SweetSpot: Tampa Bay Rays

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
6:01
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While driving home from work Thursday night, I was listening to the Rays' feed of the Yankees-Rays game when Derek Jeter made a "diving" play. The broadcasters chuckled at Jeter's lack of range and his natural succumbing to Father Time, saying something along the lines of "That's Jeter's range; however he can fall to his right and however he can fall to his left." An inning or so later, the maligned Yanks infield turned a triple play, so there you go. Without further ado, the best from around the SweetSpot Network, week 3:

Boston RedSox: FireBrand of the AL
A large cup of coffee: Jeff Polman catches up with former Red Sox starting pitcher Dana Kiecker. Who’s Dana Kiecker, you ask? He’s just the pitcher who followed Roger Clemens in the 1990 ALCS by starting Game 2. Follow on Twitter: @jpballnut.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Which pitchers have nasty stuff? If you missed the 10-strikeout performance put up on Wednesday afternoon by Masahiro Tanaka, it showed off his nasty stuff. Joe Aiello takes a look at what other pitchers have "nasty" stuff. Follow on Twitter: @vftb

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The art of patience: Collin Whitchurch examines the White Sox offense's hot start as a product of a new organizational emphasis on plate discipline. Follow on Twitter: @cowhitchurch


Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
What are the keys for pitching at Coors? and ¿Cuáles son la claves para lanzar en Coors Field? The debut of Sabermetrics in Spanish, Juan Pablo Zubillaga compares Rockies pitchers with non-Rockies pitchers and analyzes which metrics can indicate success for Rockies pitchers.

Milwaukee Brewers: Disciples of Uecker
The Brewers' line-driving frenzy: Jonathan Judge looks at the value and sustainability of the Brewers' high line-drive rate so far. Follow on Twitter: @bachlaw

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
How good could the 2015 infield really be? Matt Seybold wonders how the Yankees will go about filling the holes they will have in the 2015 infield. Follow on Twitter: @Sport_Hippeaux

How did the "pine tar" affect Pineda's performance? Michael Eder takes a look at what affects, if any, that mysterious blob of goo on Michael Pineda's hand had during his start against Boston. Follow on Twitter: @edermik

Philadelphia Phillies: Crashburn Alley
Phillies showing tremendous plate discipline: The Phillies are drawing plenty of walks, something they haven't done in a few years.

Some fun trivia on Cliff Lee's start against the Braves: Cliff Lee got the tough-luck loss on Wednesday but it made for some interesting trivia. Follow on Twitter: @CrashburnAlley

Tampa Bay Rays: The Process Report
Offense, Myers struggling: Jason Collette shows how 2014 looks a lot like 2011 in the early going for the Tampa Bay offense and why Wil Myers is struggling at the plate. Follow on Twitter: @processreport

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.

Suddenly and swiftly, the Yankees are the ones with the young pitching, while the Rays have question marks in their rotation.

The Yankees have had 25-year-olds Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda become two of the biggest stories of the early going in all of baseball.

The Rays have been hurt by injury after injury to their r, making their favorite status in the AL East a little tenuous.

They have watched as 24-year-old Matt Moore and 27-year-old Jeremy Hellickson have needed elbow surgery. Moore will be gone for the year. Meanwhile, 26-year-old Alex Cobb has a left oblique strain.

On Friday night, they are forced to throw 35-year-old journeyman Erik Bedard.

The Rays supposedly have plenty more young pitchers in the pipeline, but at the moment the Yankees have created some depth in the majors and possibly the minors. Besides Tanaka and Pineda, Ivan Nova is just 27.

Adam Warren is only 26. Warren looks like he could be a dependable setup man and, if given the chance, may be able to become a starter. Other than his disastrous one-start debut in 2012, he has been impressive now for a year-and-a-half.

Joining Warren in the pen is Dellin Betances. Betances, 26, has struck out 11 in 6 1/3 scoreless innings. Though he doesn't always have complete control of his pitches, he is becoming a weapon.

David Phelps is a bit up-and-down, but he is only 27.

On the farm, the Yankees have some potential with Manny Banuelos, Jose Campos and Luis Severino.

As we have already seen this year, pitching depth is a fragile thing. But at the moment, there is a role reversal going on with the Yankees' young pitchers thriving and the Rays taking a step back.

On deck: Hiroki Kuroda (2-1, 3.86) takes on Bedard (0-0, 0.00) in Game 2 of this four-game series. First pitch is set for 7:10 p.m.

Even if Moore's gone, Rays will rebound

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
12:45
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Let’s start off with the obvious: The news for Matt Moore is far from a death sentence as far as his 2014 season is concerned. An inconclusive MRI and a trip to Dr. Andrews’ office are both ominous, but in themselves they are not the end.

The more basic concern is that Moore has had to be shut down for elbow trouble before. Last year, the power southpaw missed 31 games (or about five starts) to inflammation to this same left elbow, and Joe Maddon understandably didn’t sound thrilled the day after Moore had to leave his Monday start early, admitting that the elbow was “worse than what we thought before.”

It’s easy to speculate about how losing Moore for an extended period of time could be disastrous for the Rays’ annual bid to be underdog contender in 2014. Consider who’s in their rotation beyond staff ace David Price; Alex Cobb has yet to notch a 30-start season in the majors, after all. Neither has Chris Archer. Rookie Jake Odorizzi has seven career big league starts; he’s expected to become a midrotation horse in time, but absent Moore they might need that time to be now.
[+] EnlargeChris Archer
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/MCT/Getty ImageThe Rays can't blow off losing Matt Moore for any length of time, but Chris Archer is ready to help.

The thing is that’s by design. This year’s rotation isn’t saddled with a willful science experiment like the comeback of Roberto Hernandez (the mound artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona). It was instead a quintet picked because of their bright futures and readiness. Price is the old man of the group at 28, a man who could add another Cy Young Award or two to his mantel before hitting free agency after 2015. Cobb (4th round, 2006) and Moore (8th round, 2007) are reminders that picking high school arms really can pay off in terms of upside, taken at a time when it seemed as if everyone was overreacting to less-remembered object lesson of "Moneyball," that you should rely on college-groomed arms. Archer (25) was part of the package received for Matt Garza, Odorizzi, a former first-rounder and an egregious bit of ballast bundled into the Wil Myers-James Shields deal with the Royals.

It’s a cadre of talent carefully accumulated and prepped to pick up where that old Rays rotation of Price, Garza and Shields. Heck, it’s a group so good and so young you might be forgiven for pegging them as the gaggle most likely to do a ’90s Braves impression in the back half of the decade. But that’s only on paper, and only if they stay healthy, and as with almost every rotation this side of the ’90s Braves (or the Aughties White Sox), that’s never a sure thing no matter how smart they might be in getting them, and no matter how carefully you manage their workloads.

Asking about whether the Rays have a serious problem depends on your time frame and whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. For the time being, it looks like they might turn to journeyman Erik Bedard, no stranger to the DL himself, and not a guy you can count on to get through opposing lineups three times. If it’s Cesar Ramos instead, you can still ask yourself if the bullpen lefty will do that much better beyond a second time through the order. Either of them will add to the middle-inning load of the bullpen. It’s nothing Joe Maddon hasn’t had to manage around before, but full, healthy seasons from Cobb, as well as Price, would certainly help.

The good news is that the Rays might not have to resort to those kinds of patches in their rotation for long. In the nearer term, Jeremy Hellickson is slowly making his way back from February surgery to remove bodies in his pitching elbow. If he heals on the short side of his recovery plan, he might be back in action in the second half of May, while the long side might involve sometime in June. So the Rays’ window of need in the worst-case scenario might close no later than June -- if Moore has to miss the season, and if Hellickson takes the maximum amount of time to recuperate and gear up, barring any setbacks.

But that’s Hellickson comes back to pitch the way he did before 2013, and while you can hope so, we’ll need to see it happen first. Even though metrics like FIP and xFIP cheerily proposed 2013 was his best season yet because his strikeout rate went up, suggesting he was almost a full run per nine better last year than his 5.17 ERA. While Hellickson earned plenty of top-talent touts in his first two seasons and while he is still just 27 years old, last year he notched just 11 quality starts in 31 turns, his power allowed to opposing batters spiked up to a .176 Isolated Power, and his innings pitched per start dropped to 5.5. The cavalry won’t come if this horse comes back hobbled by that kind of hard-hit, liner-happy ineffectiveness.

This early in a season, it’s easy to be negative. It’s easy to be positive. You can hope Moore will be back in action after two weeks or as many as five (like last year), because last year, Price, Cobb and Moore all spent time on the DL, and the Rays nevertheless made it to the postseason. But that was then, and this is where the rubber meets the road. The last bit of good news is that, even with the defending champion Red Sox in the division, nobody from among the East’s tough quintet of teams looks like they’ll be running out ahead anytime soon. We’ll see if the Rays can roll with this latest injury as effectively as they’ve adapted in the past, but I wouldn’t bet against them, whatever Doc Andrews says to Matt Moore on a day TBNL.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.


Overreact after one series? Of course we're going to overreact! We're baseball fans. It's no fun if we just spout things like "small sample size" and "check back in two months." So, what have we learned after one series? Here are a few trends and things to watch, starting with Evan Longoria.

The Rays third baseman went 2-for-4 in Tampa's 7-2 win over Toronto, slugging a three-run homer for his first home run of 2014. So here's the deal with Longoria: If anyone is going to crack the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout stranglehold on the AL MVP Award, Longoria is the most likely candidate. Consider his merits:

[+] EnlargeEvan Longoria, David DeJesus, Ben Zobrist
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIs this the year Evan Longoria puts it all together for the Rays?
1. He's off to a hot start! Our guy is hitting .400.

2. He's good. Not including 2012, when he played just 74 games, he's finished fifth, sixth, third and fourth in WAR among AL position players and has three top-10 MVP finishes.

3. The Rays are a good bet to make the postseason. MVP voters love that.

4. Longoria is an RBI guy, averaging 110 RBIs per 162 games over his career. MVP voters love themselves some RBIs.

5. He should knock in more than the 88 runs he did last year, when he hit .265 with just four home runs with runners in scoring position (22 of his 32 home runs came with the bases empty).

In truth, as good as Longoria has been, we've kind of been waiting for that monster season, haven't we? Maybe that's unfair to say about one of the best all-around players in the league (did you see the play he made the other night?), but Longoria hit .294 in 2010 and just .269 last season, when his strikeout rate increased to 23.4 percent, easily his highest rate since his rookie season. If he cuts down on the strikeouts, I can see that average climbing over .300 for the first time in his career and the RBIs climbing well over 100.

Other thoughts from many hours of baseball viewing over the past few days:

  • If they stay healthy, the Giants are going to have the best offense in the National League. On Thursday, they scored five runs in the eighth inning to beat the Diamondbacks 8-5. Angel Pagan is a solid leadoff hitter, and Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence provide a juicy meat of the order. I've mentioned Belt as a guy I like to have a big breakout season, and he hit his third home run. Pence seems to get better the higher he wears his pants legs. Posey won't slump like he did in the second half last year. Sandoval hits and eats and hits some more.
  • The Angels’ and Phillies’ bullpens look like disasters. The Mariners pounded every reliever the Angels tried in their series and the Angels are suddenly staring at another bad April start: 9-17 last year, 8-15 in 2012. Jonathan Papelbon looked like a shell of his former shelf in getting roughed up the other day.
  • [+] EnlargeJim Johnson, Bob Melvin
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesStruggling Jim Johnson might get hooked from his role as the A's closer.
  • How long do the A’s stick with closer Jim Johnson? OK, he led the AL in saves the past two seasons. He also led the AL last season in blown saves and was second in relief losses. He has two losses already, he’s not a strikeout pitcher and the A’s have other good relievers. It’s never too early to panic about your closer!
  • How many closers do you have complete confidence in right now anyway? With low-scoring games and tight pennant races, late-inning relief work is going to decide a division title or two. We had six blown saves on Wednesday. The D-Backs coughed up that game on Thursday. The Rockies blew an eighth-inning lead to the Marlins. And so on. Rough few days for the bullpens (in contrast to starters, who generally dominated).
  • A young pitcher who hasn’t yet made his mark to watch: Seattle’s James Paxton showcased electrifying stuff in his first start, striking out nine in seven and throwing 97 mph in his final inning.
  • With Clayton Kershaw missing a few starts, the new Cy Young favorite in the National League: Jose Fernandez. He’s must-watch TV, Pedro-in-his-prime eye candy. His run support will be an issue, but the stuff, poise and confidence are that of a wise veteran, not a 21-year-old kid.
  • In case you had doubts, Michael Wacha is most assuredly the real deal. His changeup is Pedro-in-his-prime nasty. The Reds went 0-for-10 with four strikeouts against it.
  • Veteran Alex Gonzalez is not going to last as the Tigers' shortstop. He simply doesn’t have the range to play there. Stephen Drew, come on down?
  • Manager on the hot seat: Kirk Gibson. The Diamondbacks are off to 1-5 start, and nine of their next 15 games are against the Dodgers (six) and Giants (three). If the D-backs can avoid digging a big hole over that stretch, the schedule does get a little easier starting April 21, when they play 19 consecutive games against teams that finished under .500 in 2013.
  • Tyro Zack Wheeler is not Matt Harvey. Hold down your expectations, Mets fans.
  • We’re going to see a lot more shifts this year. I haven’t checked the numbers, but anecdotal evidence suggests infield shifts are way up. Expect batting averages to continue to plummet as a result.
  • Free-agent-to-be Max Scherzer is going to make a lot of money this offseason.
  • I hope B.J. Upton gets fixed, but I have my doubts. Six strikeouts in his first 12 plate appearances.
  • Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is going to have a high BABIP again. Great stroke to all fields, great balance between attacking fastballs early in the count and waiting for his pitch later in the count. He'll be an MVP candidate again.
  • Clearly, Emilio Bonifacio (11 hits in three games!) is the best player in the NL. OK, seriously: The Royals couldn’t find a spot for this guy on their roster? Ned Yost, everyone!
  • Rookie Xander Bogaerts is ready NOW. He’s hitting .556 with three walks and one strikeout in three games. Maybe the power takes a year or two to fully develop, but his mature, disciplined approach at the plate is going make a star right away.
  • Dave Cameron of FanGraphs suggested this and it’s not outrageous: With Jose Reyes injured, Brad Miller might be the best shortstop in the AL. Or maybe Bogaerts. Could have been Bonifacio, if only the Royals had kept him!
  • Best team in baseball: The Mariners ... too early?
1. The Fast and the Furious III: Who wins the AL MVP Award?

It's the third installment of the epic Mike Trout-Miguel Cabrera trilogy, made even more intriguing by the mammoth contracts the two players just signed. While you can come up with a dozen legitimate MVP candidates in the National League, AL honors will almost surely go to Trout or Cabrera, barring a miracle Mariners run to the AL West title or something like that. Even though Cabrera has dominated the voting the past two seasons -- he received 45 first-place votes to just 11 for Trout -- I'm leaning toward Trout winning in 2014 for the following reasons:

(1) I think he's going to take a small step forward. It's hard to imagine him playing better, but Trout's suggestion that's he going to be more aggressive swinging early in the count could actually be a good thing. Among 140 qualified regulars last season, Trout ranked 140th in swing rate (37 percent). He ranked 131st in swing rate on first pitches. Trout is too disciplined to start hacking at pitches out of the zone, so zeroing in on certain pitches early in the count could lead to more production without sacrificing his walk rate all that much.

(2) Cabrera will be hard-pressed to match the past two seasons. That's not a knock, just an awareness of how good he's been (including a sick .397/.529/.782 line with runners in scoring position last year). Last September's injury issues -- he hit .278 with one home run -- show that Cabrera is human even when his body fails him. He says he's fine after offseason surgery, but it still raises a small question heading into the season.

(3) Only one player -- Barry Bonds from 2001 to 2004 -- has won three consecutive MVP awards. Voters don't like to give it to the same player every year. In fact, Cabrera was just the second AL player in 40 years to win back-to-back MVP honors (Frank Thomas was the last in 1993-94). If the numbers are close, that works in Trout's favor this time around.

(4) More awareness that Trout is the better all-around player. Cabrera has been worth 7.2 and 7.5 WAR (Baseball-Reference) the past two seasons, Trout 10.8 and 8.9. Polls of general managers have indicated they think Trout is the better player. Again, that's not a knock on Cabrera, the best hitter in the game.

(5) The Angels should be better. The biggest roadblock to Trout winning the past two seasons was the Angels missing the playoffs. In recent years, voters have almost exclusively given the MVP Award to a guy on a playoff team. The Tigers are still the better bet for the postseason, so that could ultimately swing the award back to Cabrera for a third straight year.

2. Who is this year's Josh Donaldson or Matt Carpenter?

Historically, these guys had pretty amazing and unique seasons. Donaldson was 27, in his first full season as a starter, and he surprised everyone by finishing fourth in the AL MVP vote. Carpenter, also 27 and playing every day for the first time, finished fourth in the NL MVP vote. And then there was Chris Davis -- also 27 -- who mashed 53 home runs and knocked in 138 runs. He had a little more of a résumé than Donaldson or Carpenter, having hit 33 home runs the year before, but nobody had him as a preseason MVP candidate.

Odds are slim that we'll see even one of those types of performances, let alone three, but since 27 seemed to be the magical age, here are some guys playing their age-27 seasons in 2014: Pedro Alvarez, Jay Bruce, Chris Carter, Colby Rasmus, Evan Gattis, Justin Smoak, Jason Kipnis, Pablo Sandoval, Desmond Jennings, Josh Reddick, Ike Davis, Michael Saunders, Yonder Alonso. Hmm ... Alvarez certainly could go all Chris Davis on us (he hit 36 home runs in 2013), but I don't see a Donaldson or Carpenter in there; then again, we didn't see a Donaldson or Carpenter coming last year. (Guys such as Bruce, Kipnis and Sandoval are already pretty accomplished players.)

If we go down to age-26 players, I see a few more interesting candidates: Brandon Belt (I've written about him), Kyle Seager, Khris Davis, Kole Calhoun, Dustin Ackley. So there you go: Kole Calhoun, MVP candidate!

3. Are the Yankees too old?

Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:

C -- Brian McCann (30 years old)
1B -- Mark Teixeira (34)
2B -- Brian Roberts (36)
3B -- Kelly Johnson (32)
SS -- Derek Jeter (40)
LF -- Brett Gardner (30)
CF -- Jacoby Ellsbury (30)
RF -- Carlos Beltran (37)
DH -- Alfonso Soriano (38)

The top subs are Ichiro Suzuki (40) and Brendan Ryan (32). If those guys ending up staying reasonably healthy, the Yankees won't have one regular younger than 30. I wonder if that's ever happened before. The rotation features 33-year-old CC Sabathia and 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda.

And yet ... the Yankees may be better than we expect. I have them at 84 wins, which is right where the projection systems have them (FanGraphs at 83 wins, Baseball Prospectus also at 83), and I'm beginning to wonder if that's too conservative. Masahiro Tanaka looked terrific this spring and maybe he does match the 2.59 ERA projected by the Oliver system as opposed to the 3.68 of ZiPS or 3.87 of Steamer. Michael Pineda could provide a huge boost to the rotation. The offense is going to score a lot more runs than last year. Yes, age and injuries will be the deciding factor, but the Yankees have defied Father Time in the past.

4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?

I'm going with explode -- in a good way. That doesn't mean he isn't going to give Don Mattingly headaches or miss the cutoff guy every now and then or get a little exuberant on the base paths on occasion or incite columnists to write about the good ol' days when Mickey Mantle always showed up to the ballpark on time. But the positives will outweigh the negatives, he'll provide tons of energy to the Dodgers, he'll be one of the most exciting players in the game and he's going to have a big, big season.

5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?

For a team that won 96 games, the Braves enter the season with a surprising range of outcomes. Minus Brian McCann, Tim Hudson and Kris Medlen, this won't be the same team as last year. But maybe that's a good thing if Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton don't hit .179 and .184 again. The Braves allowed fewer runs in 2013 than any of the Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz teams, so they were going to be hard-pressed to match that run prevention anyway. Implode or explode? I'm going somewhere in the middle, with 86 wins -- which may be just enough to capture a wild card.

6. Who are the most important players of 2014?

The first 10 names that pop into my head, without analysis or explanation (other than to say these are players with a great deal of potential volatility in their performance or a high degree injury risk):

1. Derek Jeter, Yankees
2. Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
3. Tim Lincecum, Giants
4. Billy Hamilton, Reds
5. Francisco Liriano, Pirates
6. Scott Kazmir, A's
7. Albert Pujols, Angels
8. Michael Wacha, Cardinals
9. B.J. Upton, Braves
10. Ubaldo Jimenez, Orioles

7. Which team is baseball's worst?

I'm going with the Astros, although it wouldn't surprise me to see the Phillies plummet to the bottom. Or the Twins. If you want a dark horse team, how about the Blue Jays? The rotation could be a disaster and if even Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and/or Edwin Encarnacion suffer lengthy injuries, the offense could collapse, as well.

8. Is offense going to decrease across the league again?

Considering there's going to be even more drug testing this year, I'll say it drops a tiny bit. Here are the runs per game totals in recent seasons:

2006: 4.86
2007: 4.80
2008: 4.65
2009: 4.61
2010: 4.38
2011: 4.28
2012: 4.32
2013: 4.17

The increased use of defensive shifts will continue to make it harder to hit singles, and the pitching just seems to get better and better. Yes, we had several guys go down with season-ending injuries in spring training -- most notably Medlen, Jarrod Parker and Patrick Corbin -- but we've added Tanaka, we'll get full seasons from the likes of Wacha and Gerrit Cole and Sonny Gray and Chris Archer and Tony Cingrani, and other young guns such as Taijuan Walker, Eddie Butler, Jonathan Gray, Archie Bradley and Jameson Taillon could make major impacts. Plus, Joe Blanton won't be in the Angels' rotation.

9. Who is this year's Pirates?

By "this year's Pirates," we mean a team that finishes under .500 the year before and unexpectedly soars into the playoffs. We actually had three such teams make the playoffs last year: the Pirates, Red Sox and Indians. In 2012, we had the Orioles, A's, Reds and Nationals. In 2011, we had the Brewers and Diamondbacks. In 2010, we had the Reds.

The Royals don't count because they won 86 games last year, so improving a few wins and reaching the playoffs wouldn't be a surprise.

Technically, the Giants fit since they were below .500, but they would hardly be a surprise team just two years after winning the World Series.

Who does that leave? I see three choices in each league:

Blue Jays, Mariners, Angels -- The Blue Jays need their rotation to produce in a tough division, the Mariners maybe can take advantage of injuries to the A's and Rangers. The Angels were below .500, but they've been perennial playoff contenders, so they hardly fit the "surprise" definition.

Padres, Rockies, Brewers -- I'd be most inclined to go with the Rockies here, as they have two stars in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez and just need better production from the back of the rotation (although the early injury to Jhoulys Chacin doesn't help). I've been on the Brewers' bandwagon the past two years and refuse to jump on this year (which means they're probably headed to the World Series).

10. Who are five rookies who will impact the pennant races?

1. Masahiro Tanaka, P, Yankees. Don't be surprised if he's a Cy Young contender.

2. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox. We saw his already-polished game in the postseason last October.

3. Billy Hamilton, CF, Reds. The speed is Cool Papa Bell turn-of-the-light-switch-and-be-in-bed-before-the-room-goes-dark kind of speed. The defense should be above average, but will he hit?

4. Gregory Polanco, RF, and Jameson Taillon, P, Pirates. They won't be up to start the season but will eventually be part of Pittsburgh's playoff drive.

5. Nick Castellanos, 3B, Tigers. With Cabrera moving over to first, he takes over at third base with potential to produce with the bat.

11. Which division race will be the most exciting?

I'm going with the AL West, which should be a three-team race between the A's, Rangers and Angels, with the Mariners possibly making it a four-team race. Or maybe the AL East, which could be a titanic struggle between the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees and Orioles. Or the NL West, which could be a five-team race if the Dodgers fall back to the pack. Or the NL Central, if the Cardinals aren't as dominant as I believe they will be. Or the AL Central, which the Tigers won by only a game last year. Or the NL East ... which, well, I can't see this as anything but a two-team race. (Sorry, Mets, Marlins and Phillies fans.)

12. Who are some other award contenders?

Here are my picks:

AL MVP
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Evan Longoria
4. Adrian Beltre
5. Dustin Pedroia

AL Cy Young
1. David Price
2. Yu Darvish
3. Max Scherzer
4. Justin Verlander
5. Felix Hernandez

AL Rookie
1. Masahiro Tanaka
2. Xander Bogaerts
3. Nick Castellanos

AL home run champ
1. Chris Davis
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Edwin Encarnacion

AL batting champ
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Joe Mauer

NL MVP
1. Yadier Molina
2. Joey Votto
3. Andrew McCutchen
4. Hanley Ramirez
5. Ryan Braun

NL Cy Young
1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Jordan Zimmermann
3. Jose Fernandez
4. Zack Greinke
5. Adam Wainwright

NL Rookie
1. Billy Hamilton
2. Chris Owings
3. Travis d'Arnaud

NL home run champ
1. Giancarlo Stanton
2. Pedro Alvarez
3. Paul Goldschmidt

NL batting champ
1. Joey Votto
2. Andrew McCutchen
3. Yadier Molina

13. Do the Red Sox win it all?
No, but they do make the playoffs. My final standings:

AL East
Tampa Bay: 93-69
Boston: 91-71
New York: 84-78
Baltimore: 84-78
Toronto: 78-84

AL Central
Detroit: 91-71
Kansas City: 82-80
Cleveland: 79-83
Chicago: 71-91
Minnesota: 67-95

AL West
Texas: 88-74
Oakland: 87-75
Los Angeles: 83-79
Seattle: 76-86
Houston: 61-101

NL East
Washington: 93-69
Atlanta: 86-76
New York: 73-89
Miami: 73-89
Philadelphia: 65-97

NL Central
St. Louis: 95-67
Cincinnati: 85-77
Pittsburgh: 84-78
Milwaukee: 79-83
Chicago: 70-92

NL West
Los Angeles: 94-68
San Francisco: 82-80
San Diego: 80-82
Colorado: 79-83
Arizona: 78-84

14. Who wins it all?
I'm going Rays over Dodgers in seven games. And then the David Price trade rumors will begin again two days later.
One of the great unanswered questions of sabermetrics is how much value a manager brings to a team. Maybe it's ultimately something that can't be properly evaluated, since aside from on-field strategic moves, much of what a manager does is difficult or impossible to measure, like communicating with players and staff, keeping a positive clubhouse or dealing with the front office and the media.

But we all agree that a good manager has value. How responsible was John Farrell for the Red Sox winning the World Series? How much credit do we give Mike Matheny? If Joe Maddon is worth four extra wins a season for the Rays, should he be getting paid $20 million per year instead of an estimated $2 million? When teams are currently paying free agents about $6.5 million per win on the open market, what's a good manager worth? Joe Girardi, probably the highest-paid manager, gets $4 million per season, so you could make the argument that the Yankees aren't placing much value at all on Girardi's abilities. (Not that managers should be paid on the same scale as players, but isn't a win a win, no matter where it comes from?)

Anyway, Jon Shepherd of Camden Depot conducted a study to at least give us to a starting point on evaluating managers. He compared projected records to actual records for every team since 2003 and figured out how many wins each manager was above or below the preseason projection. (He used Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections for 2003-09, Marcel for 2010-11 and ZiPS for 2012-13.) It's far from perfect -- if Clayton Kershaw blows out his shoulder, that reflects on Don Mattingly's record even though it's no fault of his own -- but it gives us some results to consider.

For managers who have managed at least three seasons, Jon's top five in wins added per 162 games were Farrell (+5.7), Fredi Gonzalez (+5.5), Tony La Russa (+5.0), Mattingly (+4.7) and Ron Washington (+4.4). You can get the rest of the top 10 by clicking the link above. Interesting that Gonzalez, Mattingly and Washington, three managers the stats guys love to criticize, fared very well in this study. It's also worth noting that Farrell, Gonzalez, Mattingly and Washington are regarded as good communicators with their players.

The bottom five (there were 42 managers in all who had managed three seasons) were Manny Acta (-8.1), John Russell (-7.7), Jerry Manuel (-5.9), Bob Geren (-4.7) and Alan Trammell (-3.0), none of whom are managing now. Eric Wedge was next on the list and he's not managing either. The much-maligned Dusty Baker ranked 36th.

The one guy I was surprised to see not in the top 10 was Maddon, the guy I consider the best manager in the game. His year-by-year totals courtesy of Jon:

2006: -8 (61 actual wins versus 69 projected wins)
2007: -12 (66 actual wins versus 78 projected)
2008: +8 (97 actual wins versus 89 projected)
2009: -7 (84 actual wins versus 91 projected)
2010: +6 (96 actual wins versus 90 projected)
2011: +6 (91 actual wins versus 85 projected)
2012: -3 (90 actual wins versus 93 projected)
2013: +4 (92 actual wins versus 88 projected)

Total: -6.

Of course, take away those first two seasons and Maddon fares much better. Still, the projection systems are usually high on the Rays, so the perception that Maddon is extracting tons of extra value out of a roster of mediocre talent may not really be true. Even the 2008 team that came out of nowhere was projected to do well, at least by Baseball Prospectus. Of course, you can argue that some of the players project well because Maddon uses them in the right situations (he doesn't play Sean Rodriguez much against right-handed pitchers, for example). And the Rays have mostly kept their starting pitchers healthy, which is a credit to Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey.

Maddon is still my No. 1 manager ... and I'd pay him more than $2 million per season.
We're getting closer ...
  • Watched the Baltimore-Tampa Bay game on Wednesday night since it featured Opening Day starters Chris Tillman and David Price. Considering the teams are division rivals, both starters may have held back just a bit and neither pitcher went five innings. I think Price has a huge season coming, one reason I'm picking the Rays to win the AL East. Yu Darvish was going to be my Cy Young pick until his current stiff neck issue means he's going to miss the first week of the season and raises at least a little doubt over his season. I may shift now to Price -- or Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander -- as he became a strike-throwing machine when he returned from his DL stint last season, walking just 13 batters over his final 18 starts. When you can command your stuff like that and throw 95+ mph, a lot of good things are going to happen.
  • The Angels cut Joe Blanton even though he's owed $8.5 million on his contract. Teams still have a hard time admitting mistakes so give Angels GM Jerry DiPoto credit here for cutting bait. It was a bad deal at the time -- Blanton predictably got hammered in the AL after straddling the line of mediocrity in the NL -- and his poor performance (2-14, 6.04 ERA) was a major reason the Angels finished under .500. Blanton was worth -2.0 WAR last year, so even replacement-level pitching from the fifth spot will be an improvement.
  • Strong final start from Rockies Opening Day starter Jorge De La Rosa, with six shutout innings against the Giants with one walk and seven strikeouts. The Rockies will need Jhoulys Chacin to come back strong in May but I'm starting to think the Rockies could be that sleeper team to watch -- a team that finished below .500 in 2013 that could make the playoffs. A lot of that depends on the health of some injury-prone players -- Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Brett Anderson -- but if the back of the rotation holds up the Rockies could crack .500 and surprise.
  • The Mets still haven't decided between defensive whiz Juan Lagares and stolen-base dude Eric Young Jr. for a starting outfield slot. The Mets know Lagares can play center -- his great range and 15 assists allowed him to post 26 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013, the sixth-highest total of any fielder -- but also know the .281 OBP he posted may not get any better. OK, I get that he can't hit. But EYJR, who led the NL with 46 steals, had a .310 OBP with the Mets last year. Young has been worth 0.3 WAR in his major league career, Lagares valued at 3.5 WAR a year ago. Lagares doesn't have to improve with the bat to be a more valuable player than Young. Even if his defense slips a little (he may not get as many assists, for example), he's still the better player.
  • The Pirates locked up Starling Marte to a six-year, $31 million extension, buying out at least one year of free agency and owning options on two more. Looks like a great deal for the Pirates, exactly the kind of below-market rate they need to sign their young players to, and once Gregory Polanco reaches the majors at some point this year, you're going to see what could be one of the best defensive outfields in recent memory with Marte in left, Andrew McCutchen in center and Polanco in right.
  • Tanner Scheppers was named Opening Day starter for the Rangers, in what will be his first career start. I wonder how many pitchers have made their first career start on Opening Day? If I did the search right on Baseball-Reference, it looks like just three (at least since 1914): Lefty Grove of the Philadelphia A's in 1925, Jim Bagby Jr. of the Red Sox in 1938 and Al Gerheauser of the Phillies in 1943. So who were those three guys? Grove had been a star for years for Baltimore in the International League when the A's purchased him. Bagby, son of a former major leaguer, had gone 21-8 in the Class A New York-Penn League in 1937, enough for the Red Sox to start him against the Yankees as a 21-year-old rookie. Boston had been 80-72 in 1937, so starting a rookie seems a little odd. Gerheauser was a 26-year-old minor league vet who had pitched for Yankees' Triple-A club in Newark in 1942. The Phillies had lost 109 games in 1942, so probably were hoping some Yankee magic would rub off on them. (Actually ... that list looks like pitchers who made their major league debut as an Opening Day starter. Fernando Valenzuela's first career start -- after 10 relief appearances in 1980 -- came on Opening Day of 1981. He pitched a shutout and then reeled off seven more starts in a row of nine innings (one wasn't a complete game). He allowed four runs in those eight starts and we had Fernandomania.
  • So Randy Wolf was told he had made the Mariners' Opening Day rotation. And then got released. So ... what? Apparently, the Mariners asked Wolf to sign a 45-day advanced-consent relief form, which would mean the Mariners could release Wolf within 45 days and not have to pay his full season's salary. I didn't know such a possible contract existed, and I don't know how common such requests are, but Wolf refused to sign it and became a free agent. (Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times has the story here.) It's understandable why the Mariners would make the request -- Wolf didn't pitch in the majors last year and was last effective in 2011 and it's possible he would simply be holding a spot for a few starts until Taijuan Walker is ready, but considering Wolf was set to make just $1 million, it makes the Mariners look petty and cheap. It's already hard enough to get players to come to Seattle; this isn't going to help.

Don't doubt the Tampa Bay Rays

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
10:25
AM ET
I don't know why, but I'd been having doubts this offseason about just how good the Tampa Bay Rays would be heading into 2014.

So I ran through an exercise I did for both the Yankees and Mets -- making reasonable guestimates at the WAR totals for every player who figures to be on the roster for some part of the season.

When I did this for the two New York teams, I did it with optimism in mind. There were some reaches among the assessments, as I wanted to see how I could get the two teams to contender status. The Mets' best players are on the young side, so there's a lot of uncertainty. The Yankees' best players are a bit old, so there's uncertainty with them.

The Rays seem to have it just right.

The estimates in the chart on the right peg the Rays for about 45 Wins Above Replacement in 2014. That's about a 6-WAR jump from 2013 and likely makes them a team that will win 90 to 95 games (studies have shown you can estimate a team's win total by adding 48 wins to their collective WAR).

This is very much a "back of the napkin" assessment (to borrow a phrase from the folks at FiveThirtyEight). You can tweak the numbers as you see fit. What we're providing is a starting point.
Here are a few things to take note of as you go through those numbers.

Not many reaches
Almost every guestimate I made had a strong basis in past performance. Evan Longoria has already had three 7-WAR seasons. Ben Zobrist has five straight seasons in which he was worth at least 4.5 WAR. David Price has a pair of seasons in which he was worth 4.8 WAR or more.

Go down the line to the mid-level players and again, you’ll see that our expectations are reasonable. Yunel Escobar has gone 4.7, 2.7 and 3.3 the last three seasons. A 1.5 WAR season would be a bounceback from 2013 for Ryan Hanigan, but he bettered that number in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

The Rays have a consistency (or track record) that is tough to match. And while past performance doesn't guarantee future results, it sure doesn't hurt.

On the rise
The list on the right only has a couple of guestimates that would entail a player doing what he'd never done before.

The key player is second-year outfielder Wil Myers, who I pegged for 4 WAR after his 2-WAR rookie campaign. A 4-WAR outfielder would be akin to Matt Holliday in 2012 or Hunter Pence in 2013. Given Myers' status as one of the game's top young players, it doesn't feel that outlandish to say he could match his .293/.354/.478 slashline over a full season. And if he does, 4-WAR is very achievable.

The starting pitching: So young, so good
The projected current Rays rotation of David Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi is, on average, 25 years old (sub in injured Jeremy Hellickson for Odorizzi and it's 26). That's way younger than the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays, each of whom have a fivesome averaging at least 30 (the Orioles average 28, per MLBDepthCharts.com).

Price's track record speaks for itself. Cobb, Moore and Archer combined for 8.7 WAR last season, with none of the three pitching more than 150 1/3 innings. Our 10-WAR peg for that trio may even be a little conservative.

Odorizzi is the one question mark, but if he falters, the Rays have other prospect options (Enny Romero heads the list) they can plug in with little risk. And the quality of their first four allows them to be patient with their No. 5.

The bullpen is a question, but isn't it always?
I've struggled with trying to evaluate the Rays bullpen, because who would have guessed that Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney would have done what they did. So I made a presumption that Heath Bell could return to past form. He's the only one among their primary relievers for whom we'd consider the assessment a reach. Those others we've cited have decent track records to back up the numbers we've given them.

The Rays can survive one injury, but maybe not more ...
The one issue that the Rays may run into is one that you could arguably say is an issue for every team -- a lack of offensive depth. The Rays bench, which will be made up of the likes of Jerry Sands, Logan Forsythe and Sean Rodriguez is weak. The farm system, which Keith Law ranks 23rd in the majors, lacks positional players with punch.

One of the reasons Tampa Bay was good last season was that it had six players play at least 139 games (only the Orioles had more). It will need that sort of good health again in 2014.

What does it mean?
If you're going to power rank the Rays for any sort of preseason assessment, you're justified in giving them a good number of wins ... again. Will it be enough to win the AL East? That remains to be seen.
Some stuff to check out ...
  • With the season-ending injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, and the delayed start to Mike Minor's season, it was a little surprising the Braves cut Freddy Garcia, who you may remember actually started a playoff game last year for the Braves. He was a non-roster invite to camp but they instead decided to go with 25-year-old rookie Gus Schlosser, a 17th-round pick in 2011 who posted a 2.39 ERA in 25 starts in Double-A in 2013. Despite the impressive numbers in Double-A, Baseball America didn't rank him as one of the Braves' top 30 prospects, even though his fastball reaches the low 90s. He's a sidearmer so has to prove he has an out pitch against left-handers. Martin Gandy of Chop County has his thoughts on the decision.
  • Interesting little graphic from FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine on MLB's youth movement. Neil checked the percentage of overall MLB WAR contributed by players 25-and-younger each season since 1976. Neil writes: "In 2013, about 28 percent of all Wins Above Replacement were created by the under-25 set. That was the ninth-largest share for any season since 1976. Output from youngsters has been on the upswing since the mid-to-late 1990s, when the percentage of WAR from young players hit its nadir. That nadir happened to occur at the height of baseball’s so-called steroid era."
  • Last week, It's About the Money had a good series comparing the Yankees to their AL East rivals, reaching out to the other blogs on the SweetSpot network. Here's a look at Yankees-Red Sox, plus Yankees-Blue Jays, Yankees-Rays and Yankees-Orioles.
  • Mike Petriello of FanGraphs (and a contributor to ESPN Insider) with a good piece on Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who uses advanced data on pitch location to try and improve his pitch framing. Ellis admits his weakness has always been the low pitch but he likes the data, telling Mike, "The thing I like about the pitch framing stats, which I need some more information on how they determine what it is, at least it’s giving me a number, a bar, so I know where I’m at right now, and at the end of the year I can check and see, 'hey, did I get better?'" At the SABR Analytics conference two weeks ago in Arizona, Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy estimated 5 to 10 percent of major leaguers would know what FIP is. As Ellis shows, that number will only rise in the future.
  • Speaking of the SABR Analytics conference, Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus looks at the big questions to come out of the conference.
  • Richard Bergstrom of Rockies Zingers writes about Rockies co-GM Bill Geivett, who was on the GM's panel at the conference.
  • Grantland's Jonah Keri had a long conversation with A's general manager Billy Beane and owner Lew Wolff.
  • Chris Jones of ESPN The Magazine with a feature on Royals coach Mike Jirschele, who spent 36 years playing, coaching and managing in the minors. But spending so long in the bushes was hardly the toughest thing Jirschele had to deal with.
  • Ryan P. Morrison of Inside the 'Zona on the Diamondbacks' first two losses in Australia to the Dodgers.
  • Brandon Land of One Strike Away on the Rangers' spring injuries, including Jurickson Profar's shoulder issues.
  • Nick Kirby of Redleg Nation with Part 1 of a two-part NL Central preview. This part examines the lineups and pitching staff of all five clubs.
  • Marc W. at the U.S.S. Mariner has an involved look at James Paxton and his high groundball rates in his four starts last season for the Mariners -- despite pitching primarily up in the strike zone. It's sort of about Paxton but it's also about how pitching in general works.
  • Finally, can the Astros make the playoffs? Well ... Baseball Prospectus ran through 50,000 simulations of the 2014 season and the Astros won the AL West in 0.4 percent of them and made the playoffs 1.3 percent of the time. Sam Miller checks out at those "playoff" seasons, including season No. 33913 in which the Astros won 99 games. You never know!
Ramirez and PuigJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesWatch out, NL: The Dodgers will be getting a full season from Puig and Ramirez.
Are star players important?

You're an idiot, Schoenfield. Of course they're important. Go back to your day job.

OK, maybe there's a better way to rephrase that question. Which team has the best five core players? And is that a good indicator for reaching the postseason?

Let's do this. Using Baseball-Reference WAR as our baseline for determining a team's five best players, here are the top 10 teams in 2013 ranked by the combined WAR of their core five:

1. Detroit Tigers: 28.9
Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister

2. Boston Red Sox: 27.2
Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Clay Buchholz

3. Los Angeles Dodgers: 26.3
Clayton Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, Juan Uribe, Adrian Gonzalez

4. Pittsburgh Pirates: 25.1
Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Russell Martin, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez

5. St. Louis Cardinals: 24.6
Matt Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Shelby Miller, Matt Holliday

6. Colorado Rockies: 24.2
Jhoulys Chacin, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Jorge De La Rosa, Nolan Arenado

7. Texas Rangers: 24.1
Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Craig Gentry

8. Cincinnati Reds: 22.6
Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Shin-Soo Choo, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey

9. Atlanta Braves: 22.4
Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Kris Medlen

10. Oakland Athletics: 22.2
Josh Donaldson, Bartolo Colon, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Jed Lowrie

Maybe it's not too surprising that eight of those 10 teams made the playoffs. You don't make the playoffs without a solid core of excellent players. The two playoff teams not in the top 10 were the Rays, with 21.6 WAR from their top five guys (13th), and the Indians with 21.5 (14th). So, yes, stars are important.

However, it's also worth noting that most teams rated very similarly in the combined WAR from their best five players, at least in 2013: 17 teams ranked between the 22.6 WAR of the Reds and the 18.8 of the Orioles. That’s less than a four-win difference, not that four wins isn't important, but also a signal that roster spots six through 25 are often the difference between making the playoffs or heading on a fishing trip in October.

Another way to spin that is to look at the teams that received highest percentage of their overall team WAR from their five best players:

1. Astros: 153 percent
2. Phillies: 110 percent
3. Mets: 95 percent
4. Mariners: 90 percent
5. White Sox: 86 percent
6. Marlins: 84 percent
7. Brewers: 78 percent
8. Twins: 74 percent
9. Diamondbacks: 73 percent
10. Rockies: 72 percent

Yes, you're reading that correctly: The Astros and Phillies received more value from their top five players than they did from their entire rosters -- meaning, the rest of their rosters behind their core five were below replacement.

The main thing to take away from these "imbalanced" teams: None of them had a winning record (the Diamondbacks finished .500). The rest of the roster matters. Take a team like the Mariners. Led by Hisashi Iwakuma and Felix Hernandez, the 21.1 WAR from their top five players was on par with Rays, Indians; the rest of the roster was, collectively, horrible. Robinson Cano brings more star power to Seattle but doesn't solve the team's biggest issue, the lack of quality depth.

What about 2014? Here are my top 10 core fives heading into the season:

1. Los Angeles Dodgers
Clayton Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez


This group could be even better than it was in 2013 with full seasons from Ramirez and Puig. Greinke was so dominant over his final 16 starts (1.57 ERA) that he’s a reasonable Cy Young candidate behind his best-starter-in-baseball teammate. The fifth player on the list could be Gonzalez or Matt Kemp or even third starter Hyun-Jin Ryu.

2. Detroit Tigers
Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Ian Kinsler


You have the reigning two-time MVP and then two Cy Young winners and then last year's American League ERA champ in Sanchez. Kinsler will have to prove that his offensive game translates from Texas to Detroit, but his all-around game has been valuable in recent seasons.

3. Texas Rangers
Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Prince Fielder


A little bit of everything: An ace pitcher, power and defense from Beltre, slick defense and speed from Andrus and two left-handed batters who get on base. The additions of Choo and Fielder help bring some lefty balance to the Rangers lineup and lead to more runs for a lineup that slipped a bit last season.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates
Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Russell Martin, Pedro Alvarez


My underrated core five. I like McCutchen to repeat his MVP season (in numbers, at least, if not in hardware), Marte and Martin to excel on defense and do just enough at the plate, Alvarez to slam 30-something homers again and Cole to become a breakout star in his sophomore season.

5. St. Louis Cardinals
Adam Wainwright, Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Michael Wacha, Matt Holliday

What makes the Cardinals impressive is that this core could also include Shelby Miller or Allen Craig.

6. Tampa Bay Rays
Evan Longoria, David Price, Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist, Alex Cobb


Price, Myers and Cobb didn't spend the entire season on the active roster (Price and Cobb missed time with minor injuries while Myers began the year in Triple-A), so odds are strong this group could outperform last year, especially if Myers blossoms in his sophomore campaign.

7. Washington Nationals
Bryce Harper, Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman


If you want slightly off-the-radar awards picks, how about Harper for MVP and Zimmermann for Cy Young?

8. Atlanta Braves
Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel


Kimbrel, who turns 26 in May, is the oldest player in the group.

9. Milwaukee Brewers
Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, Jean Segura, Yovani Gallardo


A little weak in the pitching department, but Braun should return to his MVP-caliber play and Gomez was MVP-caliber in 2013. Lucroy produces at the plate and is one of the best pitch-framers in the business. Segura is an exciting plug who has to prove his second-half slump in 2013 was simply fatigue.

10. Boston Red Sox
Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Shane Victorino


A good bet to regress, as a large portion of Victorino's value came from his outstanding defense and Big Papi will get old one of these years.
The appreciation of framing pitches isn't a new concept -- scouts and managers have acknowledged the ability of good defensive catchers since the days they used chunks of raw meat for extra padding and we've all heard Tim McCarver discuss the topic for years -- but what is relatively new is the attempt to measure that value.

Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks of Baseball Prospectus came out earlier this week with an impressive new study on the topic in a piece titled "Framing and Blocking Pitches: A Regressed, Probabilistic Model." The data requirements for the study were extensive and the math complex but their results indicate that the value of a good receiving catcher matches what other studies have produced. Which is a quite a lot. They write:
Our data suggest that over the past five years, the teams that have employed good framers like Jonathan Lucroy, Brian McCann, and Jose Molina have received essentially "free" MVP-caliber seasons from framing alone. (Each of those catchers has been worth about two extra wins per season over that span). This is a staggering amount of value. Add in the fact that these wins are almost assuredly not properly priced into the free agent market, and the difference between having a good framing catcher or a bad framing catcher can make or break a cost-conscious team.


You can read the article for the in-depth explanation of the study. Harry and Dan write, "Rather than identifying a single strike zone and giving binary credit for each pitch relative to that strike zone's borders (i.e., strike or no strike), our model gives partial credit for each pitch based on that pitch's likelihood of being called a ball or a strike. To determine that, we created a probability map of likely calls."

This includes categorizing different pitches into separate groups (fastballs, curveballs, sliders, etc.) but also specific pitches within each group -- for example, two-seam fastballs, four-seam fastballs and sinkers would be part of the fastball group. The run value of the count is also considered. Framing a 3-2 take is more valuable than framing a 0-0 take. The pitcher is also considered. As the authors write,
Because catching necessarily involves pitching, and because pitching talent is not equally distributed across the league, it can be difficult to correctly assign credit for each catcher's contribution to a framing total. For example, if Mariano Rivera, Brian Wilson, or Derek Lowe is your batterymate, you are likely to get more favorable calls than if your batterymate is Andrew Miller, Brandon League, or Micah Owings.


So they adjusted for all that, or at least the best they could.

They studied 2008 to 2013. The top five catchers in overall framing runs earned were Brian McCann (+127), Jose Molina (+116), Jonathan Lucroy (+94), Russell Martin (+91) and Ryan Hanigan (+74). Yadier Molina ranked seventh. No surprises there, as those guys have ranked high in previous studies and all carry reputations as outstanding defensive catchers (Lucroy is maybe the one guy who doesn't get a lot of credit for his glove outside of sabermetric circles). The bottom five: Ryan Doumit (-124), Gerald Laird (-83), Chris Iannetta (-75), John Buck (-55) and Nick Hundley (-55).

The article also lists some of the pitchers who have received the "worst" support from pitch framing. Justin Masterson (-40 runs) and Felix Hernandez (-30) have been hurt the most here. Masterson, of course, has thrown a lot of innings to Carlos Santana, who isn't regarded as a positive behind the plate, while Hernandez has thrown to a variety of poor pitch framers (five the 10 lowest-rated catchers on a rate basis played for the Mariners in this period).

The big question: Do the results pass the sniff test? Is it possible the best pitch framers are worth 20 runs (about two wins) a season? That's about one run a week. It seems like a lot of value, especially when the best players (Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera) are worth 7 to 10 wins above replacement level. Is Ryan Hanigan's ability to frame pitches worth one-fifth of Mike Trout's overall value? I think it's reasonable when you consider that catchers are involved in every pitch.

The value of framing explains why a smart team the Rays signed Jose Molina a couple years ago and traded for Hanigan this offseason. For teams that don't value pitch framing, look at the Mariners, who traded for non-catcher Jesus Montero a couple years ago and signed Buck this winter. With Montero flopping on defense, the Mariners were forced last season to rush Mike Zunino to the big leagues.

But maybe there's good news there: Zunino, in his short time in the majors, has rated very well at framing pitches.

Team over/unders: Best bets

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
11:56
AM ET
Listed below is each team's over/under win total from Bovada.lv. For each group of five teams, I'll ask you to vote on which one is the best bet to exceed its win total. Wisdom of the crowds, right?

(By the way, if the win totals seem low, they're not. There are 2,430 major league games ... the win totals actually add up to 2,443; so if anything, they're a tiny bit too high.)

SportsNation

Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?

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    15%
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    17%
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    17%
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    25%
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    26%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,858)

30. Astros: 62.5
29. Cubs: 69.5
28. Marlins: 69.5
27. Twins: 70.5
26. Mets: 73.5

I'm going with the Marlins here. The infield is a bit of train wreck on offense, but I think the young rotation with Jose Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez and Jacob Turner could be very good. A full season from Christian Yelich and a healthier season from Giancarlo Stanton will help, and they've added a couple of bats in Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Garrett Jones, who aren't great but are better than what they had last season.


SportsNation

Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?

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    17%
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    21%
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    25%
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    18%
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    19%

Discuss (Total votes: 13,837)

25. White Sox: 75.5
24. Rockies: 76.5
23. Phillies: 76.5
22. Padres: 78.5
21. Brewers: 79.5

I'll reluctantly go with the Padres here. They don't have individual star power, but I think their 25-man depth should push them over .500. The White Sox could certainly be interesting if Jose Abreu proves to be the real deal, but 75.5 wins is still 12.5 more than 2013. The Brewers are tempting with the return of Ryan Braun and the addition of Matt Garza, but Jean Segura's second-half fade is a concern and I don't like the righty-heavy nature of the lineup.


SportsNation

Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?

  •  
    15%
  •  
    20%
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    38%
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    17%
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    10%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,014)

20. Blue Jays: 79.5
19. Diamondbacks: 80.5
18. Orioles: 80.5
17. Indians: 80.5
16. Mariners: 81.5

You can make pretty good arguments for four of these teams. The Mariners? Not so much. I'm going with the Diamondbacks -- hey, maybe they can go 81-81 for the third season in a row! Arizona has a star in Paul Goldschmidt, two elite defenders in the outfield in Gerardo Parra and A.J. Pollock, a guy in Mark Trumbo who could hit 40 home runs and some players returning from injury. Rookie Archie Bradley could provide a nice midseason lift to the rotation, as well, and the bullpen looks deeper with the addition of Addison Reed.


SportsNation

Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?

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    29%
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Discuss (Total votes: 15,370)

15. Royals: 81.5
14. Pirates: 83.5
13. Reds: 84.5
12. Giants: 86.5
11. Angels: 86.5

The oddsmakers are projecting some regression from the Royals, Pirates and Reds. One note on the Royals: From June 1 on, they had the second-best record in the majors behind the Dodgers. They've made some minor additions with the likes of Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki to help improve an offense that ranked 11th in the AL in runs scored. The concern: They allowed just 601 runs last year, the second-lowest total in the AL in the past two decades. They will likely allow more than that in 2014. Can the offense make up for it? I think so. I'll take the over for the Royals.


SportsNation

Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?

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Discuss (Total votes: 16,627)

10. Yankees: 86.5
9. Rangers: 86.5
8. Braves: 87.5
7. Red Sox: 87.5
6. Nationals: 88.5

Hmm ... considering I have the Nationals winning the NL East, I'll go with them. They did win 86 games last season, so I can certainly see a three-win improvement (and more). On the other hand, it's not like any of the regulars had a terrible season, or that we should expect obvious improvement from somebody. But the bench was horrible last year and will be better. Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon should play and are solid bets to improve. Doug Fister adds another quality arm to the rotation. I like them to win 90-plus games.


SportsNation

Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?

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Discuss (Total votes: 16,376)

5. Rays: 88.5
4. A's: 88.5
3. Tigers: 89.5
2. Cardinals: 90.5
1. Dodgers: 92.5

Five playoff teams from last year. So we're essentially asking: Which team is the best bet to return to the playoffs? I'm going with the Cardinals here, since I do have them as my No. 1 overall team heading into the season. I like their depth across the board: Position players, rotation and bullpen. I like their youth. I think the Pirates and Reds are a little weaker than last season. St. Louis won 97 games last year and I wouldn't be shocked to see the Cardinals do it again.

Lineup discussion: AL East

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
11:06
AM ET
In our continuing discussion of lineups, let's move over to the American League and the division with the deepest group of lineups in the majors.


Boston Red SoxBoston Red Sox

Key question: Who replaces Jacoby Ellsbury in the leadoff spot? The Red Sox scored 56 more runs than the Tigers to easily lead the majors in runs scored. With Ellsbury having a solid season, the Red Sox ranked fourth in leadoff on-base percentage. Who fills his shoes? For now, manager John Farrell has indicated Daniel Nava will lead off against right-handers (.390 career OBP versus righties) and Shane Victorino versus left-handers (.373 career OBP versus lefties).

Projected lineup
Daniel Nava, LF
Shane Victorino, RF
Dustin Pedroia, 2B
David Ortiz, DH
Mike Napoli, 1B
A.J. Pierzynski, C
Xander Bogaerts, SS
Will Middlebrooks, 3B
Jackie Bradley Jr., CF

Jonny Gomes is back to platoon with Nava in left field, and David Ross forms a perfect platoon partner for Pierzynski at catcher. Bogaerts has the ability to move up in the order if he shows the same patience and discipline he displayed in the playoffs. Don't be surprised if he's hitting second at some point in the season.

Suggestion: The switch-hitting Victorino has always been better from the right side. Last year, he was forced to hit exclusively from the right side down the stretch due to hamstring and back issues. And guess what? He hit .300/.386/.510 in 115 plate appearances hitting right-on-right. His grand slam in Game 6 of the ALCS came against a right-hander. His three-run double in Game 6 of the World Series came off righty Michael Wacha. Yes, it's only 100 at-bats, but it's much better than what Victorino has done from the left side in his career. He says he won't get away from switch-hitting, but maybe he should.

Tampa Bay RaysTampa Bay Rays

Key question: Where does Wil Myers hit? Joe Maddon moved his prized rookie all around the lineup in 2013 -- 25 times in the cleanup spot, 20 times in the fifth spot, 21 times batting sixth, plus 19 times batting second or third. In the postseason, he hit second, third and fourth. So your guess is as good as mine. Considering Maddon used 147 different lineups last year, we can probably expect a lot of moving around again.

Projected lineup
David DeJesus, LF
Ben Zobrist, 2B
Evan Longoria, 3B
Wil Myers, RF
Matt Joyce, DH
James Loney, 1B
Desmond Jennings, CF
Yunel Escobar, SS
Ryan Hanigan, C

I suspect the only guarantees here are that Zobrist, Longoria and Myers will fill three of the first four spots. DeJesus could lead off against right-handers, with Jennings or Zobrist moving up to the leadoff spot when DeJesus is benched against lefties. Hanigan and Jose Molina will share time behind the plate, but both hit right-handed, so it won't be a strict platoon (although Hanigan has a career .393 OBP against left-handers).

Suggestion: I don't think Maddon needs any suggestions.

Baltimore OriolesBaltimore Orioles

Key question: Who takes over the leadoff spot? Nate McLouth started there 108 times last year, but he left as a free agent. Nick Markakis seems to be the likely choice, but that points to some issues with the Baltimore lineup: Only Chris Davis had an OBP higher than .335 last season and McLouth (30 steals) and Adam Jones (14) were the only two with double-digit stolen base totals.

SportsNation

Which team has the best lineup in the AL East?

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Discuss (Total votes: 3,954)

Projected lineup
Nick Markakis, RF
Manny Machado, 3B
Adam Jones, CF
Chris Davis, 1B
Matt Wieters, C
J.J. Hardy, SS
David Lough, LF
Designated hitter
Second baseman

The Orioles hit home runs -- 212 of them last year, 24 more than any other team. But they ranked just 10th in the AL in OBP and were thus fourth in the league in runs scored. Davis actually spent most of last season hitting fifth (101 starts there) before Buck Showalter finally realized you shouldn't have your best hitter batting fifth. He and Jones will hit third and fourth in some order (they could switch back and forth depending on the starting pitcher). The big problem is the fifth spot, as neither Wieters (.287 OBP) nor Hardy (.306 OBP) get on base much.

Suggestion: Take a few pitches. The Orioles were 14th in walks last season. Maybe that's not a surprise considering hitting coach Jim Presley wasn't exactly known for his patient approach at the plate during his big league days. Jones and Machado each drew fewer than 30 walks in 700 plate appearances, ranking third and ninth in lowest walk percentage among regulars. Jones is probably what he’s going to be at this point, but at least Machado is young enough to improve.

New York YankeesNew York Yankees

Key question: How many more runs can this lineup be expected to score? The Yankees scored 650 runs last year -- their lowest total since scoring 603 in 1990 (where have you gone, Oscar Azocar?). Baseball Prospectus projects the Yankees to score 716 runs, a total that would have ranked eighth in the AL in 2013.

Projected lineup
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
Derek Jeter, SS
Carlos Beltran, RF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Brian McCann, C
Alfonso Soriano, DH
Brett Gardner, LF
Kelly Johnson, 3B
Brian Roberts, 2B

That looks a lot better than Lyle Overbay, Chris Stewart and Vernon Wells. But they're also missing one of the best hitters in the league with the departure of Robinson Cano. I suspect we'll see Gardner hitting first or second quite often -- when Ellsbury or Jeter gets a day, when Ellsbury gets hurt or if Jeter struggles. You'll see Beltran getting time at DH with Soriano playing a little outfield. With so many old guys and injury risks, the bench -- Brendan Ryan, Eduardo Nunez, Ichiro Suzuki -- will get plenty of playing time.

Suggestion: Jeter was great in 2012 -- he lead the league with 216 hits -- but in 2011 and 2010 he was pretty worthless against right-handed pitchers, hitting .261/.322/.326. Joe Giradi needs to manage the player and not the legend. If Jeter hits like that again -- and that's a more likely result than the .294/.346/.377 he put up against righties in 2012 -- Girardi shouldn't hesitate to move Jeter down against right-handers and move up Gardner or Beltran to the 2-hole.

Toronto Blue JaysToronto Blue Jays

Key question: Will they stay healthy? Only three guys played at least 120 games last year: Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind and J.P. Arencibia. Thankfully, Arencibia and his .227 OBP are gone (it was the second-lowest OBP since 1901 for a player with at least 475 plate appearances). With better health, you can expect the Jays to score more than 712 runs.

Projected lineup
Jose Reyes, SS
Melky Cabrera, LF
Jose Bautista, RF
Edwin Encarnacion, 1B
Adam Lind, DH
Colby Rasmus, CF
Brett Lawrie, 3B
Dioner Navarro, C
Ryan Goins, 2B

It will be interesting to see what John Gibbons does with the second slot. Cabrera started there last year but was moved down when he didn't hit. For most of May through late July, he hit Bautista second and Encarnacion third. Even though Lind was having a good year, Gibbons later went back to hitting those three guys 3-4-5 (at least until Bautista went down for the year in late August) and sort of punting the No. 2 spot.

Suggestion: If Cabrera doesn't hit closer to what he did in 2011 and 2012, how about Rasmus for the second spot? Yes, he strikes out a lot, but his .276/.338/.501 line would be nice higher up in the order.
The Boston Red Sox go into the 2014 season as the defending American League East champions. Not only do they have the World Series target on their backs, they also have four divisional foes trying to unseat them. During the next few days, we will compare the champs to each challenger within the division in a "Tale of the Tape" format. All listed player projections are from Dan Szymborski's ZiPS machine. We did the Blue Jays here, the Yankees here and the Orioles. Last up, the Tampa Bay Rays.

2013 Final Record
  • Boston: 97-65
  • Tampa Bay: 92-71
2014 Projected Standings from Baseball Prospectus
  • Boston: 89-73
  • Tampa Bay: 89-73
Key Additions
Key Losses
Catching
Boston decided to move on from Saltalamacchia and replaced him with Pierzynski (.312 wOBA). Pierzynski and David Ross (.288 wOBA) give the club a very experienced -- as well as aged -- duo at the position. Pierzysnki has played at least 125 games for 12 consecutive seasons and is coming off the best two-year run at the plate of his career. When he has been catching, opposing baserunners have converted 71 percent of their stolen base attempts, going 125 of 176.

Tampa Bay has eschewed offense for defense since trading away John Jaso and acquiring Jose Molina (.276 wOBA). What Molina lacks at the plate, he more than makes behind it as he has finished first and fourth in the past two seasons in pitch framing as measured by Runs Above Average. They enhanced the pitch-framing value by acquiring Ryan Hanigan (.298 wOBA), who is also very adept at the skill. Combined, the two players have been 77.6 RAA over the past two seasons. Hanigan also led the National League over the past two seasons by throwing out 47.4 percent of potential basestealers.

Advantage -- Tampa Bay

Infield
For the first time since 2009, Tampa Bay returns its entire starting infield. All four members were Gold Glove finalists and the Tampa Bay infield finished second to Baltimore for most Defensive Runs Saved in the American League. James Loney (.316 wOBA) returns after a surprise bounce-back season, and Ben Zobrist (.342 wOBA) will spend a large majority of his time at second base rather than moving all over the field. Yunel Escobar (.308 wOBA) gave the team its best shortstop play in quite some time after a rough start out of the gate and the team needs Evan Longoria (.362 wOBA) to have back-to-back healthy seasons to lead the offense. Sean Rodriguez (.295 wOBA) and Logan Forsythe (.314 wOBA) provide depth from the bench.

The strength of the Boston infield is on its right side. Mike Napoli (.350 wOBA) and Dustin Pedroia (.340 wOBA) combined for 25 runs saved defensively while providing above league-average production at their respective positions. The left side of the infield is a larger question mark as Boston let Stephen Drew leave via free agency and is entrusting the shortstop position to the talented yet inexperienced Xander Bogaerts (.333 wOBA). Bogaerts earned that role with an impressive showing late in the season and throughout the postseason. Will Middlebrooks (.312 wOBA) showed excellent power but struggled to get on base and cost the team eight runs defensively at third base.


Advantage -- Tampa Bay

Outfield
The Tampa Bay outfield defense was a weakness for the club in 2013. The group was 20 runs below league average. David DeJesus (.315 wOBA) will be in left field when right-handed pitchers are on the mound, Desmond Jennings (.321 wOBA) has center field, and Wil Myers (.341 wOBA) is expected to play most games in right field. Matt Joyce (.342 wOBA) will share duties in right field when not serving as the designated hitter against right-handed pitching. Forsythe, Rodriguez and Brandon Guyer (.318 wOBA) could get time as well as both DeJesus and Joyce need platoon partners against left-handed pitchers.

Boston is asking a lot from Jackie Bradley Jr. (.308 wOBA) to fill Ellsbury's shoes in center. Ellsbury, who was worth 9.1 and 5.8 wins above replacement in his two most recent full seasons, also saved 13 runs defensively last season. Manager John Farrell platooned Jonny Gomes (.327 wOBA) and Daniel Nava (.322 wOBA) as they managed the intricacies of playing left field in Fenway Park. Shane Victorino was everything the club expected and more in right field, fighting through injuries to save 24 runs in right field while providing above-average offensive production during 122 games. Reclamation project Grady Sizemore and Mike Carp offer depth from the bench.

Advantage -- Tampa Bay

SportsNation

Which team will win more games?

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Discuss (Total votes: 795)

Starting Rotation
Boston enjoys the rare luxury of being able to return its entire starting rotation a season after winning it all. Jon Lester (197.2 IP, 3.77 FIP), John Lackey (166 IP, 4.10 FIP), Clay Buchholz (128.2 IP, 3.89 FIP) and Jake Peavy (149.1 IP, 3.67 FIP) give the club a formidable foursome. There are a few names in play for the final spot, such as Ryan Dempster (149 IP, 4.44 FIP), Felix Doubront (137.1 IP, 4.15 FIP) Brandon Workman (124 IP, 4.49 FIP) and Drake Britton (110 IP, 5.05 FIP). Boston enjoys depth at this position in the upper levels of the organization.

Tampa Bay had four of its five starters spend time on the disabled list in 2013 while Jeremy Hellickson and the since-departed Roberto Hernandez led the team in the starts. The Rays decided to retain David Price (207 IP, 3.27 FIP) rather than trade the ace two years ahead of his free agency. Alex Cobb (200 IP, 3.31 FIP) made strong strides forward last season around the two months he missed while recovering from the line drive to the head off the bat of Eric Hosmer. Matt Moore (174 IP, 4.06 FIP) looks to work on consistent fastball command while Chris Archer (155 IP, 4.13 FIP) works on improving against left-handed batters. Hellickson will open the season on the disabled list, allowing Jake Odorizzi (91 IP, 4.36 FIP), Nate Karns (126.1 IP, 4.15 FIP) and others to compete for fifth starter job.

Advantage -- Boston

Bullpen
In 2013, Fernando Rodney became the first pitcher to lead the Rays in saves in consecutive seasons since Danys Baez in 2005-2006. To replace Rodney, the Rays bring back a familiar face in Grant Balfour (65 IP, 3.71 FIP), who returns after three successful years in Oakland. Joel Peralta (55 IP, 4.12 FIP), Jake McGee (65 IP, 3.08 FIP) and Heath Bell (55 IP, 3.74 FIP) will lead the charges in bridging the gap between the starters and Balfour. Juan Carlos Oviedo (45 IP, 4.13 FIP), Cesar Ramos (40 IP, 4.00 FIP), Josh Lueke (35 IP, 3.86 FIP), Brandon Gomes (30 IP, 3.92 FIP) and Brad Boxberger (10 IP, 3.71 FIP) will compete for the remaining roles.

Boston's bullpen is anchored by Koji Uehara (52.1 IP, 2.10 FIP), who has a 1.93 ERA in the past four seasons and has struck out 35 percent of the batters he has faced. The only concern with him is that he has yet to throw more than 50 innings in consecutive seasons. Perhaps that is why Boston signed Edward Mujica (63 IP, 3.54 FIP) to give them a strong insurance policy a season after watching both Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan go down with injuries. Junichi Tazawa (73.1 IP, 3.41 FIP) should again play an effective role. Craig Breslow (57 IP, 4.01 FIP) and Burke Badenhop (63.2 IP, 3.63 FIP) give the club a strong left/right combination to use in matchup situations to help get the ball to Tazawa, Mujica and Uehara.

Advantage -- Boston

These two teams are very evenly matched on paper, as the PECOTA predictions show. Over the past three seasons, Tampa Bay holds a one-game advantage in the head-to-head matchups, 28 to 27. The advantages each team has over the other in the positional groups are slight. The only distinct advantage one team has over the other is at designated hitter as David Ortiz remains a formidable presence in the lineup while the Rays prefer to use the position as a half-day off from playing 90 games a year on turf.

Ranking the teams: 6 through 1

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
10:30
AM ET
The final six. Let the debating begin.


Team rankings: Nos. 12-7 »
Team rankings: Nos. 18-13 »
Team rankings: Nos. 24-19 »
Team rankings: Nos. 30-25 »


Boston Red Sox6. Boston Red Sox

How they can get to 90 wins: The Red Sox went 97-65 with a Pythagorean record of 100-62. They could score 56 fewer runs and allow 49 more runs and still project as a 90-win team.

Big offseason moves: Lost CF Jacoby Ellsbury, lost C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, signed C A.J. Pierzynski, re-signed 1B Mike Napoli, signed RP Edward Mujica, lost RP Andrew Bailey, acquired IF Jonathan Herrera from the Rockies for P Franklin Morales, signed OF Grady Sizemore. (SS Stephen Drew is still a free agent.)

Most intriguing player: Xander Bogaerts looked like a polished veteran in the postseason, hitting .296 and drawing six walks in 12 games. He’ll take over as a shortstop as a 21-year-old and has the potential to be star in his rookie season.

Due for a better season: Will Middlebrooks struggled early in the season and was sent back to the minors in June hitting .192. He returned in August and hit .276/.329/.476 the rest of the way. Middlebrooks may never hit for a high average but he should improve on his .227 overall mark and could hit 30 home runs if he plays 150 games.

SportsNation

How do the Red Sox do this year?

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Discuss (Total votes: 20,167)

Due for a worse season: When you win a World Series, a lot goes right, and nothing went more right than for the Sox in 2013 than Koji Uehara. Of course, Uehara became the closer only after injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Bailey. He ended up with one of the most dominant relief seasons ever, with a 1.09 ERA and a sick .130 average against while striking out 101 batters (against just nine walks) in 74 1/3 innings. Uehara has been tough to hit the past three seasons, but .130 is crazy good and he’s never pitched 60-plus innings in consecutive seasons in the majors.

I’m just the messenger: It’s understandable that the Red Sox let Ellsbury walk considering his injury history and the contract the Yankees gave him, especially with Jackie Bradley Jr. waiting to take over in center field. After a big spring training in 2013, Bradley began the season as Boston’s left fielder but was overmatched, particularly on hard stuff inside. He spent most of the season in the minors, and in 107 plate appearances in the majors struck out 31 times.

What to expect in 2014? ZiPS projects Bradley being worth 1.5 WAR, as does the Steamer projection system. Ellsbury was worth 5.8 WAR in 2013, according to Baseball Reference, so the Red Sox are likely facing a 3-4 decrease in wins from center field.

The final word: The Red Sox are definitely a safe bet as far as those things go as they return most of the World Series roster. But they’ll be relying on two rookies in Bogaerts and Bradley and the Uehara/Junichi Tazawa/Craig Breslow bullpen trio to excel once again.

The biggest issue, however, may be whether they’ll get the same production from some of their veterans. David Ortiz will be 38; he has to slow down one of these years. Mike Napoli is 32. Shane Victorino is 33 and played much better in 2013 than in 2012. New catcher Pierzynski has been one of the most durable catchers in major league history -- he’s 19th all time in games caught -- but he’s 37. The rotation depth should cover a lot of potential problems, but there some red flags here.

Projected record: 91-71

Los Angeles Dodgers5. Los Angeles Dodgers

How they can get to 90 wins:
Well, having another 42-8 stretch again will help. The Dodgers runs scored and allowed totals projected to 89 wins (they won 92). They’re a good bet to score more runs, especially with full seasons from Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez.

Big offseason moves: Signed Cuban 2B Alex Guerrero, re-signed RP Brian Wilson, re-signed 3B Juan Uribe, signed SP Dan Haren, signed RP Chris Perez, lost RP Ronald Belisario, lost 2B Mark Ellis, lost IF Nick Punto, lost CF/2B Skip Schumaker, lost SP Ricky Nolasco.

Most intriguing player: Puig. He could be the MVP, he could hit .240. He's the most intriguing player in the game heading into the season.

Due for a better season: Matt Kemp would seem to be the obvious choice, but there are still concerns that his ankle injury that required season-ending surgery will remain an ongoing issue. Josh Beckett made eight starts with a 5.19 ERA. Right now, he’s slated as the No. 5 starter (with Chad Billingsley angling to return from Tommy John surgery), so he could certainly improve if he’s healthy.

Due for a worse season: On a rate basis, Ramirez is unlikely to hit .345/.402/.638 again. But the Dodgers will certainly hope he plays more than 86 games. Uribe, awful in 2011 and 2012, but good in 2013, is a strong regression candidate.

SportsNation

How many games will the Dodgers win?

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Discuss (Total votes: 13,700)

I’m just the messenger: The Dodgers have the best starter in the game Clayton Kershaw. Zack Greinke was a great No. 2. They have Puig and Ramirez and Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier. A team without flaws? Not necessarily.

Kemp, Crawford, Ramirez and Uribe have all battled injuries in recent seasons. Guerrero is an unknown. If Kemp can’t go, Ethier will be stretched defensively in center. Greinke is very good but has also had just one season in his career where he made 30 starts with an ERA under 3.00. Gonzalez is no longer the .900 OPS guy he was for a few seasons. Haren has been up-and-down the past two seasons. Even with their $200 million-plus payroll, this isn’t a team that’s a lock for the playoffs.

The final word: OK, that said, there is clearly big upside here, maybe even 100-win upside if everything pans out. The rotation has the terrific top three with Kershaw, Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu, and Haren pitched much better in the second half with the Nationals. Kenley Jansen is a top-flight closer with dominant stuff and the setup crew with Wilson, J.P. Howell, Paco Rodriguez and Chris Withrow is deep. Kemp is a wild card. So is Puig. But I’m also inclined to believe Puig is closer to the MVP candidate than the .240 hitter. The Dodgers are the clear favorite in the NL West.

Projected record: 92-70

Tampa Bay Rays4. Tampa Bay Rays

How to get to 90 wins: The Rays went 92-71, beating the Rangers in the tiebreaker game to win the wild card, but their Pythagorean record suggests an 87-win team. If they allow the same number of runs they would need to score an additional 30 to project as a 90-win team.

Big offseason moves: Signed RP Grant Balfour, re-signed 1B James Loney, acquired RP Heath Bell from the Diamondbacks, acquired C Ryan Hanigan from the Reds, lost RP Fernando Rodney, acquired IF/OF and RP Brad Boxberger from the Padres for RP Alex Torres, lost RP Fernando Rodney, lost SP Roberto Hernandez, lost OF Kelly Johnson, lost OF Sam Fuld, did not trade SP David Price.

Most intriguing player: Despite all the rumors that the Rays would (or should) trade Price, the hard-throwing left-hander is still here. And why not? The Rays have the ability to win it all and Price is the kind of pitcher you need to do that. He went on the DL last May after nine starts with forearm tightness and a 5.24 ERA. When he came back in July, he was a strike-throwing machine like never before and posted a 2.53 ERA while walking just 13 batters his final 18 starts. Of course, if the Rays fall way back by July, the Price trade rumors will ramp up.

Due for a better year: Right fielder Wil Myers hit .293/.354/.478 with 13 home runs in 88 games to win AL Rookie of the Year. Now he’ll be there a full season. Look for him to double that home run total and slug at least .500.

Due for a worse year: This is why I have the Rays ranked so high. There isn’t an obvious choice here. Pitcher Alex Cobb went 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA and maybe he’s not quite a sub-3.00 ERA guy, but maybe he is as his strikeout increased with his changeup developing into a true wipeout pitch. Plus, he made just 22 starts after missing time after getting hit by a line drive.

I’m just the messenger: The Rays basically stood pat on offense over the offseason, and after ranking ninth in the AL runs scored, that does put some pressure on Myers to improve and Evan Longoria to remain healthy. If one of those two goes down for any period of time, they could struggle to score runs. One thing the Rays may try to do is run more. Their stolen bases dipped from 134 to 73, so they lost something that has been a big weapon for them over the years. Trouble is, outside of Desmond Jennings, who is doing to do the running? There just isn’t a lot of team speed here.

The final word: I’m picking the Rays to win the AL East primarily because I believe their run prevention will be the best in the league. They allowed 646 runs after allowing 577 in 2012. I think they’ll be closer to that 577 total.

Look at last year’s rotation. Price missed a little more than a month; Cobb missed 10 starts; Chris Archer didn’t join the rotation until June; Matt Moore has the ability to pitch better and deeper into games; yes, it was just announced that Hellickson will miss six to eight weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his elbow but he wasn’t good last year anyway (5.17 ERA); they gave 24 starts to Hernandez who was mediocre as well (4.89 ERA). They have depth with Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome. The bullpen should be solid. They have the best manager in the game.

Projected record: 93-69

Washington Nationals3. Washington Nationals

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 35 more runs, allow 15 fewer.

Big offseason moves: Acquired SP Doug Fister from the Tigers for P Robbie Ray, P Ian Krol and IF Steve Lombardozzi, signed OF Nate McLouth, lost SP Dan Haren, acquired RP Jerry Blevins from the A’s for OF Billy Burns.

Most intriguing player: Remember when Bryce Harper hit .344 with seven home runs in April before crashing into a wall in early May? Now imagine that over six months.

Due for a better season: Anthony Rendon should build on a second rookie season and become one of the best-hitting second basemen in the game.

Due for a worse season: Jayson Werth quietly hit .318/.398/.532 with 25 home runs, ranking third in the NL in slugging percentage and fifth in on-base percentage. He’s turning 35 in May and hadn’t produced at that rate his first two years in Washington so look for a decline.

I’m just the messenger: Yes, I’m falling for the Nationals again even after last year’s disappointing a year, an 86-win season salvaged only by a 34-20 record the final two months. Everybody loved the Fister trade, giving them a great No. 4 starter behind Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg and there are plenty of solid options for the fifth spot. One reason they struggled to score runs last year was the bench was awful, but that’s been improved with the signing of McLouth as a fourth outfielder. But one question remains to be played out: Can they beat the Braves? They went 6-13 against them last year.

The final word: On paper, the Nationals have no obvious weakness, except maybe first baseman Adam LaRoche, coming of a poor .237/.332/.403 season. The rotation should be one of the best in the game, the bullpen is solid, they have power and they have a 21-year-old outfielder who could be an MVP candidate (ZiPS has Harper hitting .279/.363/.523 with 28 home runs, but I’m taking the over). Rookie manager Matt Williams is an unknown factor but I don’t see that as significant negative. This looks like a 90-win team to me.

Projected record: 93-69

Detroit Tigers2. Detroit Tigers

How they can get to 90 wins: Maybe the question should be how they can get to 100 wins. The 2013 Tigers were a better club than the 2012 World Series team, increasing their run differential from plus-56 to plus-172. That’s a 99-win level (although the Tigers won 93, hurt by a 6-13 record in one-run games).

Big offseason moves: Traded 1B Prince Fielder to the Rangers for 2B Ian Kinsler, traded SP Doug Fister to the Nationals for P Robbie Ray, P Ian Kroll and IF Steve Lombardozzi, signed RP Joe Nathan, lost RP Joaquin Benoit, lost SS Jhonny Peralta, lost 2B Omar Infante, signed OF Rajai Davis, signed RP Joba Chamberlain.

Due for a better season: Rick Porcello posted a career-best strikeout rate and his best ERA (4.32) since his 3.96 mark as a rookie in 2009. With the Tigers’ revamped infield probably improved defensively at all four positions, look for the ground ball specialist to have his best year yet.

Due for a worse season:
Max Scherzer had a dream season, going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA and holding batters to a .198 average as he won the Cy Young Award. Those are going to be numbers difficult to replicate.

I’m just the messenger: The Fister trade was much-criticized, but the Tigers do have Drew Smyly, a guy I think will be very good, ready to step in. Moving Miguel Cabrera over to first base (and off third) and installing Jose Iglesias at shortstop over Peralta will improve that defense. Davis brings more speed to the team and provides a good platoon partner in left for Andy Dirks.

The most overrated signing of the offseason, however? Nathan. He’s very good, yes, but the whole "The Tigers bullpen was horrible" angle was overblown. The Tigers were 82-6 when leading after eight innings; that’s not great (the average team lost 3.5 games) but not horrible. They lost eight games when leading after seven innings (the average team lost 6.7). Yes, there’s that extra-inning record, but that was a result of the team not hitting as much as the bullpen not pitching well (Cabrera, for example, hit .182 in extra innings and Fielder hit .188).

Yes, there was the brutal playoff loss to the Red Sox, when Jim Leyland overmanaged and Benoit gave up the grand slam. Nathan is a good pitcher but the bullpen has also lost two pitchers (Smyly and Benoit) who went 10-1 with a 2.20 ERA in 143 innings.

The final word: There’s no surprise ranking the Tigers here. When you start off with Cabrera, Scherzer, Verlander and Anibal Sanchez you’re in a very good place. It will be interesting to see how much offense the team loses without Fielder and Peralta; Kinsler has hit just .240/.303/.366 on the road the past two seasons, and Torii Hunter will turn 39 in July and remains a key part of the lineup. Still, you have the best hitter in the game and three Cy Young candidates. The Tigers will win their fourth straight AL Central title.

Projected record: 94-68

St. Louis Cardinals1. St. Louis Cardinals

How they can get to 90 wins: They went 97-65 last year, outscoring their opponents by 187 runs. They could score 50 fewer runs and allow 50 more and still project as a 90-win team.

Big offseason moves: Traded 3B David Freese to the Angels for CF Peter Bourjos, signed SS Jhonny Peralta, lost OF Carlos Beltran, signed 2B Mark Ellis, lost RP Edward Mujica, lost RP John Axford, SP Chris Carpenter retired.

Most intriguing player: Michael Wacha was drafted in June of 2012 and by the stretch run of 2013 was shutting down opponents like he was Bob Gibson in 1968. He allowed two hits in seven scoreless innings to beat the Pirates in early September, lost a no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth in his final start of the regular season, took a no-hitter into the eighth against the Pirates in the NLDS, tossed 13 2/3 scoreless against the Dodgers in the NLCS and beat the Red Sox in Game 2 of the World Series. He finally tired in Game 6. What does he do for an encore?

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Which team will win the most games?

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    42%
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    26%
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    10%
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    4%
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    18%

Discuss (Total votes: 28,008)

Due for a better season: Oscar Taveras played just 47 games in the minors, delaying his anticipated arrival to the big leagues. He may start the season in Triple-A, but look for him to take over right field at some point, with Allen Craig eventually moving back to first base and Matt Adams in a bench role.

Due for a worse season: Rookie relievers Seth Maness (2.32 ERA in 62 innings) and Kevin Siegrist (two runs in 39 2/3 innings) developed into a dynamite set-up duo. Maness gets a lot of grounders with his sinker and Siegrist lights up the radar gun from the left side, but you can’t expect them to be that dominant again.

I’m just the messenger: I don’t have anything negative to say here. The biggest weakness the Cardinals had last year was the bench, which we saw come into play in the World Series when Mike Matheny played Shane Robinson in center field and hit him second in Game 5. They’ve improved the bench by acquiring Bourjos and signing Ellis and Peralta (moving Pete Kozma off as the starting shortstop).

If there’s one concern it’s the Cardinals led the league in runs by hitting .330 with runners in scoring position -- the highest mark going back to 1950. (Only 16 teams since 1950 have hit.300.) Based on their component statistics the Cardinals created about 727 runs, so with the expected decline with RISP they’ll have to generate more offense elsewhere.

The final word: While I don’t see the Cardinals as a 100-win lock, what they have is young talent, depth, defense, starting pitching, an ace in Adam Wainwright and a dynamite bullpen. They have two center fielders in Bourjos and Jon Jay; they have multiple options in right field with Craig, Taveras and Jay; they have two options at first base in Craig and Adams; if rookie Kolten Wong struggles at second they have the veteran Ellis; they have Kozma as Peralta insurance; they have Joe Kelly as a No. 6 starter and Carlos Martinez as a No. 7; they have Trevor Rosenthal throwing 100-mph gas in the ninth inning and former closer Jason Motte returning from injury.

They have solutions for just about everything if something goes wrong and that’s what makes them the best team on paper heading into spring training.

Projected record: 95-67

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