hudson.
Aside from Roy Halladay, who has gone 24-10 with a 3.00 ERA in his last 50 starts, the pitching is a much bigger question mark. Chris Carpenter was released after missing most of the season with arm problems, so the club is counting on journeymen like Corey Lidle, Tanyon Sturtze, and Pete Walker to hold the fort until their youngsters are ready to step in. Closer Kelvim Escobar was anything but a sure thing last year, and Cliff Politte may have that job before long.
Difference makers: Mike Bordick, I suppose, if he teaches his younger teammates how to play better infield defense ... the farm system, ranked #6 by Baseball America, though 2003 may be too soon to expect a lot of help from below.
Baltimore Orioles (72-90, no postseason appearances)
A year ago, we projected the Orioles for a 66-96 record and a 4th-place finish. As the sun rose over Camden Yard on the morning of August 24th, Baltimore had a record of 63-63 and appeared to be on track to become the biggest overachievers of the year. I remember thinking "they'd have to go 3-33 the rest of the way to match our projection, and that won't happen."
Although I didn't expect them to continue playing .500 ball, I was very surprised by the magnitude of their ensuing collapse. It started with a ten-game losing streak. A single win was followed by another eight-game losing streak, making it 18 losses in 19 outings. After a flurry of 3 wins in 5 games, the O's dropped their last 12 games of the season. And these weren't heartbreakers, either. Baltimore averaged less than two runs per game and were outscored 189-61 in those 32 losses. In the end, they finished only a single game ahead of our projection.
During the winter, the team didn't lose any important players, and they shored up their starting rotation with the additions of Omar Daal and Rick Helling. So there's reason to believe they'll be a little better in 2003. But with an offense that will struggle to score enough runs and a farm system that is ranked dead last by Baseball America, it's going to be a while before Baltimore returns to its glory days.
Difference makers: Pat Hentgen, if he has recovered fully from Tommy John surgery and can win a spot in the rotation.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays (54-108, no postseason appearances)
Lou Piniella has his work cut out for him. For the third year in a row, the Devil Rays are projected to have the worst record in baseball. In 2001 and 2002, they lived down to those expectations. This time, they have the dubious distinction of posting the worst record we've ever seen since we began running these preseason simulations in 1998.
An important idea in baseball analysis is the "replacement-level player". This is the type of player you can find during the season -- someone you can call up from the farm, sign out of an independent league, or claim off waivers. Most are not expected to be average major-leaguers, because if they were, they wouldn't be available.
Some analysts have estimated that a team comprised entirely of replacement-level players would have a winning percentage in the vicinity of .333 to .350. That estimate is based on the first-year records of expansion teams, particularly those that entered baseball in the pre-free-agent era.
By projecting Tampa Bay for a .333 winning percentage, we're saying this is a replacement-level team. A few young players (Aubrey Huff, Toby Hall, Joe Kennedy) have shown that they can compete at the major-league level. But most of the roster is made up of marginal veterans or youngsters who are still cutting their teeth at this level. According to Sports Weekly, 21 of the 25 players expected to be on the opening day roster are making the minimum or close to it. Several superstars will earn more this year than Tampa Bay's active roster.
This team could be very good some day, but not this year.
Difference makers: Nick Bierbrodt, if he can find the strike zone on a regular basis.
Minnesota Twins (90-72, division title 66%)
It's not often that you can say this about a club with a relatively small payroll, but this team is very deep. With the recent addition of Kenny Rogers, the Twins have more quality starting pitchers than anyone outside Yankee Stadium. They'll start the season with Brad Radke, Joe Mays, Rick Reed, Kyle Lohse, and Rogers. If anyone gets hurt, Johan Santana is ready to step in. And, lest we forget, Eric Milton might be ready for the stretch run. Backed by one of the league's top defenses, this staff will ensure that the team is competitive night in and night out.
Offense was a problem at times last year, mainly because all of their infielders had subpar seasons, but should be an asset in 2003. In our simulations, Minnesota averaged 810 runs, enough to move them up from 9th to 6th in the league in scoring. Their farm system is stocked with hitters at the 1B/LF/RF/DH positions, they could move Jacque Jones to CF if necessary, and they have Chris Gomez as insurance at the middle infield positions.
In short, the Twins should be very good if they stay healthy and shouldn't suffer much even if some starters go down for a while. That's part of the reason why they won their division more often than any other team in our fifty seasons.
Difference makers: Any of the infielders, if they bounce back to their previous peak levels ... the bullpen, if it's not able to match its surprising 2002 showing.
Chicago White Sox (86-76, division title 34%)
Statistically, the White Sox were the equal of the Twins last year, but were far less successful in turning their accomplishments into wins. In 2002, Chicago outscored its opponents by 58 runs, Minnesota by 56. The White Sox offense produced 3028 bases worth of hits and walks, 117 more than the Twins. Surprisingly, Chicago's pitchers and defense allowed only 50 more bases on hits and walks than their much-hyped rivals. Combine those offensive and defensive totals and you get an edge of 67 bases in favor of Chicago.
Two teams that close would normally be expected to battle to the wire for the division title, but Minnesota converted far more of its opportunities. The Twins were 29-16 in one-run games, the Sox 15-21, and it wasn't much of a race after all.
Offense won't be a problem. Chicago was third in scoring in 2002 and held onto that spot in our simulations, adding 22 runs in the process. And there's a good chance they could be even better than that because Frank Thomas, Paul Konerko, and Carlos Lee are more likely to improve on their projections than fall short.
Even with the addition of Bartolo Colon, pitching is the concern. A league-average pitching staff would be enough to make them serious contenders for the division title, but to do that, someone like Jon Garland, Esteban Loaiza, Jon Rauch, or Dan Wright (currently on the DL) needs to take a big step forward to back up Colon and Mark Buehrle.
Difference makers: Based on our projections, Olivo deserves the starting catcher job, but we gave half the playing time to Sandy Alomar because he was named the starter; if Olivo wins the job sooner, rather than later, this could be a boost.
Cleveland Indians (73-89, no postseason appearances)
When you're the GM of a team that has been very good for a lot of years, it's not easy to decide when to let go of the stars who brought that success. Pull the trigger too soon and you risk alienating your fans and squandering one last chance to win it all. Hold on too long and you could wind up with a bunch of bad contracts and a long, painful rebuilding period.
I'm impressed with the way the Indians have retooled. By trading veterans (Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley, Paul Shuey) for prospects and resisting the temptation to commit huge dollars to free agents like Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, Cleveland has created a pool of young talent that Baseball America ranks as the best in baseball and enough payroll flexibility to keep that group together for many years.
They could be serious contenders as early as 2004, and if they are, that's quite an achievement. Cleveland won the division in 2001, and if the rebuilding period is indeed only two years, and if things never get any worse than the 74 wins they put up last year or the 73 we're projecting for them this year, that's not bad. And even if the team isn't in the hunt this year, it'll be fun to watch these kids develop.
Despite the loss of Jim Thome's thundering bat, the Indians were right around the league average in scoring in our simulations. In a good example of addition by subtraction, that represents an improvement of 53 runs over their 2002 total. Last year, the Tribe had little to show for the 1700+ atbats they gave to Travis Fryman, Einar Diaz, John McDonald, Chris Magruder, Russell Branyan, Bill Selby, and Lee Stevens. This year, Travis Hafner and Karim Garcia are projected to replace much of Thome's production, with youngsters Brandon Phillips, Josh Bard, Victor Martinez, and Ben Broussard expected to upgrade other parts of the lineup.
The process of rebuilding the pitching staff isn't as far along, however. C.C. Sabathia is the only established presence in the rotation, and he's only 22 years old. Behind him are unproven prospects (Ricardo Rodriguez, Jason Davis) and a couple of veterans with spotty track records (Brian Anderson, Jason Bere). Bere has had a pretty good spring, so there may be reason for optimism there, but Anderson has been hit very hard and not much has been done to shore up a bullpen that had the third-worst ERA in the league last year.
Difference makers: Victor Martinez, if his bat is everything it's expected to be and if his defensive skills are good enough to earn him an early shot at the starting catcher job ... these results assume their youngsters make a smooth transition to big-league competition, so they could fall short of 73 wins if some of them struggle for a while ... John Sickels has five Indians on his list of the top 50 pitching prospects, so pitching help may not be too far away.
Kansas City Royals (70-92, no postseason appearances)
The Royals won 62 games last year thanks to an offense that ranked 11th in runs and a pitching staff that allowed more runs than everyone but the Devil Rays. Because Kaufman Stadium has been very good to hitters lately -- increasing runs by 29% last year and by 18% over the past three years -- these rankings make the hitters seem a little better and the pitchers seem a little worse than they really are. But no matter how you look at it, they weren't good then and they haven't done much to get better in the meantime. In our simulations, the virtual Royals replicated their 2002 rankings: 11th in runs and 13th in runs allowed.
Some non-performers from last year's squad are gone. Neifi Perez, Chuck Knoblauch, and Luis Alicea posted a collective OPS under .600 while consuming over 1000 atbats. (In a great park for hitters.) Time will tell whether Carlos Febles and Angel Berroa can do better in the middle infield, but they can hardly do much worse. They'll miss the 228 innings and 17 wins Paul Byrd gave them last year, but they won't miss many of the other pitchers who have departed the scene.
Difference makers: Carlos Beltran and Mike Sweeney could be the next star-quality players to be traded, and if either or both of them are dealt, KC could challenge Detroit for the basement in this division.
Detroit Tigers (56-106, no postseason appearances)
In our December article on Team Efficiency, we evaluated each team's performance in 2002 by computing total bases and walks produced and allowed by each team. The Tigers and Devil Rays looked so awful -- each allowing almost 600 total bases and walks more than they produced -- that we decided to run the same numbers for every year since 1974. (We'd have gone back further, but the official stats don't include doubles and triples allowed by pitchers.)
Sadly, the 2002 Tigers were the fifth-worst team in that entire 29-year period, trailing only the 1996 Tigers, the 1979 A's (badly neglected by their colorful owner, Charlie Finley), the 1998 Marlins (taken apart after winning the World Series in 1997), and the 1974 Padres (an expansion team in its sixth year). In that time, baseball has added six teams, and all of them were better than last year's Tigers.
There are some interesting players on this team. Carlos Pena, Bobby Higginson, Dmitri Young, Eric Munson, and Dean Palmer (maybe) can swing the bat at least a little. Mike Maroth and Jeremy Bonderman are notable members of a young starting rotation that has some promise for the future. But there are too many holes to fill and too many young players who are either being moved very fast (Bonderman was in A ball in 2002) or didn't stand out in the minors.
Difference makers: We ran the simulations with Damian Easley as the everyday 2B, but new manager Alan Trammell has chosen to move Ramon Santiago from short to second and go with Omar Infante at short; that should help the defense while sacrificing very little at the plate ... if Dean Palmer is healthy and can rejoin the 30-homer club, it would help an offense that finished 13th in scoring in our simulations even with the help of a much shorter left field power alley.
Oakland Athletics (95-67, division title 56%, wildcard 3%)
A year ago, we surprised a lot of people by projecting the A's to win this division despite losing Jason Giambi to the Yankees via free agency and going up against a Seattle team that was coming off a 116-win season. For much of the year, this appeared to be an optimistic view. Not only did they spend the first four-and-a-half months looking up at Seattle, the upstart Angels had pushed the A's into third place. Then came the amazing 20-game winning streak that propelled them to the top. Anaheim had an amazing streak of its own (16 of 17) to catch Oakland on September 12th, but the A's retook the lead and hung on to win the division.
Their success in close games was a huge part of that story. A 32-14 record in one-run games glossed over an offense that suffered from the loss of Giambi's bat, Carlos Pena's inconsistent start and subsequent trade, and Jermaine Dye's slow recovery from a broken leg. The pitching was every bit as good as advertised -- they led the league in our simulations last spring and did the same in the real 2002 season.
The formula hasn't changed. In this year's simulations, the pitching remained very strong (2nd in fewest runs allowed) and the offense improved a tad, thanks to the acquisition of Erubiel Durazo, who batted only .257 in our simulations but contributed over 100 walks and 37 homers per season. The offense would have been even better if not for the decision to start Chris Singleton in center and move Terrence Long to left, a move that sacrifices offense to improve the defense at both positions.
Difference makers: Durazo, if he gets hurt as often as he did in Arizona ... Scott Hatteberg, if last year's offensive surge was a fluke rather than the natural result of getting him out from behind the plate ... Miguel Tejada, if there are any repercussions from the club's announcement that they won't try to sign him to a new contract.
Seattle Mariners (91-71, division title 23%, wildcard 6%)
A year ago, our task was to explain why the Mariners were projected to finish behind the A's after winning 116 games the year before. A drop of 25 games is no small matter, so we devoted the better part of a page to all the reasons why their 2001 success would be difficult to repeat -- age, an unusual collection of career years coupled with excellent clutch hitting and very good health in 2001, Jeff Cirillo replacing David Bell, and improved competition within the division.
As it turned out, Seattle led the division for three-quarters of the season, and it appeared that our forecast would prove to be on the pessimistic side. Then Oakland went into overdrive, and like a stock car drafting the leader at Daytona, Anaheim went right with them. In no time the Mariners were in third place, and that's where they finished despite an impressive 93-69 record.
Seattle led the AL with 927 runs in 2001 but fell to 814 runs and 6th place last year. That didn't come as a surprise; they dropped even further in our simulations last spring. This year, their projected run total dropped again; at 778 runs, they were a dozen below the league average. The offense is actually a little better than average, but their home park is great for pitchers, so their numbers suffer accordingly.
Age is the biggest culprit for the second year in a row. Jeff Cirillo is 33, Edgar Martinez is 40, Mark McLemore is 38, John Olerud is 34, and so are Bret Boone and Dan Wilson. The age adjustment in our system is small, but when it applies to so many players, it can add up.
The pitching was good last year and should be good again in 2003, thanks in part to a terrific defense. The starting rotation is led by Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, and Joel Pineiro. The back end of the rotation doesn't inspire as much confidence, but Gil Meche and Ryan Franklin shouldn't be any worse than James Baldwin, John Halama and company were last year, and they could be a lot better.
Difference makers: Meche, who's off to a good start this spring, if he can stay healthy ... if Ichiro can bounce back to his 2001 level, he could provide a major spark for the offense.
Anaheim Angels (91-71, division title 21%, wildcard 8%)
Because they play in one of baseball's toughest divisions, it won't be easy for the defending World Series champs to make it back to the postseason, let alone go all the way a second time.
I can't remember the last time a team made so few changes from one year to the next. The good news is that it's a young group that plays well together, and young players tend to get better. On the other hand, their rivals are trying to raise the bar by making some changes of their own.
A huge part of Anaheim's success in 2002 was efficiency. They were the best in baseball in converting hits and walks into runs and second (behind the Braves) at preventing their opponents from doing the same. Historically, teams like this have been unable to repeat that magic the next year. Recent examples include the 2001 White Sox and the 2002 Mariners, both of whom saw their output drop by more than 100 runs after being exceptionally efficient the year before. Anaheim's performance in our fifty simulations is consistent with the view that their efficiency will be closer to normal this time around.
Difference makers: Darin Erstad and Troy Glaus, if they can rebound from subpar seasons ... Francisco Rodriguez, who was so impressive in the postseason, if he can sustain that level of performance over a full season.
Texas Rangers (73-89, no postseason appearances)
In 2002, much was said and written about the Rangers' pitching woes -- Chan Ho Park was anything but an ace, several key relievers got hurt, and a number of blown leads turned what might have been a good start into a deep hole. But it wasn't just the pitching. The offense was very good but not the powerhouse it was expected to be, thanks to off years from Carl Everett and Juan Gonzalez, a less-than-stellar debut by Hank Blalock, and injuries that limited Ivan Rodriguez to 108 games. Still, they had some good moments, including a 13-5 stretch that brought them within a game of .500 in May and a four-game sweep of the Mariners in September.
Unfortunately for Texas fans, the offseason action appears to have weakened the team. Their decision not to invest millions in Pudge's knees may turn out to be prudent in the long run, but Einar Diaz isn't going to come close to providing the offense the Rangers had become accustomed to from the catcher position. New CF Doug Glanville has had only one good offensive season in the last five years, and that was in 1999. Blalock should be better, and they might get some help from Mark Teixeira, but this is no longer an offensive machine.
The return of Ismael Valdes and the additions of John Thomson and Ugueth Urbina should help the pitching a little, but Kenny Rogers won't be back, Park has been roughed up again this spring, and the staff won't get much help from one of the league's poorer defensive outfields.
Difference makers: Teixeira, if he's a stud and gets a meaningful chance to show it ... any of their young pitchers (Colby Lewis, Joaquin Benoit, Ryan Drese, Ben Kozlowski) if they take a big step up this year.
Philadelphia Phillies (91-71, division title 62%, wildcard 11%)
This is the first time a team other than the Braves has come out on top of our preseason simulations, but this is hardly a surprise after an offseason that saw Atlanta cut payroll while the Phillies opened their wallets in a big way.
In a good example of addition by addition and subtraction, Philadelphia traded for Kevin Millwood, adding a top-flight starter to an already-strong rotation and weakening their main rival at the same time. Believe it or not, Philly allowed fewer runs in our simulations than did the Braves, something that would have been unthinkable a year ago.
The staff is an interesting mix of young starters and old relievers. The rotation of Millwood, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla, Brandon Duckworth, and Brett Myers ranges in age from 22 (Myers) to 28 (Millwood). In contrast, the relief corps is comprised of a bunch of 30-somethings (Jose Mesa, Rheal Cormier, Turk Wendell, and others) and one 40-something (Dan Plesac).
The biggest difference from a year ago is on offense. The addition of Jim Thome is huge; his bat would be welcome anywhere, but especially so on this team, which ranked 14th in the league in offensive production at first base last year. In our simulations, Thome averaged 48 homers and 122 RBI while posting an on-base percentage well north of .400. David Bell won't replace all of Scott Rolen's offense at third, but Marlon Byrd projects to be a significant upgrade over Doug Glanville in center field. Put it all together and you've got a lineup that averaged 100 more runs in our simulations than it did in the 2002 season, propelling the Phillies to the #2 spot in the league scoring rankings.
Difference makers: Injuries to those older relievers could seriously undermine the bullpen ... Byrd, if he fails to make a smooth transition to the big leagues ... manager Larry Bowa, if this young squad has trouble coping with his intensity ... new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who has had a very good track record in Montreal and Boston.
Atlanta Braves (86-76, division title 29%, wildcard 5%)
It's no longer a foregone conclusion that Atlanta will lead the league in pitching. Two of their top three starters are gone, Tom Glavine to New York via free agency and Kevin Millwood to the Phillies in a trade. In their place are two guys who could be very good but cannot be considered sure things: Paul Byrd, a 32-year-old with only two 30-start seasons under his belt and a sore elbow that will see him start the year on the DL, and Mike Hampton, who must rediscover his form after two very disappointing years in Colorado. Damian Moss was dealt to San Francisco for Russ Ortiz. Four members of their awesome 2002 bullpen -- Chris Hammond, Mike Remlinger, Tim Spooneybarger, and Kerry Ligtenberg -- are elsewhere.
The good news is that Greg Maddux and John Smoltz are back, Leo Mazzone is still the pitching coach, Andruw Jones will continue to run down a lot of fly balls, and the overhauled rotation has the potential to be good. In our simulations, they were quite respectable, finishing 6th in fewest runs allowed. But this is a team that isn't accustomed to being merely respectable; last year, they dominated the league, allowing 154 fewer runs than the league average team. That won't happen again in 2003.
The offense, a minor weakness in 2002, should provide a little more run support this year. Their big boppers -- Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, and Gary Sheffield -- were very good last year but have shown that they can be even better. Javy Lopez has slimmed down and may be able to contribute more. Robert Fick's bat will help some.
Difference makers: Rafael Furcal, whose on-base percentage has been stuck in the .320s the past two years and could jump-start the offense if he can figure out how to get on base more ... Mazzone, if he can get Hampton on track and work more magic with the rebuilt bullpen.
Montreal/San Juan Expos (78-84, division title 5%, wildcard 6%)
It's too bad the owners chose not to provide the Expos with a budget that would allow them to keep Bartolo Colon. Without him at the top of the rotation, Montreal can still contend for at least the wildcard, but their chances aren't as good.
The starting rotation looks to be solid but unspectacular. None of the starters is projected for an ERA under 3.50, but none is over 4.30, either. Our simulations were run with Zach Day in the #5 spot, but he'll get fewer starts now that Montreal has traded for Livan Hernandez. Despite a very good year from closer Scott Stewart, the bullpen was around the league average last year, but it looks a little shaky to me for 2003.
The batting order is built around Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro, Brad Wilkerson, and to a lesser extent, their catcher tandem of Michael Barrett and Brian Schneider. But it wasn't a deep lineup last year -- they ranked last in the NL in offensive production at first base and left field and only 12th at third base. This year's club should be better at all three positions, with Endy Chavez taking over in center and pushing Wilkerson to left, Jeff Liefer manning first base, and Fernando Tatis another year removed from the knee problems that have sapped his power.
Difference makers: Chavez, who projects to be a very good leadoff hitter based on his .343 average in AAA and .296 average in a month with the Expos last year, but has less than 200 atbats in the big leagues.
Florida Marlins (76-86, division title 4%, wildcard 2%)
I like this pitching staff a lot, but I don't like what they did to the offense over the winter. The '02 Marlins were only 12th in scoring, and while that ranking would have been a little higher if they didn't play in a pitcher's park, nobody mistook this group for the Big Red Machine. For financial reasons, they unloaded Preston Wilson and Kevin Millar (after trading Cliff Floyd during the 2002 season), then turned around and spent $10 million on Ivan Rodriguez. I'm confused.
Rodriguez will be a big help, but the net effect of these moves is to weaken an already weak offense. Juan Pierre is a singles hitter who doesn't walk much and barely made the league average in on-base percentage while benefiting from the friendly confines of Coors Field. Up and down the lineup, there's just not enough power -- Derrek Lee is the only hitter who averaged 25 homers per season in our simulations. As a result, Florida dropped to 13th in the league in scoring.
Getting back to the pitchers, Josh Beckett and AJ Burnett could be among the top 1-2 punches in baseball. The talent is there, but both need to show that they can stay healthy enough to make 65+ starts between them. Health is also an issue for Brad Penny, who had a terrific 2001 campaign, struggled through some elbow soreness last year, and hasn't impressed this spring. Mark Redman gives them another quality arm, and Carl Pavano looks like he might be ready to get his career back on track.
The bullpen was among the league's worst in 2002, but I think it will prove to be an asset this year. They have a lot of good young arms, and the addition of Tim Spooneybarger is a big plus. It's not clear who will get the majority of the save opportunities; it's Looper's job for now, but they could go with a committee approach or give the job to Spooneybarger or Vladimir Nunez.
Difference makers: Owner Jeffrey Loria, if he changes his mind yet again and decides to increase or decrease payroll during the season ... we set things up with Andy Fox getting the majority of time at short because he projects to have a much higher on-base percentage than Alex Gonzalez, but they may go with Gonzalez because he's younger.
New York Mets (74-88, no postseason appearances)
Last year, a few Mets fans shared some colorful language with us after we projected their team to finish fourth despite a number of high-profile acquisitions (Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Roger Cedeno, Jeromy Burnitz). We expected the pitching to be good (it was) but didn't see how they could score enough runs to stay with the Braves (they didn't).
A year later, I can only imagine how much vitriol will fill our mailboxes after New York finished last in our simulations and failed to make the postseason even once in fifty tries. The optimistic view is that any team with Al Leiter, Tom Glavine, Armando Benitez, Mike Piazza, Roberto Alomar, MO Vaughn, and Cliff Floyd is capable of making a serious run at the division title. The pessimistic view is that it's a very old team coming off a last-place finish in a division filled with good young pitchers.
The offense that finished 13th in scoring last year is projected to be about the same in 2003. The addition of Floyd is a plus, but Jay Payton and Edgardo Alfonzo, two of their more productive hitters, are wearing different uniforms. It boils down to whether Alomar, Piazza, and Burnitz bounce back and how big that bounce turns out to be.
If David Cone is named the #5 starter, the average age of the rotation will be 36. That's not a good sign. In our simulations, Glavine was 10-12 with a 3.71 ERA, with the win-loss record reflecting a lack of run support and the ERA owing to some aging and a defense that lacks range everywhere except the middle of the infield. The bullpen is deep and should be an asset, especially with the offseason addition of Mike Stanton.
I think it's very unlikely that the Mets will be a serious contender, but the division is close enough that they could easily escape the basement if things went right. In fact, I wouldn't be shocked if they were able to win 85 games and grab second place. I won't be betting on it, though.
Difference makers: Pedro Astacio, if his bout with biceps tendinitis costs him more than a start or two ... if the Mets are in the hunt, they have the financial resources to add talent before the trading deadline, something that cannot be said for all of their division rivals.
St. Louis Cardinals (89-73, division title 53%, wildcard 10%)
With everything that went wrong with the St. Louis pitching staff last year -- Darryl Kile's tragic death; injuries to Matt Morris, Woody Williams, Andy Benes, Garrett Stephenson, and Bud Smith; Rick Ankiel's inability to overcome control problems and elbow soreness -- Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan deserve a lot of credit for holding things together. How many other teams have dealt with so much and still finished fourth in the league in pitching?
Another juggling act may be needed this season. Other than Morris, it's hard to find a starting pitcher candidate who combines youth, recent health, and a record of consistent success at this level. Everyone comes up short on at least one of those counts. The bullpen isn't all that deep, either. Jason Isringhausen may have been the league's best closer last year, and Steve Kline is a reliable lefty, but some of the guys who contributed last year (Dave Veres, Rick White) are gone and others (Mike Crudale, Jeff Fassero) are unlikely to be as good this time around. The net result was a pitching staff that was only a little better than the league average in our fifty seasons.
Offense shouldn't be a concern, however. The Cardinals were second in the league in scoring last year and were fourth in our simulations. Catcher Mike Matheny is the only easy out, and the heart of the order (JD Drew, Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen) is as good as any in the league.
Difference makers: Ankiel, if he regains his 2000 form and does it soon (yeah, I know, I said that last year, too) ... Drew, who was expected to be out for no more than a month (knee injury) but could miss more time than that ... Isringhausen, if his surgically repaired shoulder acts up.
Houston Astros (86-76, division title 31%, wildcard 9%)
Two related moves accounted for most of the news out of Houston this winter. The NL's top offensive second baseman, Jeff Kent, was signed as a free agent. As a result, Craig Biggio moves to center field, with Lance Berkman sliding over to left. Berkman isn't really a center fielder, so his move to left makes sense, but the Biggio-to-center move is a risk.
Biggio is a great athlete who was a catcher before making a smooth transition to second and winning a Gold Glove at that position. But his range dipped significantly after he blew out his knee in 2000. Is it reasonable to expect much from a 37-year-old who hasn't played center field since 1991?
Like the Cardinals, the only easy out in this lineup is the catcher, defensive specialist Brad Ausmus. Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, and Kent (.307, 27 homers, 112 RBI in our simulations) should provide plenty of punch in the middle of the order. With a little help from a hitter-friendly home park, that should be enough to put the Astros among the league leaders in runs scored.
After Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller, the rotation is a little shaky. Shane Reynolds, who missed half of 2002 and hasn't had an ERA under 4.00 since 1999, was released this week, with rookie Jeriome Robertson taking over. Brian Moehler has spent a lot of time on the DL in each of the past three seasons. Tim Redding has potential but has yet to break through at the big-league level. Peter Munro and Kirk Saarloos provide some insurance. The back end of the bullpen, with Octavio Dotel setting up Billy Wagner, is as good as it gets, but the middle relievers don't impress.
Difference makers: Biggio, if he's unable to handle the defensive chores in center field or continues the offensive slide that began last year ... Richard Hidalgo, if he can recapture some of the form he showed in an outstanding 2000 season and doesn't suffer any lingering effects from his offseason gunshot wound.
Chicago Cubs (81-81, division title 14%, wildcard 7%)
Last spring, a good number of people picked the Cubs to win the division. Not a majority, mind you, but a meaningful minority. In contrast, our simulations saw them finishing in third place with a .500 record. Those simulation results proved to be highly optimistic, as the real-life Cubs could do no better than 67 wins and a 5th-place record.
But those simulations were right on the money in another way. When you average the results of 50 seasons, as we do, certain things tend to even out. Your offensive events -- singles and extra-base hits and walks and so forth -- tend to produce runs at the normal rate. Your pitching and defense tends to allow runs at the normal rate given the mix of hits and walks they allow. And your win-loss record tends to follow directly from the runs you score and the runs you allow.
When you play a season only once, however, either in cyberspace or for real, those things don't always even out. When all three of these factors are favorable, very good things can happen. When they're unfavorable, the bottom falls out of your season.
The 2002 Cubs produced 2853 offensive total bases and walks while the pitchers and defense allowed 2814. That's a net of 39 bases in their favor, a figure that is consistent with an 82-80 record. But 15 of those wins vanished because they didn't hit in the clutch, didn't get those critical outs, and were an atrocious 18-36 in one-run games. History tells us that such a confluence of events is very unlikely to repeat itself. This is a team that was projected to win 81 games last year, performed at an 82-win level statistically, and is projected once again to win 81 games.
Their offseason moves didn't change things much -- adding Mike Remlinger and Dave Veres to the bullpen will be a plus, but Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek didn't play as well as the guys they gave up, and most of their other moves involved fringe players. If the Cubs are significantly better this year, it will be because the holdovers play better, their luck improves, and they do their share of good things when the game is on the line.
Difference makers: Matt Clement, if he reverts to his pre-2002 form to any significant degree ... Hee Seop Choi, if he can figure out big-league pitching in a hurry ... we ran the simulations with Bobby Hill as the second baseman and leadoff hitter, but just got word that he's been sent down; with Grudzielanek at the top of the order, Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou won't have as many RBI opportunities.
Cincinnati Reds (77-85, division title 2%)
This is about where the Reds finished last year. The good news is that they should score a few more runs with a healthy Ken Griffey, a healthy Sean Casey, a full season from Austin Kearns, and the combination of Aaron Boone at second and Brandon Larson at third. The bad news is that their starting rotation consists of a converted closer (Danny Graves, who should be quite good) and four guys who haven't exactly set the league on fire. They'll miss Elmer Dessens, who was their best pitcher last year and is now in Arizona, and they'll have to replace Graves in the bullpen.
Difference makers: Griffey, if he's 100% and can return all the way to his peak level; he averaged .258 with 32 homers in our simulations, so there's plenty of room to the upside if his age and past injuries haven't lowered his ceiling permanently.
Pittsburgh Pirates (71-91, no postseason appearances)
The Pirates are one of four NL teams that failed to make the postseason in our simulations. Does that mean they have no hope? Not really. Their best showing was a third-place finish with an 82-80 record, and while that wouldn't be enough to vie for a wildcard spot, it would bring some joy to the Steel City for a change.
The 2002 Pirates were last in the NL in on-base percentage, so it was only fitting that they acquired Randall Simon, a man who took a grand total of 8 unintentional walks in 506 plate appearances for the Tigers last year. To be fair, Pittsburgh also added Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders, both of whom take walks at a good clip and will significantly upgrade what was the NL's worst outfield defense.
The best-case scenario has Kris Benson returning to peak form, Aramis Ramirez finding the power he had in 2001 but lost last year, Jeff D'Amico staying healthy for a change, and about a dozen other players contributing 5-10% more than they've shown in the past.
Difference makers: Benson, who improved as the 2002 season went along and is now almost two years removed from reconstructive elbow surgery.
Milwaukee Brewers (65-97, no postseason appearances)
If you haven't already read the Cubs comment, you might want to do that now, because the Brewers experienced a similar fate in 2002. Statistically, they performed like a team that would normally win 68 games, not 56. They were inefficient on offense, inefficient on defense, and posted a 14-28 record in one-run games.
If you're going to assign blame for that miserable season, the offense deserves the biggest share. Geoff Jenkins wasn't playing up to par and then destroyed his ankle and missed the second half. Ronnie Belliard was awful in his half-season. And Jeffrey Hammonds didn't hit for power. The other guys were at least as good as expected. Eric Young came on strong after a horrible start, while Richie Sexson more than made up for a drop in homers with that with a higher batting average, more doubles, more walks, and fewer strikeouts. Jose Hernandez had a terrific year.
But most of the offensive problems were based on team play, not individual performances. They simply didn't convert as many scoring opportunities as you would expect, and that cost them 50 runs. With runners in scoring position, they batted .235 as a team; with runners in scoring position and two out, that figure dropped to a pathetic .189 with only 8 homers in 602 atbats.
As is the case with many bad teams, lots of players came and went during the winter. Despite all of that turnover, the Brewers of our simulations were very similar to their 2002 counterparts. A very weak offense combined with below-average pitching to produce an average of 65 wins. That's consistent with their statistical performance in 2002 when you factor in the loss of Hernandez, who may have been their best position player last year.
Difference makers: Ben Sheets, who has been a league-average pitcher the past two years but could emerge as one of the league's top starters.
San Francisco Giants (90-72, division title 44%, wildcard 9%)
The defending NL champs have changed managers and turned over half their starting lineup and 40% of their starting rotation. I don't think they'll be as good as they were last year, when they won 95 games and led the league by outscoring their opponents by 167 runs. But they were good enough in our simulations to edge the Diamondbacks for first place, and I see no reason why the Giants won't be right in the thick of things this year.
As long as Barry is Barry, this team will score. They were third in the NL in scoring last year, a remarkable feat considering the park they play in. In fact, you could make the case that they were the league's best offense, and exhibit one would be their league-leading total of 426 runs in road games.
Jeff Kent, David Bell, Reggie Sanders, and Kenny Lofton are gone, with Ray Durham, Edgardo Alfonzo, Jose Cruz, and a combination of Marvin Benard and Marquis Grissom taking over. The loss of Kent and Sanders will hurt, but Durham upgrades the leadoff spot and Alfonzo's a better hitter than Bell. The overall effect is a slight drop in offense, but one that leaves the Giants among the league leaders in park-adjusted scoring.
A healthy starting rotation accounts for a good part of the Giants success in 2002. Kurt Ainsworth filled in when Jason Schmidt was on the DL in April and then made one spot start in September to help Dusty Baker set up his rotation for a key series against the Dodgers. In the end, the five-man rotation made 158 of 162 possible starts.
For 2003, Damian Moss replaces Russ Ortiz, and that could be a bit of a downgrade, especially if Moss continues to struggle with his control. On the plus side, the recent trade of Livan Hernandez opens the door for Ainsworth. Our simulations were run with Hernandez in the rotation, but Ainsworth projects to be a better pitcher. Jesse Foppert, Baseball America's #1 pitching prospect, and Jerome Williams provide insurance in case the staff doesn't stay as healthy this time around. The bullpen, which posted an impressive 2.91 ERA in 2002, is largely intact and should continue to be an asset.
Difference makers: Bonds, if he stops being superhuman ... Jose Cruz, whose career batting average is only .251 and may drop in his new park, if he starts pressing as a result ... Ainsworth, who has only 28 major-league innings under his belt.
Arizona Diamondbacks (89-73, division title 42%, wildcard 17%)
Although San Francisco had a slight edge in wins and division titles in our fifty seasons, Arizona qualified for the postseason a little more often. In other words, these two teams are about as close as you can get.
Arizona's strength, obviously, is the top of the starting rotation, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. They're both getting up in years but showing no signs of slowing down, and we expect Byung-Hyun Kim to make a smooth transition to his new role as a starter and turn the big two into the big three. Kim was 14-6 with a 3.31 ERA in our fifty seasons. The key will be how much help they get from Elmer Dessens, John Patterson, and a bullpen that was among the NL's worst last year. Matt Mantei is back as closer, but he's not a sure thing given his recent injury history.
But the Diamondbacks didn't score a lot of runs in our fifty seasons, even with a nice contribution from Lyle Overbay, who was given the majority of the playing time at first base. Their best hitters are either getting up in age (Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, Mark Grace) or coming off unexpectedly good seasons they may not be able to repeat (Junior Spivey, Danny Bautista). Erubiel Durazo and Greg Colbrunn took their bats elsewhere this winter, and Arizona is not likely to get a lot of offense out of short (Tony Womack, Alex Cintron) or third (Craig Counsell, Matt Williams).
The Diamondbacks could win 100 games and run away with the West if everything goes right. If that happens, nobody will want to face this team in the postseason.
Difference makers: Dessens, if his mediocre career through 2001 is a better indicator of his talent than his unexpected success in 2002 ... Patterson, who impressed in five starts last year, if that was a sign of good things to come ... Father Time, if he's kind to Johnson, Schilling, Finley, Gonzalez, Grace, and the other guys who are on the wrong side of 30.
Colorado Rockies (86-76, division title 8%, wildcard 19%)
Remember all that talk about the humidor? How the effects of Coors Field were muted by adding humidity to the baseballs? When all was said and done, Colorado and its opponents scored 12.2 runs per game at Coors and 8.5 runs per game in other venues. As has been the case since the beginning, you can't properly evaluate the Rockies team without taking the environment into account.
When you do that, you see a team with very good pitching (despite a league-worst 5.20 ERA in 2002) and an offense that ranged from mediocre to pathetic last year. On the road, the Rockies scored only 3.5 runs per game. They batted .313 at home and .234 on the road. In roughly the same number of atbats, they hit 35 more doubles, 17 more triples, and 42 more homers in Coors. They led the league in scoring at home and were a distant last in scoring on the road, averaging less than three-and-a-half runs a game at sea level.
But I'll be very surprised if they don't rebound in a very big way this year. Juan Pierre, Juan Uribe, Brent Butler, Gary Bennett, Terry Shumpert, Jose Ortiz, Benny Agbayani, Mark Little, and Sandy Alomar were below .700 in OPS last year, using up a staggering 2,793 plate appearances in the process. Only Uribe is expected to play a meaningful role with the Rockies in 2003.
Preston Wilson replaces Pierre in center, Jay Payton takes over in left, Charles Johnson is the new catcher, and Jose Hernandez should get 600+ atbats at short and third. Todd Helton has room to improve on his 2002 output. This will be a vastly different team in 2003, and I expect them to be a force at home and at least respectable on the road.
Now that Mike Hampton has moved on, the starting rotation looks very promising. (I know, it seems strange to say that given the hype that attended his signing.) Denny Neagle is the veteran presence, but it's the younger guys who are the most interesting -- Jason Jennings was Rookie of the Year in 2002, Denny Stark went 11-4 with a 4.00 ERA last year, Aaron Cook impressed while moving quickly from AA to AAA to the majors in one season, and Shawn Chacon was very good at times. Because of the park, this pitching staff was last in the league in runs allowed in our simulations, but by a smaller margin than usual.
Difference makers: Cook, if his low strikeout rate proves to be a big liability in a park where batted balls do more damage than anywhere else ... Larry Walker, if he can't play at least 140 games at a high level ... Juan Uribe, if he gets a lot of playing time after he returns from his injury and doesn't hit any better than he did last year.
Los Angeles Dodgers (82-80, division title 4%, wildcard 6%)
If they hit, they can win the division. It's that simple.
The problem is that the batting order isn't deep enough. The table setters, Dave Roberts and Paul LoDuca, project to be a little above the league average in on-base percentage. Shawn Green and Fred McGriff combined to drive in over 200 runs per season. That's a pretty good start. But the rest of the lineup uses up too many outs. Brian Jordan and Adrian Beltre can hit but they don't walk much, rookie 2B Joe Thurston doesn't project to do either very well, and Cesar Izturis is a black hole offensively. Throw in the pitcher spot and you've got an awful lot of innings that are over before they get started. (A year ago, I described the Mets lineup in much the same way.)
The pitching could be great, and if everything goes right, that could be enough to carry them to a division title even if the offense isn't peaking along with them. Their ace Kevin Brown is back and throwing lights out in spring training (0.86 ERA with 26 Ks and no walks in 21 innings through 3/26). Odalis Perez is coming off a great season. Darren Dreifort appears to be healthy again. Hideo Nomo is a capable innings eater, and Kaz Ishii could be an asset if he can find the strike zone a little more often.
A lot of people are picking the Dodgers to win the division. That could happen, and I do expect them to be in the hunt, but I just don't see them as the favorites.
Difference makers: Beltre, a player with a lot of potential who has yet to bust out with a monster season ... Kevin Brown, if he can't make 30 starts and/or fails to return to a very high level.
San Diego Padres (72-90, division title 2%)
It's unfortunate that one of their best hitters, Phil Nevin, is out for the year and their closer, Trevor Hoffman, will miss at least half the season. I would have liked to see whether this team could have hung in the race for at least the wildcard if they were at full strength.
The simulations were run with recently-acquired Rondell White as the everyday left fielder. Because he's not projected to be as good as Nevin, and because Bubba Trammell was sent to the Yankees in the deal that brought White, the offense suffered at both corner outfield positions. As a result, the Padres were last in the NL in scoring in our 50 seasons, partly because their park is good for pitchers, but mainly because they just don't have enough power.
The Padres have several promising young pitchers who will be fun to watch. Brian Lawrence, Oliver Perez, Jake Peavy, and Adam Eaton are all under 27, and youngsters Clay Condrey and Mike Bynum will battle for the #5 spot at least until veteran Kevin Jarvis (soreness following elbow surgery) is ready to return. The bullpen is thin even with Hoffman, and a bigger question mark without him.
Difference makers: Sean Burroughs, if his shoulder is 100% and he steps up in a big way at the plate ... Hoffman, if he's not able to come back for the second half.
This is where I usually try to express how excited I am about the coming season. But these aren't normal times. Instead of checking the spring training boxscores first thing in the morning, I'm reading the paper to get the latest news from Iraq. Instead of watching SportsCenter before going to bed, I'm tuning in to CNN or MSNBC. It's much harder to get worked up about computer simulations when more serious matters are unfolding hour by hour.
Nevertheless, I do think it will be a very interesting year, so I'll wrap this up with a series of questions, the answers to which will go a long way toward telling the story of the 2003 season:
Are we in a new era of career longevity and success? Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Ellis Burks, Steve Finley, Rafael Palmeiro, Jamie Moyer, and others are defying long-standing notions about the tendency of players to decline in their late 30s. How long can they keep doing what they're doing?
Will the stars be healthier this year? I can't remember the last time we went into a season with so few big-name players on the disabled list with serious injuries. Perhaps we'll get to see the game's best players more often than usual.
Are things starting to tilt in favor of the pitchers again? Everywhere you look, highly-touted young pitchers are reaching the big leagues and having success. Oakland, Florida, San Diego, Houston, Philadelphia, Montreal, Seattle, Colorado, and both Chicago teams have at least two in their rotations, and there are more in other cities, including Roy Halladay, Francisco Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets, and Joe Kennedy.
Will the Red Sox bullpen "experiment" succeed? Of course, it's not really an experiment, because there was a lot of baseball played before the regimented setup/closer approach took hold. To evaluate this approach, it would help if baseball analysts and commentators placed less emphasis on individual save totals and more on each team's ability to hold leads late in a game.
How quickly will the youth movements pay off? Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City and Tampa Bay have made a major commitment, in some cases a total commitment, to their kids. Conventional wisdom says that you run the risk of destroying their confidence, and doing long-term damage to their careers, if you bring prospects to the majors too soon. In an era when gifted teenagers are skipping college and going straight to the NBA, winning gold medals in a variety of Olympic sports, and playing for their national teams in the World Cup of soccer, perhaps we'll find out that these 21- and 22-year-olds can make the transition quite well.
Can the Angels defy history? History says that highly efficient teams are unable to sustain that level of efficiency. But maybe Anaheim's style of play -- making contact, taking the extra base, manufacturing runs with sacrifices and squeezes, playing great defense -- will enable them to do it again.
Where will the Expos end up, and when will they find out? In particular, will they be forced to trade Vladimir Guerrero at the trading deadline?
What about the Yankees? Will Matsui and Contreras become stars right away? Will George mess things up by meddling too much? Will age catch up with them? Will Derek Jeter be able to turn things around after losing an average of 65 points of OPS per year since 1999? Is Soriano that good, or will his poor walk/strikeout ratio catch up with him?
If Oakland gets off to another slow start, will they be tempted/forced to trade Tejada during the season? They've already said they can't afford to sign him long term. If they're in the race, it would be tough to pull the trigger on a deal even if they face the prospect of getting nothing in return after his contract runs out. But if they're not in the race, who knows?
Are the Phillies that good, and will they thrive under a high-pressure manager? Larry Bowa's intensity could be a plus or a minus. A good start could be especially important for this group.
Will the Reds outfield emerge as the one of the most potent in recent memory? With Griffey healthy and Dunn and Kearns manning the corners, it could be a sight to see.
Will Byung-Hyun Kim and Danny Graves make the transition from closer to starter look as easy as Derek Lowe did last year? If so, that's great news for their teams, and it might inspire more teams to make similar moves.
How Lowe will Derek's in-play batting average be this year? Lowe had a very low strikeout rate last year but succeeded because he generated a ton of ground balls and a very high percentage of them landed in the gloves of his infielders. If he can't keep the ball down as much this year, or if more of those balls sneak through the infield, he won't be the same pitcher.
Can Leo Mazzone help the Braves top the league in pitching one more time? Getting Mike Hampton straightened out is key, but it'll take more than that.
Do the big-name players on the Mets have one more good year in them? If the answer is yes for the majority of those guys, New York could leap over several other teams in their division and challenge for the title.
Will Rick Ankiel and Nick Bierbrodt rediscover their control? And, if not now, will it ever happen? Between them, they've walked 17 in 21 innings so far this spring, with Bierbrodt having a little more success than Ankiel.