Freddie Freeman is Great

Posted: 04/23/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

There are a lot of reasons that some great players get overlooked. A starting pitcher may be overshadowed by another ace on the same team; a star might do things that don’t pop out in the conventional box score; a great hitter might play in a tiny market. Sometimes, guys get overlooked simply because they play for bad teams. Who’s the most overlooked player in baseball right now? Well, I’m glad you asked. Because I want to talk about Freddie Freeman.

It’s not like Freddie Freeman is an unknown player among casual baseball fans. After making his debut at 20-years-old in 2010, he entered 2011 as a consensus top-20 prospect and an everyday starter at first base for what was a very good team (from 2010 to 2013, the Braves won 91, 89, 94, and 96 games, making the playoffs three times). And he was immediately a good player. In his first two full seasons, he slashed .282/.346/.448 and .259/.340/.456. He hit 21 homers the first year and 23 the next. His wRC+ went from 120 to 115. Not spectacular, but pretty darn impressive from someone who turned 23-years-old at the end of the 2012 season. Then, in 2013, the breakout came. Freeman finished top-10 in wRC+ (150). He slashed .319/.396/.501. He hit 23 homers and drove in 109 runs. And he made his first career all-star game. Google searches for him surged right around the all-star announcement. He finished fifth in the MVP voting. At the end of 2013, Freeman was widely considered a rising star who was hitting in the three-hole for a consistently excellent team.

But his career (and fame) didn’t take off in 2014. Yes, he was an all-star again and yes, he played in all 162 games. But as the Braves entered a rebuild, Freeman’s name receded from debates over the best young first baseman in MLB, a discussion quickly dominated by Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto. In 2014, Freeman was a solid player. He slashed .288/.386/.461 with a 140 wRC+ and 18 homers. But it was a step down from 2013 at a time when many thought he’d enter the discussion for best player in baseball, especially after he signed an eight-year, $135 million extension in February of 2014. In 2015, Freeman’s numbers declined again as he was plagued by a wrist injury that limited him to 118 games. He was still a well above-average hitter, but Goldschmidt was the one putting up astronomical numbers (.321/.435/.570) and finishing second in the MVP race. And the Braves won 67 games in 2015 with no end to their slow rebuild in sight. They scored just 573 runs for the second consecutive season. After an injury-plagued season that was also Freeman’s worst since 2012, it makes sense that Freddie Freeman was largely ignored nationally heading into last season as he prepared to hit third for another terrible team.

Last year, Freeman had a breakout season. But it was a breakout season that came for a 68-win team. Freeman was also really bad early on last season. In his first 61 starts (262 plate appearances), Freeman slashed .242/.336/.414 with nine homers. His wRC+ was 96, his strikeout rate 26%. Throw in his below-average defense and Freeman was inarguably a liability for the first two months and change last season. He was a line drive hitter who was whiffing and popping it up more than he was hitting line drives. And then, he decided that he would be fine with the strikeouts if it also meant more power. From June 13th on last season, Freeman slashed .340/.439/.666. His 25 homers in that time were more than he had ever hit in a full season. His strikeout rate was still high and his .340 average down the stretch was surely aided by an unsustainable .414 BABIP, but he had developed into the MVP-level hitter everyone had expected him to be in 2014. realized the type of season he was having last year because I had him on my fantasy team, but I can understand why his breakout went overlooked. It would have been easy to write him off after his extended slump to start the season. He also didn’t get much help for his teammates. Nobody else hit more than 14 homers or scored more than 85 runs (Freeman scored 101). Freddie ended the season with 83 extra base hits, but many of those were wasted.

Entering this season, Freeman was probably considered to be in the second tier of first basemen, alongside guys like Brandon Belt (the guy he was most often compared to as a prospect because the two were very similar prospects coming up at the same time) and Wil Myers but behind Votto, Goldschmidt, Miguel Cabrera, and Anthony Rizzo. But through 73 plate appearances this season, Freeman has been even better than he was down the stretch last season. He’s slashing .400/.507/.850. He’s walked as many times as he’s struck out. He’s already hit seven homers. He’s been the best hitter in baseball, or maybe second best behind Bryce Harper. Obviously, his numbers will fall off a great deal, and I’m not going to give you his combined numbers from June 13th on last season through yesterday because that feels too cherry-picky. But I will give you Freeman’s numbers over the last calendar year, because that’s a pretty big sample size and not as cherry-picky. Those numbers are: 7.9 WAR, fourth in baseball behind Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, and Corey Seager. 171 wRC+, second behind Trout. .623 SLG, first in baseball. .300 ISO power, third behind Khris Davis and David Ortiz. Remember, this was a guy who could do everything but hit for elite power early on in his career. Now, it seems that he can do everything and especially hit for power. Trout’s unassailably the best position player in baseball, but if Freeman’s power surge is legit, he’s absolutely in the tier immediately behind Trout, right there with Bryant, Harper, Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, and Francisco Lindor.

The weird, amazing thing about Freeman is that he hasn’t sacrificed anything for his power. He strikes out a lot, but barely more than he’s ever struck out. And while most players start pulling the ball more in order to hit more for power, Freeman actually had the least pull-happy season of his career last year, hitting a career-high 29.8% of balls in play to the opposite field against just 36.6% that he pulled. Instead, he just hit the ball in the air a lot more, hitting easily the most fly balls of his career. But rather than sacrificing his line drives, Freeman just hit the ball on the ground a lot less last season, with a 30.3% ground ball rate that was wayyy lower than any previous mark. In fact, Freeman still had the highest line drive rate in baseball last year (ironically, Belt was second). The next guy on that list who hit 30+ homers was Miguel Cabrera (17th in line drive rate). Freeman has always been able to smoke a baseball. Now, he just smokes them in the air more often than on the ground. That’s unequivocally a good thing.

There’s one red flag. Last season, Freeman started swinging and missing a lot more. He had always struck out a lot, but the difference last year was that he was missing pitches in the zone. In fact, he swung and missed at 17.5% of the pitches he swung at in the zone. That mark was third-worst in baseball, behind only Melvin Upton and Khris Davis and slightly ahead of Corey Dickerson and Chris Carter. That’s not a good group to be associated with. But I think Freeman should be fine even if he continues to whiff at some good pitches, because he has much better plate discipline than those other four guys and because those whiffs haven’t seemed to cost him any line drives. If the only drop-off that Freeman experiences is a slightly worse contact rate, the contact rate in the zone is obviously something that Freeman, his fantasy owners, and the Braves will be happy to sacrifice. If anything, this will be more of a concern for Freeman when he hits 33 or 34-years-old and begins losing bat speed. For now, as Freeman remains firmly in his prime at 27-years-old, Freddie will continue to be one of the best hitters in baseball. Let’s just give him some more love, because the poor guy needs it. After all, he has seven homers but just nine RBI this season. Poor, poor multi-millionaire superstar.

I was going to write a bunch of words about the first round of the hockey playoffs and the first round of the basketball playoffs. But I decided not to, at first because the fact that they start within a few days of each other made the previews super daunting. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that going super deep into all of the first round matchups is not only time-consuming but also probably isn’t the right way to approach the first round. How often does a great team struggle early in the playoffs only to right things when they have to and go on a run? It happens to LeBron’s team almost every year (last year was an exception, as the Cavaliers destroyed playoff opponents from the get-go). I seem to remember a couple of bad games against the Grizzlies for the Warriors in their championship season after which many analysts (I’m talking to you, Charles Barkley) declared that this is why a jump-shooting will never win a championship.

To a lesser extent, the same is true in hockey. Two years ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks had two of the top four goal differentials in the NHL and ended up making the Stanley Cup Final. In the first round, though, the Lightning went down 3-2 while the Blackhawks lost twice by at least three goals before closing out the Predators.

My point is that usually, when you think a great team’s fatal flaw has been exposed in the first round, you’re probably overthinking things. This is certainly the case in basketball, where elite regular season teams almost never get upset in the first round. Since 1984 (when the playoffs were expanded to 16 teams), a top seed has been upset by a #8 seed just five times. Once, that only happened because Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first game of a Bulls-Sixers series. Of course, not all elite teams are #1 seeds and not all elite teams are #1 seeds. This year, for example, I would call the Cleveland Cavaliers — defensive issues and all — an elite team, while top seeded Boston is probably the fourth best team in its conference. I would be stunned if the Cavaliers lose their first round series but I think the Bulls have a pretty good chance to knock off the Celtics, so take that #1 seed stat with a grain of salt.

I’m not saying that elite basketball teams are flawless and unbeatable. It’s just that they aren’t likely to be beaten or even pushed by the teams they play in the first round. This is one of the consequences of having more than half the league make the playoffs — a lot of mediocre teams are played up a lot more than they should be just because they won one more game than a lottery team.

This is all a lot less true in hockey, where there’s a lot more parity than in basketball. If the rule is that great teams never lose in the first round, there are a lot more exceptions to that rule in hockey than in basketball. And because the best teams aren’t as dominant, there are more real title contenders and thus more consequential first round series’. With that being said, people still overreact wayyy too much. Sorry, Leafs, but winning one game in Washington doesn’t convince me that you’re a serious threat to defeat the Capitals. The first round of the hockey playoffs is also super exciting, so on a scale from “What does this win by the Leafs mean??” to “Wow, the Leafs just won in double overtime! That was cool,” you know which end I would advise you to lean towards.

Again, I’m not advocating that you ignore the first round. Quite the opposite, actually. I’m saying that you should watch the first round and enjoy the close games. When the Pacers are trading blows with the Cavs or the Maple Leafs are going to consecutive overtimes against the mighty Capitals, watch the game and root for the underdog. Just don’t overreact.

So when is the time to start looking closely at every individual matchup in each hockey and basketball series in order to try to figure out who’s eventually going to win the championship? That’s easy: next round. There’s a big difference between 16 teams and eight teams. There are never 16 good teams in the NHL or the NBA. There are almost always eight good teams who are at least capable of making the best teams try their hardest.

Consider this a general guide to playoff viewing. Unfortunately, it won’t really work in basketball this year, because instead of the usual four or five teams that have a legitimate chance of winning it all, this season there’s only one. I’ll be totally stunned if the Warriors fail to win the title (assuming they stay healthy). Maybe I’ll be shocked, but I think most would agree that Golden State is at the very least a heavy favorite to win it all. That sucks, because it removes the intrigue from rounds two, three, and four, the ones I’ve told you to pay attention to when trying to predict a winner. If you want intrigue this year, you’ll have to settle for rooting for some minor first round upsets. Or you can just tune into the hockey playoffs, because I think there are seven or eight teams who could legitimately win it all (Washington, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Montreal, New York, San Jose, Nashville, St. Louis).

To end this, here are a couple of lists regarding the thoughts I have about the first round (because I can’t resist):

In order, the most likely NBA upsets (seed-wise):

  • Jazz over Clippers
  • Bulls over Celtics
  • Hawks over Wizards
  • Bucks over Raptors

* For the record, I’d pick all of the favorites.

We’re too deep into the hockey playoffs for me to do this for NHL upsets. Duh, the Blues are likely to upset the Wild and the Predators are likely to upset the Blackhawks.

Best teams in basketball:

  • Warriors
  • Cavaliers
  • Raptors
  • Spurs
  • Wizards

Best teams in hockey:

  • Capitals
  • Penguins
  • Predators
  • Blackhawks
  • Canadiens

And finally, the second round matchups I’d be most excited for:

  • Raptors-Cavaliers
  • Penguins-Capitals
  • Ducks-Oilers (I love Edmonton!)
  • Senators-Canadiens (go Canada!)

AL West Preview

Posted: 04/12/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

Last year’s AL West race was… not what I expected. Heading into last year, I (and everyone else) thought that the Astros would win the division easily. A young, up-and-coming team, they were coming off of a wild card in 2015. They also had a +111 run differential, second-best in the AL and notably almost 100 runs better than division champ Texas’s. But the Astros disappointed last season, going 84-78 and finishing third in the division. And against all odds, the Rangers won an AL-best 95 games, seven more than they did in their lucky 2015. And their run differential was… +8. They outperformed their run differential-based expected win total by 13 games. Despite having a subpar bullpen (25th in ERA, 26th in FIP), the Rangers went 36-11 in one run games. That’s a .766 record in one run games. Second best? .667 (the 24-12 Yankees). The Mariners won the second most one run games last year… and they went 30-30. Now, that type of success is almost certainly a complete fluke. The best team in one run games I can remember was the 2012 Orioles (29-9, comparable to the 2016 Rangers). The next year, the Orioles finished 20-31 in one run games. I don’t think the Rangers are going to win the AL West for a third consecutive time without getting exceptionally lucky. And I don’t think they’re going to be exceptionally lucky, which leaves an opening for a new division champion…

1. Houston Astros (93-69): The Astros disappointed last season, but I see no reason to believe that their (relative) struggles will last to this season. They went 67-50 after a terrible start to last season, which over the course of a full year prorates to 93 wins. Their poor start cost them a chance to make the playoffs, but their young core still has plenty of time to make noise in October. The biggest reason they disappointed last year was that their two best players in 2015 — Carlos Correa and Dallas Keuchel — struggled. Correa hit .274/.361/.451, which is pretty darn good for most 22-year old shortstops but not for Correa, a top prospect who won Rookie of the Year in 2015, when he slashed .279/.345/.512 and hit 22 homers in 432 plate appearances. Still, Correa improved his plate discipline last year, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be a top notch all-around shortstop as early as this season.

Keuchel’s struggles were more pronounced. After he won the Cy Young in 2015 in a season in which he posted a 20-8 record, a 2.48 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP, and a 2.91 FIP, Keuchel fell off a cliff last year. He dealt with a shoulder injury throughout the season and ended the year with a 4.55 ERA. The biggest reason he struggled? Because of his shoulder injury, Keuchel could barely throw his changeup, his best pitch. The change will return this season, as will, I predict, Keuchel’s ace-level performances.

I haven’t yet mentioned Jose Altuve, but the 5’6″ second baseman is a very special player. The sparkplug (and yes, I had to use that term) never gets injured, as he’s had 630+ plate appearances in all five of his full seasons. He’s also made four All-Star games in that time and finished third in the MVP voting last year, when he hit .338/.396/.531. I wouldn’t expect 24 homers again, but pencil Altuve in for a .300+/.350+/.450+ season along with 30+ steals and solid defense at second as he hits his prime. He and Correa make for a very talented double play combination. Houston’s other two homegrown hitters are ex-first round picks George Springer and Alex Bregman, who will hit first and second in the order. Springer, now 27, has developed into a good, consistent hitter. I expect him to make significant gains as he enters his prime, but even if he’s the same guy he’s been over the last few years (good walk rate and power, so-so average), he’s a very valuable commodity atop the lineup. Meanwhile, Bregman, who raked at every spot in the minor leagues after being drafted second in 2015, immediately added an impact bat to the lineup in his first cup of tea with Houston. He strikes out a lot and hasn’t yet become the type of hitter I expect him to be, but he provides good defense at third and adds more depth to a lineup that’s in flux outside of its top four hitters. Last year, the Astros had 12 hitters who had at least 200 plate appearances. The four I’ve mentioned are still everyday starters, but Colby Rasmus (now in St. Louis, slashed .206/.286/.355 for Houston last year) and Carlos Gomez (waived in the middle of last year, .210/.272/.322) are gone. Tyler White (.217/.286/.378) is in the minors. Marwin Gonzalez (518 plate appearances, .293 OBP) and Jake Marisnick (.209/.257/.331) are part-time players. Basically, the point is that the Astros gave a lot of at bats to ineffective hitters last year. They’re hoping that the capital they spent on Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick, Nori Aoki, and Brian McCann will change that. I think it will, and I think the improved lineup, along with a revitalized Keuchel and great bullpen (Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, Will Harris, Chris Devenski… embarrassment of riches), will lead the Astros back to the playoffs.

2. Seattle Mariners (86-76): The Mariners went 86-76 last season and proceeded to make a lot of trades this offseason to ensure that they would not go 86-76 again. Top young arm Taijuan Walker was shipped to Arizona for shortstop Jean Segura. Outfielder Seth Smith was traded for innings-eater Yovani Gallardo, who replaces Nathan Karns (traded for outfielder Jarrod Dyson) in the rotation while Dyson replaces Smith in the outfield. Prospects were shipped for talented lefty Drew Smyly, who’s now on the 60-day DL with a flexor strain. Utility player Danny Valencia, catcher Carlos Ruiz, and reliever James Pazos were all added via trade in November. So were Mitch Haniger (part of the Segura trade) and Taylor Motter (now the starting shortstop with Segura on the DL). And there were a lot of other trades, too. I only mentioned the guys who are either on the current 25-man roster or would be if they weren’t injured. To recap: Segura, Dyson, Haniger, Valencia, Motter, Ruiz, Gallardo, Pazos, Smyly. That’s NINE players. You’ve got to give GM Jerry Dipoto credit for trying to get the Mariners over the hump. The problem is that I don’t think these moves will get them over the hump. There’s nothing wrong with their core of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager, who combined to add 15.7 WAR last season while hitting in the heart of the lineup. But Cano and Cruz will be 35 and 37 by the end of the season, and you have to budget for some regression from at least one of those two sluggers. I do think that Segura (when healthy), Dyson, and Valencia will help the offense remain productive. But the offense was productive last season. It was never the problem.

The biggest problem is that Felix Hernandez is not who he once was. Hernandez just turned 31, but he’s an old 31 with a lot of wear and tear on his right arm. After six consecutive elite years, Felix started to tail off in 2015, when he posted his highest ERA (3.53) since 2007 and his lowest strikeout rate since 2010. His ERA was 3.82 last season, but the underlying numbers are much more troublesome — 4.63 FIP, career-low 7.16 K/9, career-high 3.82 BB/9. He might rebound a little this year, but Felix is no longer an ace. Neither is Hisashi Iwakuma, who is now 36 and who has also fallen off over the past few years. With Walker gone and Smyly injured, James Paxton is Seattle’s best chance to save the rotation. I think Paxton’s really good, but it’s hard for me to believe that the rotation will be much better than it was last season, when it finished 19th in WAR and 19th in FIP (they were ninth in ERA, but that’s largely because the Mariners play in a very pitcher-friendly ballpark). I still believe in Cruz, Cano, and Seager, and I think the offseason moves will help Seattle’s offense, but after everything they did this offseason I’m still picking them to win exactly 86 games. The rotation will bar them from winning more, but 86 may well be enough to make the wild card game.

3. Los Angeles Angels (84-78): The Angels went 74-88 last season. It’s pretty hard to go 74-88 when you have easily the best player of the generation, but the Angels managed to do it last season. Mike Trout is good enough to make me believe it won’t happen again. I don’t need to write anything about Trout. Everyone knows how good he is. What I do want to write about is that the rest of the lineup is better than people think. Hitting before Trout in the lineup and playing next to him in the outfield, Kole Calhoun has flown under the radar for the past few seasons. But he’s been a consistent 4 WAR player over the last three years. He doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, but he’s got decent power (between 17 and 26 homers over the last three seasons) and showed a significantly improved eye last season (10% walk rate, up from 6.6% the year before). If the walks are legit, Calhoun’s going to post an OPS in the upper .700s with a good OBP. That’s not flashy, but it’s valuable. Also valuable is leadoff hitter Yunel Escobar, who goes under-appreciated because he has neither power (a homer every 66.8 career plate appearances) nor speed (zero steals last season). But Escobar rarely strikes out and is one of the better leadoff hitters in baseball because he can hit .300 and also take some walks. Again, not flashy, but Escobar gets the job done, and his defensive deficiencies are masked by the guy who’s playing right next to him. That guy is Andrelton Simmons, probably the most valuable defensive player in baseball. Simmons and new addition Danny Espinosa form perhaps the best defensive double play combination in baseball. And Simmons is slowly improving offensively, to the point that I expect him to be an average hitter this year, which is saying a lot given that his wRC+ in 2014 was 71 (up to 81 in 2015 and 91 last season). Throw in ex-Tiger Cameron Maybin and C.J. Cron and you get a lineup that’s a lot deeper than people think. There’s no second superstar, but the Angels should be able to produce some runs even when Trout has his (exceedingly rare) off nights.

The pitching is a lot more concerning. Aside from Garrett Richards, who barely avoided Tommy John surgery last year thanks to stem-cell therapy but will still start the season on the DL, the Angels don’t have a single high-upside starter. What they do have is a lot more depth than they’ve had over the past few seasons. Jesse Chavez, Ricky Nolasco, Bud Norris, and Tyler Skaggs (now healthy) are not special — none of them should be anything more than a fourth or fifth starter —  but at least they’re MLB-quality starters. That’s something, right?

This team probably isn’t going anywhere, especially since the farm system is still among the weakest in baseball. But their lineup depth and Mike Trout make me think that a winning season is likely.

4. Texas Rangers (80-82): Yeah, I’m low on the Rangers, because I think this is the year that their luck runs out. The Rangers don’t have a bad roster, but it’s certainly not one that had any business winning 95 games. Does this look like an 80-win team? Talent-wise, I think it might be a bit better than that. But not a lot better, and these things tend to even themselves out. I don’t like the fact that the lineup lacks hitters who are in their primes. Adrian Beltre is 38, Shin-Soo Choo is 34, and Mike Napoli is 35. On the other end of the spectrum, Nomar Mazara just turned 22, Joey Gallo and Rougned Odor are 23, and Jurickson Profar is 24. That means that the only regulars or semi-regulars who are in their primes are Carlos Gomez (31, but remember that he was waived by the Astros last year), Jonathan Lucroy (30), and Elvis Andrus (28). I happen to think Gomez is going to bounce back in a big way this season, and I believe that Lucroy is the best catcher in baseball now that Buster Posey is slowing down. But it’s hard to win without a bunch of guys who are either special youngsters, age-defining veterans (Beltre is one, yes), or solid players in their primes. I like the Rangers’ young core, but I think it’ll be a few years before they’re playing their best baseball. This team finished seventh in baseball in runs scored last season. I think they’ll be closer to the middle of the pack this year.

The rotation, shaky last year, looks similar this year. Six guys started more than five games for Texas last year; Colby Lewis and Derek Holland are gone, but the other four return to the rotation. Yu Darvish was surprisingly good in his return from Tommy John surgery last year, posting a 3.41 ERA and a 3.09 FIP over 17 starts. Assuming he can hold up for a full season, I like Darvish to finish with an ERA near 3.00 this year as he continues to rack up strikeouts. Cole Hamels posted a 3.33 ERA last year but was more hittable and had less control than ever before, a bad sign for a guy entering his 12th year. His WHIP was 1.31 and his FIP 3.98, both career highs. Hamels has now started 30+ games nine straight times, and his career ERA is 3.31. He’s never been one of the best pitchers in baseball, but for a long time he was in that second tier. If Hamels were still that guy, I’d have a lot more confidence in Texas’s rotation. But I don’t think he’s still that guy, and given that both A.J. Griffin and Martin Perez really struggled last season behind Darvish and Hamels in the rotation, that’s worrisome. Maybe Perez and/or Griffin will rebound this season, but the Rangers can’t be too confident, because they added both Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross in free agency this year. Of course, both Cashner and Ross are on the DL. Cashner should return soon, which should be a boost to the rotation. But the guy did have a 5.25 ERA last season, so will it really be a boost to the rotation? The bullpen seems fine, but it’s unlikely to be much of a factor one way or the other. Add it all up and you get an average team, probably similar in talent to the one that went 95-67 last season. But that team got super lucky, and this one almost definitely will not.

5. Oakland Athletics (68-94): The Athletics are almost never bad for long. And since they’ve been in the cellar for two straight years, I have a feeling that they might exceed expectations this season. But I’m not going to predict them to exceed expectations, because it’s hard to pick a team to win more than 70 games when it’s unclear who said team’s best player is. Seriously, I have no idea who the best player on the Athletics is. Khris Davis, Marcus Semien, and Rich Hill tied for the team lead in WAR last year at 2.5, although Hill did it in just 76 innings and was traded in July. I guess Davis would be the answer, because he smashed 42 homers and had a .524 slugging percentage last season. But Davis is a subpar fielder who had a .307 OBP last year. If your best player is a subpar fielder with a .307 OBP, you have some problems. With Hill gone, Oakland’s best starter is Sean Manaea, who was solid in his rookie season but who probably has a ceiling as a middle-of-the-rotation starter.

Actually, Oakland’s best player is probably Sonny Gray, who’s currently on the DL and posted a 5.69 ERA last season. If Gray comes back and is the guy who had a 2.88 ERA in his first three seasons, the Athletics will have found someone to trade in July.

What the Athletics have is a LOT of interesting role players. If I had the Athletics winning the division, I’d probably talk a lot more about Matt Joyce (righty killer, defensive atrocity), Ryon Healy (came out of nowhere to lead the team with 134 wRC+ in 283 plate appearances), Rajai Davis (a speed demon), Oakland’s many platoons (catcher, first base, right field), and their eight man bullpen. But I’m 2700 words into this post, so the Joyce-Healy-Davis-platoon-bullpen deep dives are going to have to wait another day. I’m predicting that the Athletics will win 68 games but am scared to death that they’ll win 88 despite trading their three best players at the trade deadline.

AL Central Preview

Posted: 04/10/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

Last year, the Cleveland Indians cruised to the AL Central title, winning it by eight games and going 49-26 against divisional opponents. We could be in for more of the same this year, as the Indians improved again this offseason while the rest of the division at best stood pat. But it would be foolish to sleep on the rest of the division. Four of the last five AL World Series representatives have come from this division, and none of the 2012 Tigers, the 2014 Royals, or the 2016 Indians were considered contenders headed into the season (the 2015 Royals, who won the World Series, were a slightly different story). With that being said, the division looks weak after Cleveland, and I think it’s likely that the Central will fail to send a team to the wild card game for the third consecutive year.

1. Cleveland Indians (99-63): This is a better team than the one that made the World Series last year. That team had a banged up pitching staff (Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco were out, and Trevor Bauer cut his finger on a drone) and was without Michael Brantley (9.7 WAR in 2014-15, third place in MVP voting in 2014). For now, their entire rotation is healthy, with Salazar, Carrasco, and Bauer joining Josh Tomlin and ace Corey Kluber. Tomlin’s not as good as he looked in the playoffs last year (I’d bet that he won’t be in the rotation at the end of the year), and Bauer has never really put it together, but Kluber may be the best pitcher in the AL, Salazar was a Cy Young candidate before getting injured last season, and Carrasco has a 3.22 ERA since 2014. And when you pair it with a bullpen that has Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, and Bryan Shaw in it, you have a pitching staff that should be about as good as the one that conceded the second fewest runs in the AL last season.

Brantley’s healthy now, although it’s unclear how much power he’s lost after his 2016 season was ruined by a shoulder injury. He’s set to hit third in Cleveland’s explosive offense, right behind Carlos Santana and Francisco Lindor. He may move down in the lineup if he struggles or when second baseman Jason Kipnis returns from injury, but it’s hard to believe he’ll be worse than Rajai Davis was last season in left field. Lindor, once a top prospect, has been better than anyone could have imagined. Now 23-years old, he’s coming off a year in which he hit .301 and finished ninth in the MVP voting thanks to his dynamic package of stellar defense, speed, plate discipline, and bat speed. I expect him to be even better this season. He’s also going to score more runs this season with Brantley and Edwin Encarnacion, the team’s big free agent signing, hitting behind him. Encarnacion is 34 now, but his bat has shown few signs of slowing down. He’s now slashing .272/.367/.544 with 193 homers since 2012. Last year, he hit 42 bombs. When Kipnis returns from a shoulder injury in a few weeks, the lineup will be even scarier than it was last season, even accounting for some regression from Jose Ramirez (who hit .312 last season after hitting .219 and .262 the two previous seasons). Unless they get hit with serious injury trouble, I don’t see any way the Indians will fail to win this division. And I think they’ll be able to romp in divisional games, just like they did last year. That’s why I have them winning 99 games.

2. Kansas City Royals (83-79): Who wants to finish second in this division? Certainly not the White Sox, who have already traded most of their useful veterans and are trying to trade the rest. Probably not the Twins, who seem to be perpetually rebuilding. That leaves Detroit and Kansas City. I like the Royals, because I think they’re less susceptible to big regression from their top players. Their team isn’t flashy, but most of their core is still in its prime. Eric Hosmer is 27, Mike Moustakas is 28, Salvador Perez is 26, Lorenzo Cain is 31, Jorge Soler is 25, Danny Duffy is 28, Kelvin Herrera is 27… these aren’t the highest-upside players, but by this point we pretty much know their floors, and their floors should be good enough to guarantee the Royals a record at least approaching .500. The sad thing is that those names (Hosmer, Moustakas, Perez…) once were exciting names. They were top prospects who helped the Royals reach the promised land in 2015 and were supposed to bring them back. But none of them have reached their potential. Perez has had a sub-.300 OBP in each of the last three years. He’s a catcher with great feel for his pitching staff and plus power. But you can only help your team so much with a career 3.6% walk rate and a ballooning strikeout rate. Hosmer was supposed to be basically what Freddie Freeman is: a middle-of-the-order menace with the ability to hit .300/.400/.500 with 30+ homers. Hosmer’s a fine hitter, but he hit .266/.328/.433, right in line with his career averages of .277/.334/.427. At this point, what you see is what you get, and what you get is certainly not a star player. Ironically, Moustakas might have panned out best of all KC’s touted prospects (some of whom never even made the majors) after his career started so poorly. He missed most of last season due to an ACL injury suffered when he ran into Alex Gordon, and the Royals will welcome him back to the two hole in the order. Gone is the guy who slashed .236/.290/.379 in his first four seasons. In 2015, he posted a 122 wRC+ and a .817 OPS, and he was well on his way to putting up career high power numbers last year before he went down. I’m betting on a full breakout season from Moustakas.

Cain’s 2015 All-Star season may have been an aberration, but the oft-injured centerfielder remains a key asset when healthy. He plays elite defense and profiles as — at worst — a decent hitter. He’s also the best centerfielder in the division. But let me be clear: even 2015 Cain won’t transform this offense into a prolific one. Even when the Royals made back-to-back World Series’, their offense was the weakness. The formula has always been pitching and defense. But the offense was so bad last year (28th in value added, ahead of only the Braves and Phillies) that the pitching and defense couldn’t save them. The fact that they still managed to go .500 (albeit with a -37 run differential) was a testament to their role players, who performed even as Hosmer, Cain, Perez, Moustakas, and Gordon all disappointed or were injured. There are some moving parts in the rotation this year, with Jason Hammel and Nathan Karns replacing the ineffective Edinson Volquez and tragically deceased Yordano Ventura. It remains to be seen how the team will respond to Ventura’s death, but from a pure baseball perspective the rotation should be ok, as it’s getting a full year from ace Danny Duffy. And while Wade Davis is gone (traded for badly-needed offense in left fielder Jorge Soler), the bullpen should remain a strength, as Kelvin Herrera and Joakim Soria are both accomplished late-inning relievers and ex-Cub Travis Wood should solidify the middle innings. This clearly isn’t a great team, but I was impressed by their ability to fight through injuries and poor performances from their best players and finish 81-81 last season. They won’t get as lucky with close games as they did last season, but that will be offset (and a little more) by improvements from their core hitters.

3. Detroit Tigers (82-80): Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Daniel Norris. If the Tigers make the playoffs this year, it’ll be because their rotation exceeds expectations. Expectations are (and should be) sky-high for Verlander, who’s had a career resurgence and finished second in Cy Young voting last year. His 3.04 ERA last year was legit — Verlander got a lot of strikeouts and limited fly balls. But expectations for the other three guys (the fifth rotation spot is currently held down by Matthew Boyd but could remain in flux) are much lower. Fulmer won the AL ROY last year, but his FIP was nearly a run higher than his 3.06 ERA, and statistical projections peg him to have an ERA flirting with 4.00 this season. If Fulmer can prove that his success last year was no fluke, the Tigers will have a second bonafide ace. Then there’s Zimmermann, who had a 3.32 career ERA in his first 178 before being saddled with a 4.87 ERA in his injury-riddled debut season in Detroit. Never a strikeout pitcher, Zimmermann’s strikeout numbers fell off a cliff, and he gave up 14 homers in just 105.1 innings. But there’s a good chance that was all injury related and J-Zimm will return to form as a terrific middle-of-the-rotation starter. And Norris was once a top prospect whose ascent was slowed by injuries but who posted a 3.38 ERA and struck out 71 in 69.1 innings last season. This rotation has the potential to overcome the flaws of a bullpen that looks like one of the worst in baseball. Last year, the Tigers’ bullpen posted a 4.22 ERA, seventh-worst in baseball. They return an almost identical bullpen, which probably isn’t a good thing. Bruce Rondon, the best power arm in their bullpen, was already sent down to AAA after giving up six runs over 1.1 innings in his first three appearances. And closer Francisco Rodriguez has always flirted with disaster… and is now 35-years old. Something tells me things are going to fall apart for him sooner rather than later.

I’m also worried about the lineup, which has a lot of big names but is also very shallow. Sure, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Justin Upton can make up for a lot of deficiencies. But for how long can they keep playing at such a high level? Kinsler and Cabrera are both 34, and Martinez is 38. Upton’s been declining for three years, and Martinez gives almost all of the value he adds at the plate back in right field, where he’s consistently dreadful. If everything goes right for this offense, the Tigers can keep pace with the Indians for most of the season. Thanks to its superior rotation and better offensive pedigree, this team has a ceiling that is far higher than Kansas City’s. But this isn’t a deep team, so a few injuries or rapid declines will hurt this team more than it would many others. And the Tigers have a lot of aging stars, with four cornerstones who are at least 34 (Kinsler, Miggy, Martinez, Verlander). So while this team could easily prove me wrong, I’m pessimistic.

4. Minnesota Twins (72-90): The Twins have finished in the cellar every other year since 2012, meaning it’s their year to not finish in last place! Congrats, Twins. Minnesota isn’t going to finish in last, because the White Sox are probably the worst team in baseball (although the Padres may have something to say about that). But they’re not going to be good until some combination of their top pitching prospects — Jose Berrios, Kohl Stewart, Fernando Romero, Stephen Gonsalves — reaches the majors and produces something slightly better than Berrios’s 8.02 ERA in 58.1 innings (14 starts) last season. The rotation — which features familiar names Ervin Santana, Hector Santiago, Phil Hughes, and Kyle Gibson along with prospect Adalberto Mejia (throw him in with the guys I mentioned above) — is simply not going to be good enough to lead the Twins to any more than (maybe) a third place finish. Remember, this same rotation finished 26th in baseball in WAR and dead last in ERA (5.39) last season. The Twins gave up 889 runs last year, 128 more than the next-worst AL pitching staff. No wonder they only won 59 games last season.T

The Twins’ pitching staff will be better this year purely due to regression to the mean. I don’t think it’ll be substantially better, though, until the prospects come up and perform. That means Minnesota’s young offense is going to have to rake. Miguel Sano is no stranger to raking. The 23-year old third baseman hit 25 homers in 495 plate appearances last season after hitting 18 in 335 plate appearances in 2014. He should clear 30 in his first full season while hitting cleanup. Second baseman Brian Dozier was the Twins’ lone real bright spot last season, hitting .268/.340/.546 and hitting 42 homers. Unfortunately for the Twins, that will probably be the best year of Dozier’s career, and he’ll likely return to being the solid but unspectacular power-hitting second baseman he was before last season. Hopefully, the Twins can make up for some Dozier regression and then some with improvements from other members of the lineup. Right fielder Max Kepler’s overall numbers weren’t great last season, but he had a 50-game stretch during which he hit .272/.354/.571 while showing an ability to destroy right handed pitchers. The lefty is just 24, but I think he’ll develop into a good two hole hitter with the potential to (one day) approach the numbers he put up over those 50 games. Shortstop Jorge Polanco was once a good prospect and has a career 114 wRC+ in 310 plate appearances. Still just 23, he walks enough and hits for a high enough average that he should be an asset wherever he ends up hitting in the lineup. Then there’s Byron Buxton, the former #1 overall prospect who’s struggled mightily in his brief MLB career. Buxton is the key to all of this: if he emerges as a budding star, the Twins could approach .500, and the future will look bright. But if he continues to swing and miss at everything he sees, I don’t think the lineup has enough oomph to make up for the pitching deficiencies this team has. All in all, the Twins are headed in the right direction, and they should win a lot more games than they did last year, when almost everything went wrong. But don’t expect this team to contend for a playoff spot.

5. Chicago White Sox (59-103): Chris Sale and Adam Eaton are gone. It’s likely that Jose Abreu and/or Todd Frazier will be out of Chicago by the trade deadline. David Robertson and Jose Quintana might also be dealt. Where does that leave Chicago? Well, with a long rebuild ahead. The White Sox have very little true MLB-level talent left on their roster, and almost all of it could well be traded sometime over the next few months. The good news is that the White Sox did a good job getting back top prospects in both the Sale and Eaton trades. In fact, arguably their top four prospects were acquired in one of those two trades. Yoan Moncada is MLB.com’s #1 overall prospect. He’s also Baseball America’s #1 overall prospect. Moncada’s good at baseball, and he’s going to be playing in the middle infield for the White Sox in 2017. Lucas Giolito is MLB.com’s #9 prospect and will likely join Quintana and Carlos Rodon (a 24 year old fireballer) as good options in the rotation. Reynaldo Lopez will also likely join that rotation. His control was bad in his debut season with the Nationals (22 walks in 44 innings), but he clearly has the stuff to be an ace. So does Michael Kopech, the rare starter who can throw 100 miles per hour. The future is bright for the White Sox, but this year is all about development. So if you’re watching the White Sox, just watch to see how Chicago’s young talent is faring, because everyone else could be off the team by next year.

AL East Preview

Posted: 04/08/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

The AL East has been and will continue to be perhaps the most interesting division in baseball, simply because there isn’t — and hasn’t been — a really bad team in the division. Last year’s Rays won just 68 games, making them the first AL East team since the 2012 Red Sox to win fewer than 70 games. Those Red Sox, of course, went on to win the World Series the next season. The Rays won’t do that, but would I be shocked if they made the playoffs? No. The Yankees are the worst team in the division, but they could easily finish near .500. The AL East has had three or four .500+ teams for 11 straight seasons. I expect that streak to reach 12, as I believe there are at least three playoff contenders in this division. The cream of the crop, of course, is the…

1. Boston Red Sox (92-70): A lot of people think this Red Sox team is the best club in the American League and the best non-Cubs team in baseball. I’m not one of those people, because I think there are some guys who over-performed last year and will come back to earth a little bit this season. Among those guys: SPs Rick Porcello (last year’s Cy Young award winner) and Steven Wright (a knuckleballer who came out of nowhere to post a 3.33 ERA). Both Porcello and Wright had underlying numbers last year that suggest regression — chief among those numbers are low strikeout rates for the pair. Then there’s the loss of David Ortiz, which would hurt other teams more than this deep Red Sox lineup but will still obviously sting and lead to a slightly tamer offense than may be expected. Regression may also come for Dustin Pedroia (33-years old, had his best season since 2011 last year), Sandy Leon (catching non-prospect who posted a .845 OPS in 283 plate appearances last season), and Jackie Bradley Jr. (hit 26 homers last year, way more than he’s hit at any minor league level). And David Price’s DL stint to start the season (he has “elbow discomfort”) is very worrisome and part of the reason I’m somewhat pessimistic. With all of that said… This is going to be a good team. The trade for Chris Sale minimizes the risk of a big decline in the rotation, especially since the Sox are also likely to get improved pitching out of Drew Pomeranz. Mookie Betts (a top non-Mike Trout MVP candidate), Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, and Hanley Ramirez make for a frightening middle of the lineup. With improvement likely coming from Craig Kimbrel and an eighth inning shored up by ex-Brewer Tyler Thornburg, the bullpen should also be solid. It’s a very good team, albeit one without the 100-win upside that a squad with Ortiz, a healthy Price, and a Cy Young-form Porcello would have.

2. Baltimore Orioles (89-73): The Orioles are underrated by the advanced stats EVERY YEAR. That’s because they’re better than the sum of their parts EVERY YEAR. Sometimes, they just out-perform their run differential (i.e. last year, when they won 89 games and had a +29 run differential). Other years, they get surprisingly good performances out of role players. If this happened once or twice, I’d dismiss it as a fluke. But it’s now been five years for the Orioles, who have been consistently good ever since they had an incredible 29-9 record in one run games in 2012. I’m ready to accept that the Orioles are going to be better than people think. It’s not like the roster is bad. Manny Machado is a superstar, one of the five or six best players in baseball. He’s a great hitter and one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball (he’ll probably move to shortstop when J.J. Hardy eventually leaves the Orioles). And Baltimore surrounds their star with a lot of power. The Orioles led baseball with 253 homers last year (nobody else had more than 225). It was their fifth straight year in the top three in baseball in homers and the third in which they lapped the rest of the majors. A sixth straight homer-happy year is probably coming, as Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo, both threats to hit 40+ bombs, are still right behind Machado in the lineup. Around those three and Adam Jones, another power-hitting fixture, are a bunch of moving parts and platoons who generally get the job done. Welington Castillo will replace Matt Weiters at catcher, a move that will probably help offensively but may hurt defensively. Seth Smith and Hyun soo Kim will man the corner outfield positions against righties; they have career .828 and .839 OPS’s respectively against right handed pitchers. There aren’t a lot of flashy names, but it’s a deep lineup that’ll get the job done more often than not. The pitching staff is also the same as last year’s. The Orioles have never invested a lot in their rotation, and it shows: their starters ranked 18th in WAR and 24th in ERA last season. But the bullpen is very good (fifth in WAR, third in ERA last season). Zach Britton had an all-time great year last season, Brad Brach and Darren O’Day are great in the late innings, and the bullpen is also quite deep. Is there anything flashy about this team? Outside of Machado, no. But I see no reason that this team won’t again approach 90 wins.

3. Toronto Blue Jays (83-79): The loss of Edwin Encarnacion will really hurt the Blue Jays, who scored 133 fewer runs last season than they did in their terrific 2015 campaign. I don’t foresee another drop that precipitous, but it’s not like this offense had a lot of margin for error last season, and losing their cleanup hitter certainly isn’t going to help. Encarnacion, who hit 42 homers last year and posted a .886 OPS (actually his lowest OPS since 2011, which tells you how dominant he’s been) is being replaced by Kendrys Morales, who, well, is basically a poor man’s Edwin Encarnacion. Morales is solid, but the Blue Jays need to recoup some offense somewhere else. Their one other change this offseason was replacing the Michael Saunders led platoon in left field with free agent signing Steve Pearce. Saunders slashed .258/.338/.478 last year but hit just .178 after the All-Star break, so the Blue Jays were probably right to let him go and try something new. But Pearce is inconsistent at the plate (brilliant in 2014 and 2016 and mediocre otherwise) and bad in the field and is no stranger to the DL. Even if he starts the season off hitting well, keep in mind that this is a guy who’s never had more than 338 at bats in a season despite being around since 2007. Now 34, Pearce seems unlikely to replace Encarnacion’s production. The problem for the Blue Jays is that the rest of their lineup doesn’t seem to have much upside either. The middle of the lineup is Jose Bautista (36-years old, clearly declining), Morales, Troy Tulowitzki (32-years old and clearly declining), and Pearce. Catcher Russell Martin is 34, and journeyman first baseman Justin Smoak is 30. Heck, even star third baseman Josh Donaldson is 31. I’m not worried about Donaldson, who won the 2015 MVP and has three top-four MVP finishes in the last four years while producing 30.5 Fangraphs WAR in those four years. All signs point to another elite season for the third baseman, who doesn’t have that much wear and tear on his body (he didn’t start regularly until he was 27). But he’s probably not going to get any better than he’s been over the last few years, which means the improvement has to come from somewhere else. I have high hopes for second baseman Devon Travis, who’s now 26. Travis is a career .300 hitter in 641 at bats and has also hit for power (46 doubles, 19 homers). But each of his two seasons have been shortened by injuries. In 2015, he had shoulder inflammation that led to surgery. Last year, he had a hand injury and shoulder pain early in the season before suffering a knee injury late in the season. This offseason, he had surgery to remove cartilage from his right knee. I hope he’s able to shed the injury-prone label, because I think he has the tools to be one of the best second basemen in baseball, but I’m not going to bank on 600+ plate appearances from Travis until I see it.

Overall, it’s an aging offense that lost some talent this offseason. They’ll still score some runs, but the pitching has to be at least as good as it was last year, when the Jays gave up the fewest runs in the AL. In Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, the Jays have two fantastic young starters. That gives me hope that they’ll remain a playoff contender this season. And if Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ can stave off regression as they enter their mid-30s, this team could be better than I expect. But too many things have to go right — no injuries, for example — for this rotation to meet the standard it set last year. More likely, I think, is a few injuries and some stumbles from Happ, who was great last year, or the enigmatic Francisco Liriano. This is an aging team, and one that’s probably going to need to shake things up a little bit in a year or two. Because while Donaldson, Sanchez, and Stroman are great, I don’t see how this team can stave off the continued erosion of runs, especially with Encarnacion now in Cleveland.

4. Tampa Bay Rays (82-80): Tampa Bay’s rotation is going to be goood. Chris Archer is going to have a huge bounce-back year after he was terrific down the stretch last season. I expect a full run to be shaved off his ERA, which was 4.02 last season. His stuff is too good and he strikes out too many guys to be as hittable as he was last year, especially since his control is also pretty good. Then there’s Jake Odorizzi, who’s settled in as a solid, consistent, 2-3 WAR producer who gives up a few too many homers; Alex Cobb, who’s fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and should resemble the guy who had consecutive sub-3 ERA seasons in 2013 and 2014; Blake Snell, a top prospect who showed off huge potential while posting a 3.54 ERA and a 3.39 FIP in his debut season; and Matt Andriese, who has great control and slots in as an above-average #5 starter. If something goes wrong, top prospect Jose De Leon (acquired in the Logan Forsythe trade) is waiting in the wings. It’s worth keeping in mind that the Rays already dealt Forsythe and pitcher Drew Smyly, and they could certainly continue to shed their best players. But I’m assuming they don’t, in which case I think their rotation may be a lot better than people expect.

With Wilson Ramos, Colby Rasmus, and Matt Duffy all on the DL to start the season, Tampa is a bit shorthanded. They certainly won’t produce that many runs. But they still have Evan Longoria and enough talent around him to piece together enough lucrative innings to win a good number of games. In fact, the offense looks like a poor man’s Orioles’ offense. They have a lot of power (sixth in baseball in homers last year) and are built around their third baseman (Longoria’s not as good as Machado but is still very good) and a bunch of platoons (they’re platooning at DH, first, and left field). The offense will keep them from making the playoffs, but it’ll be good enough to push them over .500.

5. New York Yankees (74-88): I hate to say it, but the Yankees have a bright future. Catcher Gary Sanchez had an unprecedented start to his career last season, as he mashed 20 homers in 201 at bats and slashed .299/.376/.657. Of course, he won’t be anywhere near as good this season, but he was once a top prospect and looks like a building block. It’ll also be the first full season for prospect Aaron Judge, who hit .179 in limited action last season but has huge power. And 24-year old Greg Bird slashed .261/.343/.529 in his first 157 big league at bats. Throw in a likely cameo from top prospect Clint Frazier and (maybe) one from Gleyber Torres and it’s clear that the Yankees are fully embracing their rebuild this season. Unfortunately, New York doesn’t have much other talent outside of their bullpen. After re-signing Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees again have an embarrassment of riches in the ‘pen. Although they no longer have Andrew Miller, Chapman and Dellin Betances make for a good 1-2 combo and both Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren have spells of dominance. The problem is that a dominant bullpen can only do so much when your starters include C.C. Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, and TBD. Sure, Masahiro Tanaka’s a good starter, but he’s the Yankees’ only good starter. And with the young guys likely to go through prolonged slumps, the lineup isn’t going to be great either. I think it’ll be better than some people expect, which is why I’m predicting this team to win 74 games, but there’s no single hitter who’s going to consistently worry opposing pitchers (unless Sanchez plays like he did last year). Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Holliday, Starlin Castro, Didi Gregorius… All of these guys are solid, veteran hitters. None of them will be able to make this Yankees’ lineup any better than mediocre. And if you pair a mediocre offense with a bad rotation and a lot of inconsistency from youth, you get a low-70s win total. This team could win fewer games if they decide to part with some of their veteran hitters and/or Chapman or Betances before the trade deadline, but I don’t see them winning more than 78-80 games. 73-75 wins seems like the most likely range.

NL West Preview

Posted: 04/06/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

The NL West looks very familiar this year. The Dodgers are going to be very good, the Giants are a question mark, the Rockies and Diamondbacks could be feisty wild card contenders or finish slightly below .500, and there’s no hope for the Padres. In all likelihood, this will be LA’s fifth consecutive NL West title and their 11th winning season in the last 12 years (they won 80 games in the 2010). It’s been an era of sustained success that I don’t think has gotten enough attention, at least outside of Los Angeles. Sure, the Dodgers haven’t made the World Series since they won it in 1988, and they’re 4-10 in their last 14 playoff series. But for all the credit awarded to the Cardinals for remaining competitive no matter what, the Dodgers aren’t far behind when it comes to sustained regular season success. I don’t know if this is the year that the Dodgers finally break through in the playoffs, but one thing’s for sure: the NL West is LA’s world, and Phoenix, Denver, San Diego, and San Francisco are just living in it.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (96-66): Chicago might have the best rotation in baseball, but the Dodgers are certainly not far behind. It doesn’t hurt that they have the best pitcher of this generation by a mile. I don’t need to write much about Clayton Kershaw. Since the start of 2011, he’s 100-37 with a 2.06 ERA, a .91 WHIP, and a 1421:253 K:BB ratio. His ERA has been under 2.00 in three of the last four years, and it’s fair to say that he’s in the midst of one of the most dominant stretches of all-time. He finished fifth in Cy Young award voting last year despite throwing only 149 innings (he missed a third of the season due to injury). He’s got to be the odds-on favorite to win a fourth Cy Young. Having Kershaw atop a rotation makes who comes after him seem a little bit less important, but the Dodgers also have rotation depth. Kenta Maeda was very good in his rookie year, Hyun-Jin Ryu is healthy after missing two seasons (I don’t know how he’ll pitch, but if it’s anywhere near as well as he did before his injuries, he’ll be a great option), and Rich Hill’s career rebirth has continued for long enough to be considered legitimate (now 37, he has a 2.00 ERA over the last two seasons). Hill and Ryu are both injury-prone, but the Dodgers have plenty of spot starters they can turn to and have top prospect Julio Urias, who flashed tremendous upside with the Dodgers last season, waiting in the wings. The bullpen is also excellent and is led by Kenley Jansen, who’s been dominant for his entire career and posted a 1.83 ERA and a .67 WHIP last year while striking out 104 and walking 11 in 68.2 innings. LA lost setup man Joe Blanton, who was surprisingly good in a bullpen role, but replaced him with ex-Giant Sergio Romo, who fits in well as a righty killer in a bullpen with three lefties.

Not much has changed offense-wise, except that the Dodgers have found an everyday starter at second base in Logan Forsythe, who they traded for in January. The Forsythe acquisition was very Dodgersy — boring, under the radar, and very smart. Chase Utley was really bad as a starter last year, so the Dodgers just went and got a guy who’s in his prime and has added 6.8 WAR over the last two years. For the price of a good prospect (Jose De Leon), they upgraded massively at their weakest position to a guy who’s slashing .273/.347/.444 with 37 homers over the last two years. If Yasiel Puig plays like he did last September, the lineup has no holes. Corey Seager is the star shortstop, Justin Turner and Adrian Gonzalez are great pure hitters and solid defenders at the corner infield spots, Yasmani Grandal is a great defensive catcher with huge power, and Joc Pederson is a good centerfielder who added 3.6 WAR last year and is still getting better. Left field may look like a question mark, but the Dodgers have it covered. Andrew Toles came out of nowhere to post a .870 OPS down the stretch last year and go 8-for-22 in the playoffs, and the lefty is now leading off against right handed pitchers. This is a guy who’s always hit for a high average in his professional career, and I see little reason to believe he won’t do the same this season. He’ll platoon with Franklin Gutierrez, a lefty-killer who signed a $2.6 million contract this offseason. Gutierrez is another example of the Dodgers’ front office knowing what it’s doing. Whereas some rosters are kind of just mashed together with no apparent reasoning, the Dodgers’ roster fits together perfectly. That’s why they’re going to cruise to another division title — although Clayton Kershaw doesn’t hurt either.

2. San Francisco Giants (89-73): I was probably higher on the Giants last year than I should have been. After a super hot start, they finished the season “just” 87-75. I think a similar season is in store. Having Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto atop the rotation is definitely a good thing, although Cueto’s shown some signs of a little regression as he edges past his prime. The rest of the rotation is hit-or-miss. Matt Cain is nowhere near the pitcher he once was and seems like a candidate to be replaced early in the season. Jeff Samardzija shows signs of brilliance… and then gets lit up. Matt Moore, once a top prospect, still has good stuff but has never put it together. Rather than improving the rotation, the Giants seem to be banking on improvements from Moore and Cain (or Cain’s replacement). They’ve also bolstered their bullpen with the signing of Mark Melancon, who will be the closer. They still lack much in the way of reliable middle inning relievers, but Melancon should meaningfully improve the bullpen. It’s a solid pitching staff, but probably not one that will be any better than it was last season.

The offense, too, will hinge on whether returning members of the lineup can improve/return to form. Hunter Pence is still a good hitter but has now been sidelined by injuries for more than half of the last two seasons and turns 34 in a week. Buster Posey had his worst season since 2011 last year and may be on the decline. Joe Panik should return to form after having terrible luck last season, when he hit .239 after starting his career with consecutive .300 seasons. Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford are two key parts of the lineup and should continue to put up good numbers, but neither of them has top-end upside at the plate. The Giants finished 15th in offensive value last season, although their position players ended up third in WAR thanks to tremendous defense. I expect more of the same this year for what is a very similar team. The Giants had the run differential of a 90-win team but won 87 games. I’ll pencil them in for 89 victories.

3. Colorado Rockies (80-82): Coors Field is where pitchers go to die, so it’s understandable that the Rockies have a hard time attracting high-end starters to Colorado. It’s a shame, though, because with a solid rotation this team would probably make the playoffs. I have a hard time believing that a Rockies team with two rookies (both of whom were solid but not elite prospects) in the rotation is going to do a better job preventing runs than recent Colorado teams have. I do like Jon Gray, who pitched a lot better than his 4.61 ERA indicated last season and has good enough stuff to largely negate the Coors factor (he had a 4.30 home ERA, which is solid). And Tyler Chatwood is a solid starter for the Rockies, and solid for the Rockies is equivalent to good for anyone else. But with regression likely coming from Chatwood and Tyler Anderson and (many) blowups coming from the two rookie starters, I fear that the rotation isn’t going to be able to hold up.

The Rockies have a lot of talented hitters, although it’s always tough to know how much of that is the Coors factor. Charlie Blackmon, who had a .933 OPS last year, is probably a product of Coors (he has a .900 career OPS at home and .724 on the road). But in D.J. LeMahieu, Nolan Arenado, and Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies have three great hitters who are legitimate studs both at home and on the road. LeMahieu has quietly blossomed into one of the best second basemen in baseball. Last year, he slashed .348/.416/.495. Gonzalez has always been a great hitter and has remained healthy for consecutive seasons. And Arenado has consecutive top-10 MVP finishes, is just 26-years old, and has slashed .292/.344/.571 since the start of 2015 while posting consecutive 40+ homer seasons. Throw in power hitters Trevor Story and Mark Reynolds lower down in the lineup and you have a scary offense, especially at home. Sure, there are still some holes, but this team is going to score enough runs to win a lot more games than they probably should given their rotation. The Rockies have doubled down on their bats, but that’s more out of necessity than anything else. I really think playing in the high altitude has been a disadvantage for the Rockies because it’s barred them from being able to acquire anything resembling an ace and has killed many promising young pitching careers. But at least Rockies fans will get to see another exciting team.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (76-86): When your big free agent signing posts a 4.37 ERA, you know you’re probably going to struggle. And struggle the Diamondbacks did last year, going 69-93 and giving up the most runs in baseball. It’s not quite Coors Field, but Zack Greinke will tell you that Chase Field is also very hitter-friendly. Greinke didn’t pitch well last season, but neither did the rest of the rotation; Arizona starters ended up with a 5.19 ERA. They tried to improve the rotation by dealing away breakout star Jean Segura for potential future stud Taijuan Walker (who posted a 4.22 ERA for the Mariners last season). And if Greinke has a bounce-back year (he should) and the Diamondbacks can get something out of a healthy Patrick Corbin, Arizona will have a shot at being drastically improved. I have them winning seven more games than they did last season, so I guess I’m optimistic. But the pitching staff will still likely be well below-average. The Diamondbacks are opening the season with four new relievers after their bullpen finished 26th in WAR and 27th in ERA last season. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of confidence in Fernando Rodney as the closer or Tom Wilhelmsen has the top setup man. To make matters worse, Brad Ziegler, the team’s only good reliever last season, is now gone. Even if Greinke, Walker, and Co. pitch reasonable well, the bullpen’s going to blow a lot of leads.

The biggest reason for confidence is an offense that impressed me last season and now gets stud centerfielder A.J. Pollock back from injury. Pollock, David Peralta, Jake Lamb, and Yasmany Tomas makes for a good supporting cast around superstar first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Some questions can be asked of the middle infield, but Ketel Marte, another piece of the Segura trade, should help fill the hole left by Segura, who I think is likely to regress anyway. With better health and better pitching, the Diamondbacks should improve. But this was a team that went 69-93 last season, and it’s tough to predict an improvement of more than seven wins for a team that lost Jean Segura and still has (at most) only three reliable starters and a shaky pen.

5. San Diego Padres (60-102): FiveThirtyEight recently rated every rotation in baseball with their pitcher score metric. Now, I don’t know how accurate this pitcher score metric is, but the ratings make sense. The Cubs are first, the Dodgers are second, and the Red Sox are third. Coming in dead last? The Padres, and it isn’t remotely close. That’s what happens when your best starter (TBD) is probably a #5 starter on the average team. Now, it’d be one thing if the rotation were young and had upside. But Jhoulys Chacin, Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill, and Jered Weaver are all between 29 and 34 and have proven time after time that they’re fringe starters. The fifth starter, Luis Perdomo, is only 24, but before last year he had never been above A-ball (where his ERA was 4.60). Last year, he was selected in the Rule 5 draft and started 20 games for the Padres, appearing in 35 altogether. The results were predictable: 5.71 ERA, 1.59 WHIP. The Padres lost Tyson Ross, who was easily their best starter, to free agency months after trading Drew Pomeranz, who was then their best starter, to the Red Sox. They have a lot of talented arms in their farm system, but all of them are at least a few years away. This rotation is going to be bad for a while.

The offense won’t be much better. The three guys to watch are Wil Myers (the team’s best hitter and, after he signed a $83 million extension this offseason, their building block), Manuel Margot (a top prospect), and Hunter Renfroe (another intriguing prospect). Erick Aybar is their lone starter older than 29, and Myers is their only hitter who will scare opposing pitchers. It’s going to be a long couple of seasons in San Diego.

National Championship Game Pick

Posted: 04/03/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

After two close, weird games that were eventually won by the better teams, we have the National Championship Game we were hoping for. Upsets are nice, but at the end of the day you want the two best teams in the country playing for the title. I can’t say for certain that Gonzaga and North Carolina are the two best teams (and they certainly haven’t been playing great basketball in the tournament), but they’re definitely two of the four or five best (I’d throw Kansas in the mix for sure). It’s also a fascinating matchup.

Usually, college basketball is dominated by guards who take advantage of lackluster perimeter defending and draw lots of fouls. But while Gonzaga has a heck of a point guard in Nigel Williams-Goss, both of these teams are oriented around big men. The Zags start Polish menace Przemek Karnowski down low and often pair him with fellow seven footer and likely lottery pick Zach Collins, who had the best game of his short college career on Saturday. They also start Johnathan Williams, a 6’9″ forward who is a matchup nightmare. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels are the best offensive rebounding team in the country (as we all know after they grabbed two crucial rebounds after missed free throws down the stretch against Oregon) because they start Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks and bring Tony Bradley and Luke Maye off the bench. North Carolina generally wins games by wearing down opponents inside. It’s one thing to put a body on Meeks and Hicks in the opening minutes of the game. It’s another to then have to guard Bradley and Maye in the post before being greeted by an onslaught of Meeks and Hicks down the stretch. But if anyone can slow the red-hot Meeks down, it’s Gonzaga. Karnowski and Collins make for a heck of a rim protecting and rebounding duo when they’re on the floor together, and Williams-Goss is one of the best rebounding guards in the country (5.9 per contest). They won’t be able to shut down the offensive rebounding and interior scoring, but they should put a dent in UNC’s efficiency.

The matchup that could swing this game in Gonzaga’s favor is Joel Berry vs. Williams-Goss. I don’t think Berry will be tasked with guarding Williams-Goss (it’ll likely be Theo Pinson or Justin Jackson), but I do think that Williams-Goss is going to eat Berry alive on the defensive end. And as we’ve seen over the course of this tournament, North Carolina’s offense is nowhere near the same when Berry is off, because the Tar Heels just don’t have much in the way of perimeter scoring outside of Jackson. Gonzaga, on the other hand, has Jordan Mathews, Josh Perkins, and Silas Melson, all of whom shoot 39%+ from three point range. If the interior game is played to a draw, as I think it may be, and the Zags find a way to guard Justin Jackson, which I think they’ll do relatively well, then the difference could be three point shooting, and I just trust the Zags’ gunners more than I do the Heels’. Give me Gonzaga 82-77.