Projected Standings for the 2005 Season
By Tom Tippett
March 29, 2005
How will the Giants do without Barry? Can the Red Sox defend their championship without Pedro and Lowe? Can they even win the division now that RJ is wearing pinstripes? Will Atlanta maintain it's iron grip on the NL East, or will Philly respond to a new manager? Have the Mets spent enough to vault into contention? Will Oakland's gamble on young pitching pay off right away? Can anyone in the Central divisions catch the Twins and the Cardinals?
These are just a few of the questions that will be answered over the next 26 weeks. Nobody knows the answers, of course. That's why they play the games and why millions of us make the trek to our favorite parks, plunk down our money for the MLB Extra Innings package, and watch real-time internet feeds when we can't get to the TV (and even when we can).
As always, our annual projections project has been a great learning experience. While projecting stats and ratings for more than 1600 players, including hundreds of top prospects,
tracking offseason player movement, and setting up pitching rotations, batting orders and depth charts, we're forced to look at every team in great detail.
We don't claim to be able to predict injuries, career years, managerial meltdowns, blockbuster trades, slumps, bad calls, and everything else that makes the baseball season such a joy to follow. But in the seven years we've been doing this, our preseason projections have proven to be among the most accurate in the business. So this methodology does appear to have some value in setting expectations for the coming year. (See 2004 Predictions -- Keeping Score for more on how various predictors have fared over the years.)
In a minute, we'll
show you the projected final standings for the 2005 season, but before
we do, let's take a few moments to talk about how we got here.
Using major-league and minor-league statistics (provided by STATS
Inc. and The Sports Network), we projected
the 2005 performance of each player by evaluating his statistics over
the past three years. Each stat line was 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, Japan, AAA, AA).
For each player, these adjusted stat lines were averaged (with more weight
on recent seasons, performances at higher levels, and seasons with lots
of playing time), adjusted for age, and projected into the league and
park where he will compete in the coming year.
We also projected each player's left/right splits and assigned ratings
for skills such as baserunning, throwing, defensive range, and bunting.
After the players had been rated, we assigned them to their new rosters
and set up a manager profile for each team. These profiles consist of
starting rotations, bullpen assignments, projected starting lineups against
left- and right-handed pitchers, and depth charts for each position.
With everything in place, we played out the 2005 season using our Diamond
Mind Baseball game. This program simulates every pitch, with the game's
computer manager making the decisions about starting pitchers and lineups,
game tactics and substitutions. Because luck can be a significant factor in any single baseball season, real-life or simulated, we ran
the season 100 times and averaged the results.
Factors and non-factors
It's worth taking a moment to review what is and isn't taken into account in this process.
As you can tell from the previous section, we do take past performance into account, both at the minor-league and major-league level, including the Japanese leagues. We don't look at winter ball, spring training, or other foreign leagues such as Mexico.
We do put a lot of weight on the context in which a player's stats are compiled. Park factors, league averages, and the DH rule are a big part of our evaluations of past performance and our projections of future performance. And we do adjust for age.
We don't just look at projected batting and pitching stats. We do take defense, bunting, running and other skills into account. And we do take left/right stats into account. If a team is weak against one side or the other, that will show up in the results.
We do take injuries into account, in two ways. First, we discount past performances that may have been worsened by a player's attempt to play through a physical problem. Second, when setting up our manager profiles for the coming season, we take playing time away from anyone who is known to be injured going into the year. We don't, however, project more injuries for players who have been hurt often in the past. In our simulated seasons, every player has the same chance of losing time to injury.
We don't put any weight on the reputation of the manager. Our computer manager handles every team the same way -- it acts according to the strengths and weaknesses of the roster. If a team is full of mashers who can't run, you won't see a lot of one-run tactics. A team full of speedy singles hitters will run, bunt, and use the hit and run more often.
In other words, we don't give a team a few extra wins because they have a highly-regarded manager. In the years we've been doing this, we haven't seen very many examples of a manager consistently over- or under-achieving relative to our projections. The fact that our projected standings have consistently been more accurate than those of other predictors suggests that leaving managers out of the equation may be a good thing.
Over the past seven years, there have been a few cases where we've felt that we should have put more weight on the manager. Dusty Baker had a run of good years in San Francisco. Atlanta has exceeded our expectations a few times, though pitching coach Leo Mazzone may deserve more of the credit than manager Bobby Cox. We had our doubts about Larry Bowa as the manager in Philly, and his team did fall well short of our projections in each of the past two seasons. Overall, however, there have been many more cases where ignoring the manager gave us better results.
We don't put any weight on the typical springtime comments of players and agents. If someone "is in the best shape of his career", "has a new changeup", "dropped 20 pounds over the winter", "is excited about joining his new team", or "added 15 pounds of muscle in the weight room", we take a we'll-believe-it-when-we-see-it attitude.
We don't put any weight on allegations of steroid use. If you believe someone has been using and won't be able to maintain that performance under the new testing program, you'll have to make that adjustment yourself. We don't know how many batters were using, how many pitchers were using, whether it helped batters more than pitchers or vice versa, how long they were using, when they stopped, if they stopped, and so on. There's just no way to make an objective adjustment.
We do take strength of schedule into account. We're simulating the actual 2005 schedule, so if a division is strong or a team's inter-league schedule is weak, that will show up in the results. That's true at the player level, too. If you're a right-handed pitcher with a big left/right split and you play in a division loaded with left-handed hitting, that's going to hurt your performance.
Projected 2005 standings
Here are the projected final standings, based on the 100 seasons we simulated
on March 26th. Anything that happened since that date is not reflected here. Trades,
roster decisions, and new injury reports may have altered the landscape a little.
W, L, Pct, GB -- average wins, average losses, winning percentage, games
RF, RA -- average runs for and against
#DIV, #WC -- number of division titles and wild cards (fractions given
AL East W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC
New York 97 65 .599 - 904 744 55.5 38.8
Boston 96 66 .593 1 922 765 44.5 43.0
Baltimore 80 82 .494 17 827 837 6.5
Toronto 73 89 .451 24 800 877
Tampa Bay 66 96 .407 31 729 883
AL Central W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC
Minnesota 89 73 .549 - 854 786 71.5 .3
Cleveland 79 83 .488 10 815 830 9.0 1.0
Chicago 79 83 .488 10 817 841 8.5 2.3
Detroit 79 83 .488 10 832 857 11.0 1.0
Kansas City 67 95 .414 22 761 890
AL West W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC
Oakland 85 77 .525 - 873 817 31.0 1.0
Los Angeles 84 78 .519 1 803 775 29.0 2.5
Seattle 83 79 .512 2 795 778 25.0 2.0
Texas 80 82 .494 5 852 875 15.0 1.5
NL East W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC
Philadelphia 90 72 .556 - 861 781 53.0 13.0
Atlanta 86 76 .531 4 793 738 25.0 10.0
Florida 82 80 .506 8 756 746 12.0 10.0
New York 82 80 .506 8 788 774 8.0 8.0
Washington 79 83 .488 11 748 780 2.0 3.0
NL Central W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC
St. Louis 103 59 .636 - 876 666 99.0
Chicago 83 79 .512 20 783 768 1.0 17.8
Houston 77 85 .475 26 766 810 1.0
Cincinnati 72 90 .444 31 769 854 1.0
Pittsburgh 72 90 .444 31 725 809
Milwaukee 70 92 .432 33 721 812 1.0
NL West W L Pct GB RF RA #DIV #WC
Los Angeles 90 72 .556 - 811 733 56.5 11.3
San Francisco 88 74 .543 2 853 782 35.0 17.3
San Diego 81 81 .500 9 784 767 7.5 6.5
Colorado 70 92 .432 20 852 978 1.0
Arizona 68 94 .420 22 786 903
With two exceptions, things appear to be wide open in 2005. The AL East is still dominated by the two biggest-spending teams in the game, and the Cardinals don't appear to have any serious competition in the NL Central.
But 25 of 30 teams made the postseason at least once in our 100 seasons, so there's reason for the fans of most teams to begin the year with some optimism. In four of the six divisions, at least four teams claimed at least one division title. The real season will be played only once, of course, so it's not likely that we'll be blessed with four incredibly tight multi-team races, but that's not totally out of the question, either.
Among the four divisions with more than two contenders, Minnesota is the most likely to run away and hide. They outdistanced their rivals by an average of ten games, winning the flag over 70% of the time. If things go their way -- picture a healthy Joe Mays and an improved Kyle Lohse -- they could be a major force.
I'm sure some of you are surprised to see Oakland atop the
AL West again. I wasn't sure how this one would turn out. We've been running simulations all winter, and the Angels were close every time. Most often, Oakland had a better run margin even when LA scratched out an extra win or two. There's simply no way to say who's better. You could make a case for either team and I wouldn't be able to refute your argument, though I'd be quick to point out that neither team is without vulnerabilities.
In the NL East, I won't be running to Vegas to bet on the Phillies even though they three-peated as our preseason pick in the division. Atlanta just seems to find a way to get it done, and the Marlins are one of my dark horse picks this year. I won't be shocked to see a couple of the young Florida pitchers emerge into stud status and lead this team on a big October run.
In the NL Central, a lot of people seem to like the Cubs, and you have to be impressed with the potential of their starting rotation, if they're healthy. But they're not especially healthy right now, and even if they were, they're up against a Cardinals team that led the NL in fewest runs allowed and added Mark Mulder over the winter. And even if the Cubs outpitch the Cards, St. Louis has a big edge offensively.
The big question in the West is the Barry factor. How much time will Bonds miss, and how much will the Giants suffer without him? We projected him to miss two months, but if he's out longer than that, or if he's not the same dominant force when he returns, the Giants could be in trouble. Even with a healthy Bonds, the Dodgers were right there with the Giants in some of our earlier simulations, so LA is a team to be reckoned with no matter what's happening in the Bay Area.
In these team comments, we'll make occasional references to team
efficiency. After each season , we look at the statistical output of each team
(offense versus pitching/defense), the runs it was able to generate and prevent, and its win-loss record, pointing out teams that did more with
less and vice versa.
One way to evaluate team production is to compute total bases plus walks (TBW) produced and allowed. When we refer to TBW differential, we mean the difference between these two figures. History tells us that if you outproduce your opponents by 150 TBW or more, you have a good chance to be playing in October.
New York Yankees (97-65, division title 56%, wild card 39%)
Can you remember the last time the Yankees didn't win the East? It was 1997, when the Orioles edged the New Yorkers by two games, 98 wins to 96. Add in the 1996 title and the men in pinstripes have won the division flag in eight of the last nine regular seasons.
In each of the last two years, however, they've fallen short of the Red Sox in key statistical measures like run margin and TBW differential. Last year, Boston outscored its opponents by 180 runs, more than double New York's +89, while the Yankees TBW differential of +317 was barely half that of their rivals to the north. Still, Jeter and company showed that they "know how to win" by squeezing 101 victories out of those underlying stats.
With no significant losses from the league's #2 offense, and with the addition of Randy Johnson, Jaret Wright, and Carl Pavano to the rotation, the Yankees should be better than they were last year. That doesn't mean they'll win more than 101 games. They're quite capable of doing that, of course, but their statistical performance in 2004 was more in line with a 90-win season, so they had to improve in order to have a chance to match their win total from a year ago. If our simulations are any guide, they've improved enough to make it nine out of ten division crowns.
Boston Red Sox (96-66, division title 45%, wild card 43%)
With more than half the roster eligible for free agency, GM Theo Epstein and his baseball operations team didn't have much time to relax after finally eighty-sixing the Yankees and ending one of the longest championship droughts in all of sports.
Some of their marquee players moved on, as expected, but is their enough left for another serious run at the Yankees? Maybe. They can't be considered the favorites, but they project to lead the league in scoring for the third year in a row. Other than new shortstop Edgar Renteria, who should be able to match or exceed the combined 2004 production of Pokey Reese, Nomar Garciaparra, and Orlando Cabrera, the batting order is intact. And a healthy Trot Nixon should help offset the potential declines from a few players who had above-average years a season ago.
The big question, of course, is the pitching staff's ability to stay healthy and match its impressive 2004 performance (3rd in the AL in ERA) without Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe. That's not as hard as it sounds. Martinez and Lowe were durable, but they combined to allow 237 runs last year. Detroit's Jason Johnson and Nate Robertson also allowed 237 runs (in six fewer innings), and nobody would think it was impossible to replace those two guys. If newcomers Matt Clement and David Wells stay healthy and pitch to their career norms, that'll be good enough. Anything the Sox get out of Wade Miller and Matt Mantei will be a bonus.
Baltimore Orioles (80-82, no division titles, wild card 7%)
The club finished 6th in the AL in scoring last year, 31 runs better than the league average, and they've added Sammy Sosa. That should give them a dominant offense, right? Well, not exactly. The O's right fielders were 8th in the AL in OPS last year, so there's definitely some room for improvement. But Sosa's 2004 on-base percentage was a point below the league average and his slugging percentage was well below his peak. Without a comeback season, Sosa won't help as much you might think. And Baltimore has done little to improve their output at the other two outfield positions, where Luis Matos and company were dead last in center-field production and several left fielders (mainly Larry Bigbie) combined to finish tenth in 2004.
If the Orioles are to make a run at the Yankees and Red Sox this year, they'll need to see some of their young starting pitchers take a big step forward. If we assume that Sidney Ponson can pitch like he did in the second half of 2004 (8-3, 4.21) and two of the other starters can each shave a run off their ERAs, this would be enough to push the Orioles into the upper 80s in wins and put them within shouting distance of the leaders, assuming the offense does its part.
Toronto Blue Jays (73-89, no postseason appearances)
Last year, a rash of injuries and unexpected declines from key players sucked the life out of a franchise that appeared to be on the rise in 2003. The good news, I suppose, is that these misfortunes occurred at a time when Toronto was flush with good prospects -- guys like Russ Adams, Gabe Gross, Alexis Rios, and David Bush -- who could benefit from exposure to the highest level.
Still, it's asking a lot for a bunch of kids to contend right away. That plus the loss of Carlos Delgado's huge bat makes this another developmental year for the lone surviving Canadian team. In a year or two, things could get a lot more interesting. Not only will the prospects be further along, but GM J.P. Ricciardi has been given the green light to raise the payroll by about $20 million. Of course, that would still leave them at half what the Red Sox are spending and a third of the Yankees player budget, but it's something.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays (66-96, no postseason appearances)
It's hard to see Tampa Bay building on their limited success of a year ago, when they won 70 games and escaped the basement for the first time. Statistically, the 2004 Devil Rays were neck and neck with the oh-so-disappointing Mariners. That's not a great base from which to make a big leap.
How have they improved an offense that was 13th in the league in runs? If anything, they're worse, having traded Jose Cruz and allowed Tino Martinez to leave via free agency. The Rays didn't bring in any established stars. Instead, they hitched their wagon to players such as Roberto Alomar, who retired earlier this month, Alex Gonzalez, who won't have any real value unless he bounces back in a big way, and Alex Sanchez, who was released by the Tigers two weeks ago.
It'll be fun to watch Scott Kazmir in his first full season, but how excited can you get about the rest of the rotation? The leading candidates are Dewan Brazelton, Mark Hendrickson, Rob Bell, Jorge Sosa, and Hideo Nomo, who aren't coming into 2005 riding a wave of success.
Minnesota Twins (89-73, division title 72%, wild card <1%)
Four years ago, how many of you would have predicted that the Twins would have an iron grip on their division?
Their back-to-back-to-back division-winning teams were built on a farm system that has delivered well-rounded players like Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Corey Koskie, and Doug Mientkiewicz. And with young players like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau already on the big stage and others like Jason Kubel (likely to miss the entire season after knee surgery) waiting in the wings, the flow of talent has not abated.
Can Minnesota run with the big boys despite a budget that pales in comparison with the league's other top teams? Yes, they can. They don't have the money or the star power of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels, but they are very good, and they do have an easier road to the postseason. Once there, any team with Johan Santana, my pick for the Cy Young award even with Randy Johnson in the league, has a chance to beat all comers.
Cleveland Indians (79-83, division title 9%, wild card 1%)
The 2004 Indians were about as close to .500 as you can get -- 80 wins, 863 runs scored, 863 runs allowed, and a deficit of 3 total bases and walks. This year's club appears to be very similar.
Offensively, they lost Matt Lawton and Omar Vizquel to free agency. Neither will be a huge loss, but neither have the Tribe added any big-time hitters, either. Jose Hernandez and Juan Gonzalez are the best-known additions. Gonzalez could be a big plus if he's healthy and in peak form, but coming off three mediocre and injury-riddled seasons, he's anything but a sure thing.
Addition by subtraction could be the name of the game with the pitching staff. They didn't lose anyone significant from the group that finished second-last in the AL in runs allowed. But they did jettison a bunch of guys who pitched very poorly. If those innings go to league-average performers, that would be a big step forward. Some of those innings will go to Kevin Millwood and Arthur Rhodes, two men who have been inconsistent but are capable of performing at a high level.
Chicago White Sox (79-83, division title 9%, wild card 2%)
Aided by the league's best park for home run hitters, Chicago finished third in the league in scoring last year. Well, that was last year. With Magglio Ordonez gone via free agency and Carlos Lee having been traded to Milwaukee, White Sox fans will be hoping their team can win with pitching, defense and speed.
The new faces are a leadoff hitter who's better stealing bases than getting on in the first place (Scott Podsednik, 70 SB and a .313 OBP in 2004), two guys who have been limited by leg injuries in recent years (Jermaine Dye and Carl Everett), a good-hitting catcher (A.J. Pierzynski), and a second baseman from Japan (Tadahito Iguchi) who projects to be an above-average hitter. Everett finished 2004 with Chicago, so he's not really a newcomer, but a full season at his peak level would go a long way toward replacing Ordonez's bat.
The Sox staff, which was 10th in the AL in runs allowed a year ago, is anchored by Mark Buehrle and Freddy Garcia. The rotation could be a plus if those two get some help from Jon Garland, 25, who was once considered a top prospect, and the Cuban duo of Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras. The bullpen looks thin despite the additions of Luis Vizcaino and Dustin Hermansen.
Detroit Tigers (79-83, division title 11%, wild card 1%)
The Tigers were reported to be among the front-runners to sign several of the winter's top free agents. Or, perhaps more accurately, they were said to be very interested in those players. In the end, the Tigers didn't make a major acquisition until most of those players were off the market.
As is well known, the Tigers staged a huge recovery last year, leaping from 43 wins to 72 in one season. With the addition of Magglio Ordonez to the lineup and two relievers, Troy Percival and Kyle Farnsworth, to the bullpen, how much better are the Tigers in 2005?
According to our simulations, they're a few games better. Offensively, they're still weak at second (Omar Infante) and third (Brandon Inge). Center field was on this list before they jettisoned Alex Sanchez, though it remains to be seen how much better they'll do with the guys who remain (Craig Monroe, Nook Logan, Curtis Granderson). The pitching, which was 13th in the league in ERA in 2004 even though their home park reduced runs by 7%, will be good enough only if some of their young starters make strides. Jeremy Bonderman is one who might be able to do that, and could be enough to propel the Tigers into second place.
Kansas City Royals (67-95, no postseason appearances)
It's a good bet that they'll be better than their 58 wins of a year ago, but there's no reason to believe this team can contend, even if their best hitter, Mike Sweeney, is able to stay in the lineup all year. You're simply not going to make up for the loss of Carlos Beltran by trading for Terrence Long. Eli Marrero is the best of the newcomers, and while he's a good player, adding a league-average hitter isn't going to make the difference for a team that needs a lot of help.
Starting pitcher Zack Greinke, 21, who has had success at every level, gives fans a reason to go to the park every fifth day. But depth is seriously lacking. Lefty Jimmy Gobble, 23, had good results through AA and hasn't been awful in the big leagues, but his strikeout rate is extremely low, and that's not a good sign. Runelvys Hernandez, 26, was looking like a solid contributor before he missed 2004 due to Tommy John surgery. Brian Anderson is coming off a pretty good second half, but he's been bad more often than good over the past four years. Jose Lima, Kevin Appier, Kyle Snyder, and Mike Wood are vying for the remaining spots. The bullpen is nothing special.
Oakland Athletics (85-77, division title 31%, wild card 1%)
A few years ago, we heard through the grapevine that GM Billy Beane was very happy when our 2002 projections came out. He had just made the difficult decision to let Jason Giambi leave via free agency, and while most of the experts were saying the A's couldn't survive such a loss, our simulations had Oakland repeating as division champs.
The A's did win the division that year. They won it again in 2003, and they would have won it last year had they not squandered the lead in September. Oakland's 2004 team outproduced its opponents by 249 total bases and walks. That was third best in the league and was far superior to the +53 mark posted by the Angels.
So it shouldn't come as a big surprise to see that the A's at the top of the AL West in our simulations despite the trades that sent Tim Hudson to Atlanta and Mark Mulder to St. Louis. Oakland's pitching is no longer a major asset, but it won't be a liability if Barry Zito and Rich Harden get some help from youngsters Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Dan Meyer, who are projected as league-average pitchers based on their minor-league numbers. The bullpen, which squandered a league-high 28 save opportunities last year, looks like it could be very strong in 2005.
Just as important, the A's offense showed signs of life in our simulations after two real-life seasons that saw them finish well below average in scoring. The additions of Jason Kendall, Keith Ginter, and (if 2004 wasn't a fluke) Charles Thomas give Oakland a batting order with seven strong on-base guys plus a pair of middle infielders with good power. It's not exactly the 2003 Red Sox, but it's a one-through-nine lineup that won't give enemy pitchers a chance to relax.
Los Angeles Angels (84-78, division title 29%, wild card 3%)
I know. It doesn't sound right to me, either. I'd just gotten used to calling them the Anaheim Angels instead of the California Angels, and now they've gone and changed the name again. And don't get me started on "Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim". What on earth were they thinking?
But let's move on to more important matters. The defending champs and everybody's favorite to win the West won the division in only 29% of our simulated seasons. How could that be?
This was not a great team in 2004. As was the case in 2002, the Angels were highly efficient, squeezing a good run margin (+102) and a good win total (92) out of a bunch of uninspiring statistics. Even with MVP Vladimir Guerrero, the 2004 offense was a point below the league average in OPS despite tying for the league lead in batting average. That'll happen when you're last in walks and tenth in homers. Their strength was run prevention, with an excellent bullpen bailing out a so-so starting rotation.
During the offseason, the Angels lost Jose Guillen, Troy Glaus, and David Eckstein. Their replacements should be solid, however, as Steve Finley takes over in center (allowing Garret Anderson to slide over into Guillen's spot), Orlando Cabrera fills in at short, and top prospect Dallas McPherson inherits the third-base job from Glaus. No, the problem isn't turnover; it's the guys who stuck around. Offensively, Anaheim was last in the league at first base and 11th at DH. It's not clear that either of those problems has been fixed, and the team still lacks power and high-OBP guys.
The pitching staff hasn't changed much from the group that finished second to Minnesota in fewest runs allowed in 2004. But it's hard to see how they can improve upon or even maintain that performance. Troy Percival's departure weakens what was one of the league's most dominant bullpens. They're still good, but three top relievers aren't enough in today's game. The starting rotation is the same except that Paul Byrd replaces Aaron Sele. That could be an improvement if Byrd makes it through a whole season, something he's been able to do only once in five years. If Byrd (or anyone else) falters, the Angels don't have any good starter candidates waiting in the wings.
Seattle Mariners (83-79, division title 25%, wild card 2%)
Can they really improve by 20 games in one season? If the 2003-04 Tigers can go from 43 wins to 72, why can't Seattle go from 63 to 83?
The 2004 Mariners were an awful offensive team, finishing last in the league in runs, in large part because they were 13th or worse in OPS at three positions. By signing Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre, they fixed their problems at first and third. The shortstop position is likely to remain at the bottom of the league offensively, but if Pokey Reese keeps that job, he'll offset some of that weakness with Gold Glove defense. The result projects to be a decent offense, albeit one that will appear to be worse than average because they play in a pitcher-friendly park.
Last year's Seattle team also had a lot of trouble preventing runs. There are no stars on this staff, except perhaps Everyday Eddie Guardado, but there are a lot of good pitchers, enough to fill out a fairly deep bullpen and a rotation without any major weaknesses. If Bobby Madritsch can build on his 2004 success, and if Gil Meche and Joel Piniero can rebound to their pre-2004 levels, the staff could be quite good. And don't overlook the improved defense. Add Beltre, Reese and Sexson to a team that already has Bret Boone, Ichiro, and Randy Winn, and this could be the league's best.
Texas Rangers (80-82, division title 15%, wild card 2%)
Last year's biggest upside surprise, the 2004 Rangers finished 17 games ahead of our projection by posting an 89-73 record that fell only three games shy of the division lead. About a third of that 17-game surplus can be traced to hitting the efficiency trifecta. They scored 25 more runs and allowed 26 fewer runs than normal given their underlying stats, and they won two more games than usual for a team with a +66 run margin.
As we've shown in the past, these efficiency-related gains rarely sustain themselves. The good news is that they're a young team (other than starter Kenny Rogers, age 40) that didn't lose anyone important over the winter. Unfortunately, their only significant addition was Richard Hidalgo, and you never know what you're going to get from him. He's had some huge seasons and some very mediocre ones, and two of the last three years have been below par.
Only one of their starting pitchers, Ryan Drese, posted an ERA below the league average last year, and Drese's 4.20 figure carries some baggage. For one, his ERA was in the sixes in 2002 and 2003, so one has to wonder whether he figured something out or was just a little fortunate. He's a Derek Lowe type -- few strikeouts, high ground ball rate, not many homers, can't afford to walk too many guys, needs help from his defense -- and we've seen how Lowe's ERA went from great to awful in no time.
Philadelphia Phillies (90-72, division title 53%, wild card 13%)
No team experienced less turnover during the offseason. Kenny Lofton takes over in center field. Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle replace Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton in the rotation. Other than that, it's the same team that won 86 games last year.
We picked the Phillies to win the East in each of the past two seasons. Both times we identified manager Larry Bowa as a risk factor, noting that his intensity could create an environment that wasn't conducive to bringing out the best in his players. We have no way of knowing whether that was their downfall or whether we simply overrated those players.
It's tempting to say that we'll find out this year, with Bowa (and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan) out of the picture and new manager Charlie Manuel at the helm. If they win, many will conclude that Bowa was the problem. We can't really know that, of course, because even though the Phillies haven't changed much, their division rivals have, and any success they have this year might also have come about under Bowa.
Atlanta Braves (86-76, division title 25%, wild card 10%)
In stark contrast with the Phillies, the Braves turned over a good portion of their roster in the last four months. Gone are J. D. Drew, Eli Marrero, Charles Thomas, Russ Ortiz, Paul Byrd, Jaret Wright, Antonio Alfonseca, and Juan Cruz. Over the years, GM John Schuerholz has done a remarkable job of replacing parts and keeping the machine purring, so we'll never bet against him, but it's far from clear that the newcomers will be enough to get the job done one more time.
Without big comebacks from Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan, the Braves will be hard pressed to replace the offense they lost with the departures of Drew and Marrero, even if Marcus Giles can stay healthy all year. Atlanta scored 52 more runs than the league average in 2004 but only 1 more than average in our simulations of the 2005 season.
The pitching looks a little more promising. The big changes are the acquisition of Tim Hudson, the return to the rotation of John Smoltz, and the arrival of Danny Kolb as the new closer. All three have a track record of success and can be expected to contribute at a high level. The rest of the bullpen appears to be a weakness, however, and unless pitching coach Leo Mazzone can work another one of his miracles, this team may have trouble bridging the gap from the starters to Kolb.
Florida Marlins (82-80, division title 12%, wildcard 10%)
A lot of people seem to be picking the Marlins to win the division this year. We see them as a serious contender but not the favorite.
The 2004 Marlins appeared to be a weak offensive team, finishing 11th in the league in scoring and ranking 11th or worse in production at four positions: catcher, first base, shortstop, and left field. After adjusting for their pitcher-friendly home park, however, Florida was solidly in the middle of the pack.
The catcher problem may have been solved by the acquisition of Paul LoDuca last summer, though his numbers were much worse after the trade than before. The addition of Carlos Delgado resolves the first base question. Success at the other positions depends on SS Alex Gonzalez, who needs to bounce back from an awful season, and holdovers Juan Encarnacion and Jeff Conine. The 2005 lineup is loaded with strong on-base guys, has plenty of speed at the top, but is lacking in overall power despite a trio of big bats in the middle of the order.
Florida has some talented young pitchers in Josh Beckett, A. J. Burnett, and Dontrelle Willis, but the staff as a whole has yet to move into the league's top tier. Although the Marlins were 6th in the NL in runs allowed last year, they would have been in the middle of the pack if they played in a neutral park. Still, with a deep bullpen and veteran Al Leiter in the rotation along with the three kids, it's not hard to imagine this staff and this team having a breakout year.
New York Mets (82-80, division title 8%, wild card 8%)
The Mets opened their wallets to two of the game's top players, Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, in this winter's free agency sweepstakes, but is that enough to take them from 71 wins to the top of the division in one season? Maybe not.
The offense will be better, no question. But it has to be. When you're coming off a season in which you scored 67 fewer runs than the league average, you need a lot of help. In addition to Beltran, the Mets need a few other players to step up. Maybe Kaz Matsui will improve in his second season, much as Hideki Matsui did for the Yankees in 2004. Maybe Doug Mientkiewicz will rediscover his batting stroke. (The Mets were last in offense out of the 1B position in 2004.)
Even if you project Pedro for a big season, as we did, the pitching staff doesn't look strong enough to carry an average offense to a division title. Al Leiter was very good last year, but he's in Florida now, and Pedro will have to be at the top of his game to improve upon Leiter's numbers by more than a little. Tom Glavine's ERA was over 5.00 in the second half of 2004 and in the mid-fours in 2003. Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano could be good, or they could be only marginal better than the league average, and it's not clear whether Kaz Ishii will be able to replace Steve Trachsel, who is out for at least half the season. The bullpen doesn't look like it will scare anyone.
Washington Nationals (79-83, division title 2%, wild card 3%)
I'm saddened by MLB's decision to give up on Montreal, a town that supported their Expos very well when the team was good and the team's owners were making an effort. It's hard to blame fans for staying away after years of salary dumps (in a futile attempt to prove that a new stadium was needed for the team to be competitive), threats of contraction, passive ownership by the league, and the relocation to San Juan of a quarter of their home games.
Still, I have to admit to being excited about the prospect of baseball in Washington. It's not so much Washington, because that city doesn't have a great track record of supporting its baseball teams. It's the new beginning. Finally, there's reason to believe they'll have new owners that care, a new stadium to play in, and a front office with the freedom to pursue excellence. If nothing else, the players deserve that.
Even though they're coming off a disappointing season, there's reason to believe the Nationals could be a decent team in 2005, with a solid pitching staff picking up a somewhat weak offense. The batting order could be good, with Brad Wilkerson, Jose Vidro, Nick Johnson, Jose Guillen, and Terrmel Sledge projected to produce well, though it could be undermined if they put low-OBP guys Endy Chavez and Cristian Guzman at the top of the order.
The pitching staff isn't great, by any means, but they have enough arms to be in the middle of the pack. When your pitching is at least average and your offense doesn't stink, you're going to be in a lot of games and you're going to stay within shouting distance of the .500 mark.
St. Louis Cardinals (103-59, division title 99%)
The defending NL champions appear to be every bit as good as they were when they won 105 games in 2004. And with Houston having lost a lot of talent over the winter, they have one fewer division rival to contend with. No team has an easier path to the World Series.
After making allowances for park effects and the DH, this lineup projects to be the best in all of baseball. No foursome instills more fear in enemy pitchers than Larry Walker, Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen. New shortstop David Eckstein isn't a great hitter, but he does project to have a higher on-base percentage than Edgar Renteria did a year ago. The top six are good enough to pile up the runs even without much help from the bottom of the order.
The pitching staff that led the league in ERA last year appears to be even better now. Mark Mulder was awful down the stretch in 2004, but he swears there was no injury, and if he really is healthy, he should be able to put that behind him. Mulder replaces Woody Williams, who is one of only three significant offseason departures. The bullpen won't be as deep without Steve Kline and Kiko Calero, but with most of last year's staff coming back, they're primed for another successful campaign.
Chicago Cubs (83-79, division title 1%, wild card 18%)
After coming within three games of the wildcard, the Cubs go into the season minus Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, Mark Grudzielanek, and Matt Clement. Those are significant losses, but turnover is normal, and the question is whether you took the money you saved on those players and invested it well. They chose to go after Jeromy Burnitz, Jerry Hairston, and Nomar Garciaparra.
It sure looks as if the Cubs have lost more than they gained. Even though a lot of things went right for the Chicago offense last year -- pretty good health, better-than-career-norm performances from several players, and the league's second-best park for offense -- they were still only 7th in the league in scoring. A full season from Nomar will be a big boost, but it's not reasonable to expect a combination of Todd Hollandsworth, Jason Dubois, Jerry Hairston, and a Coors-less Jeromy Burnitz to match what Alou and Sosa provided in 2004.
Clement was every bit as good as Kerry Wood and Mark Prior last year, so he's a big loss. We've penciled Glendon Rusch into Clement's spot in the rotation, and that's a bit of a gamble. Rusch was surprisingly good in 2004 (6-2, 3.47 in 16 starts and 16 appearances out of the pen), but if he reverts to his career ERA of 4.93, their other options aren't exactly championship quality. And it's very, very hard to get excited about this bullpen. Pitching health is always a key factor for any team, but if the Cubs don't get full seasons of top quality pitching from Wood, Prior, Carlos Zambrano, and Greg Maddux, they're not going anywhere.
Houston Astros (77-85, wild card 1%)
Has any team lost more talent without getting anything in return? Jeff Kent is now in Los Angeles. Carlos Beltran is in New York. Wade Miller is in Boston. And all they really added was a pair of old relief pitchers in Dave Burba (38) and John Franco (44), neither of whom is projected to be good this year.
Chris Burke, a minor-league on-base machine with speed and a good glove, could go a long way toward filling Kent's shoes, though with a different mix of skills. But it's very hard to see how they're going to score any runs with Craig Biggio, Adam Everett, and Brad Ausmus in the lineup on a regular basis. And it's not even clear whether Burke will get much playing time. Manager Phil Garner may go with Biggio at that spot.
The pitching staff is full of question marks. Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt should be solid, though Clemens is another year older. Meanwhile, Andy Pettitte is recovering from surgery, Brandon Backe has shown promise but carries a grand total of 9 career starts and a 4.98 career ERA into the season, and the bullpen in front of ace closer Brad Lidge is quite weak. (Tim Redding was in the rotation for our simulations, but he was traded to the Padres yesterday.)
Cincinnati Reds (72-90, wild card 1%)
I keep reading about the new level of excitement in Cincinnati. Apparently, fans and Reds players are encouraged by the flurry of offseason signings and trades that brought Joe Randa, Eric Milton, Ramon Ortiz, and several relief pitchers.
I just don't see it. Last year's Reds team was outscored by 157 runs and outproduced by 408 total bases and walks. In all of major league baseball, only Seattle and Arizona were worse on either count. Statistically, Cincinnati produced at a level that normally leads to about 62 wins, so their 76-86 record was more than a little misleading. In other words, the Reds have a huge hole to climb out of, and adding a bunch of mid-level players isn't going to get it done.
Pittsburgh Pirates (72-90, no postseason appearances)
The Pirates won 72 games last year with the help of Kris Benson (for 20 starts) and Jason Kendall (for the whole season). Those two are gone, and they'll start 2005 with Mark Redman's left arm in the rotation and Matt Lawton's bat in the lineup.
Our simulation results say nothing has changed. The pitching should be in the middle of the pack, with Oliver Perez and Kip Wells heading up the rotation and a pretty good bullpen to back them up. But the offense looks like the worst in the league.
Milwaukee Brewers (70-92, wild card 1%)
Much like the Pirates, the 2004 Brewers were near the bottom of the league in offense and a little below the mid-line in pitching. Like the Pirates, the Brewers tweaked the roster in small ways this winter and came out of that process no better than they went in.
The good news in Milwaukee is that the Scott Podsednik for Carlos Lee trade should turn out well for the Brewers. Lee is a very good hitter with a little speed and more defensive ability than he's given credit for. In Rickie Weeks, J. J. Hardy, Prince Fielder, and Jose Capellan, they have some young kids who may grow into valuable big-leaguers in the next few years. They still have Ben Sheets, one of the game's best starting pitchers. They just don't have enough to contend in 2005.
Los Angeles Dodgers (90-72, division title 57%, wild card 11%)
In GM Paul DePodesta's first season, the 2004 Dodgers were the surprise winners of the NL West crown. Their 93-69 record exceeded their statistical performance by a few games, but this was no fluke. On a park-adjusted basis, they were above average on both sides of the ball. With a very good defense and uber-closer Eric Gagne anchoring a strong bullpen, the Dodgers excelled in protecting leads, blowing only nine save opportunities, by far the lowest number in the majors.
DePodesta hasn't been shy about making moves. Last year, he traded for Milton Bradley just before opening day and pulled the trigger on two big deals at the trading deadline. Over the winter, he gained and lost some big-name players in free agency, and dealt Shawn Green to Arizona.
Oddly enough, all of this activity appears to have left the Dodgers in roughly the same place. In our simulations, their run margin was about what it was in the real-life 2004 season, and the relative contributions of offense and pitching were also about the same. Another oddity, in light of DePodesta's comments in Moneyball about the importance of preserving outs, is the presence in the projected starting lineup of several players with low on-base percentages.
San Francisco Giants (88-74, division title 35%, wild card 17%)
The Giants were almost good enough to make the postseason last year, falling two games short of the division title and one game short of the wildcard.
As was the case last year, when San Francisco finished second in the NL in runs, offense shouldn't be a problem. The addition of Moises Alou is a big plus, but the replacement of A. J. Pierzynski with Mike Matheny will hurt the offense almost as much as Alou will help it. Furthermore, this is about as old a lineup as you'll ever see, with the starters ranging in age from 31 to 40, and that always carries a risk of decline and/or injury. The game's most dominant player, Barry Bonds, is already on the shelf for at least the first quarter of the season.
The pitching staff was a little below the league average in 2004, and with the notable exception of new closer Armando Benitez, it doesn't appear to be much improved. Fixing the bullpen was indeed a priority, as the Giants relief corps blew 28 save opportunities last year, third most in the NL. But they did nothing to upgrade their starting rotation. Jason Schmidt can't do it all by himself.
San Diego Padres (81-81, division title 8%, wild card 7%)
San Diego was remarkably steady in 2004, never going on any big winning or losing streaks, always hanging around the .500 or a little above it. We updated our power rankings every couple of weeks during the season, and it always seemed as if the Padres had gone 7-6 during the most recent fortnight. Their monthly win totals ranged from a low of 13 to a high of 16.
Their two biggest moves of the offseason appear to be a wash. Center-fielder Jay Payton was dealt to Boston for Dave Roberts, and starting pitcher Woody Williams was signed through free agency to replace David Wells. That leaves the team as a viable contender in what appears to be another three-team division race.
Colorado Rockies (70-92, division title 1%)
I still don't know what's going on in Denver. Coming off a 68-win season and facing the prospect of playing without Larry Walker for the first time in a decade, the best they can do is add Desi Relaford, Dustin Mohr, and Darren Oliver?
In addition to Walker, who was traded to the Cardinals last season, the Rockies have lost several players -- Jeromy Burnitz, Vinny Castilla, Shawn Estes, Jeff Fassero, and Steve Reed -- who ranged from respectable to quite good in 2004. And they've done almost nothing to replace those players.
A full season from top pitching prospect Jeff Francis gives fans one good reason to go to the park. But there's not much else to be hopeful about. They're younger, but they're no better than they were last year, and they're a reasonable bet to finish with the worst record in the league in 2005.
Arizona Diamondbacks (68-94, no postseason appearances)
Although many have questioned the big bucks that Arizona threw at free agents this winter, I doubt that anyone would fail to see that the Diamondbacks should be better this year.
They'll score more runs, that's for sure. After finishing dead last in scoring, despite playing in one of the league's better parks for hitters, the Snakes signed Troy Glaus, traded for Shawn Green, and sent Casey Fossum to Tampa Bay for Jose Cruz, Jr. Those moves more than compensate for the trade of Shea Hillenbrand to Toronto.
The pitching should be better, too. That sounds strange, I know, given that Randy Johnson won't be around to take the ball every fifth day. But they did get Javier Vazquez in the Johnson deal. They did sign Russ Ortiz. And, in 2004, they did give a whopping 70 starts to pitchers who finished the year with ERAs of six or higher. That's not likely to happen again.
Even so, from a financial point of view, you have to question whether they'll be getting enough bang for the bucks they'll be laying out. This was a highly inefficient team in 2004. If you compute the number of runs they should have created given their offensive statistics, do the same with their pitching statistics, and compare those two runs created figures, you'll see that their stats supported a win total in the mid-60s.
In other words, history tells us that there's a good chance they would have improved by 12-15 games even if they stood pat this winter. If their free spending results in a gain of 17 games instead, was it really worth it?
With all the attention given to the steroid allegations, it's been a tough winter for baseball fans. But if our simulations are any indication,
19 teams have at least a 10% shot at the postseason. That would make for a great season, one in which the day-to-day stuff will mean a great deal.
When a star right fielder goes down for 8-10 weeks with an
injury, it's likely to have playoff implications. A young phenom or two could make all the difference in a
division or wild card race. When GMs are wheeling and dealing
at the trading deadline, a sizable majority could be trying to get better.
That's a lot more fun than watching the has-beens dump salary while a
handful of elite clubs position themselves for the stretch run.
Here's hoping that we can look back in seven months and talk about another great season of baseball. With any luck, the events on the field will soon push the steroid debate onto the back burner and give us lots to think about as the season unfolds.