Some Preseason Thoughts: American League

An in-depth look at the favorites to win each division and each wildcard.

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So here we are, in the midst of opening week. I’m going to outline the favorites for this season, based on who was truly good last year and who made the best win-now moves this past offseason.

AL East

Favorite: Boston Red Sox

Mookie Betts accumulated 7.8 WAR and Xander Bogaerts had a career-best walk rate and ISO in their age-23 seasons. Andrew Benintendi is healthy and geared up for his first full season in the majors. Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez enjoyed bounce-back campaigns, the former garnering 5.2 WAR and playing 160 games, the latter with a 127 wRC+. Jackie Bradley Jr. proved his 2015 success was no fluke. The acquisition of Chris Sale offsets the injuries to David Price and Drew Pomeranz. They have plenty of rotation depth: Rick Porcello is a solid presence (although, some regression is to be expected) and both Eduardo Rodriquez and Steven Wright offer some sneaky upside.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that last year, although they won 93 games, Baseball Prospectus said that they should have won 103 games (more than anyone else in the AL) based on runs scored and runs allowed, amongst other underlying statistics, and adjusted for strength of schedule. FanGraphs projects them to tie with the Astros for most wins in 2017.

AL Central

Favorite: Cleveland Indians

Carrying over from last year is a solid young core of Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin, and Jose Ramirez, backed by consistent veterans Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis. The signing of Edwin Encarnacion and the return Michael Brantley further boosts this offense. As for the pitching, the big three of Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, and Danny Salazar are returning, fully healthy. They are backed by a couple of solid arms in Trevor Bauer (whose excellent stuff still offers upside in his age-26 season) and Josh Tomlin. Furthermore, there are two solid prospects with major league experience: Mike Clevinger struck out more than a batter per inning in Triple-A last year, and Ryan Merritt was a postseason hero. Not to mention, a very strong bullpen composed of Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and the newly signed Boone Logan.

Andrew Miller’s ranks amongst the 133 qualified relievers last year:

K% BB% SIERA ERA FIP xFIP
1st 2nd 1st 2nd 3rd 1st
WAR O-Swing% Z-Swing%
2nd 2nd 1st (Lowest)

AL West

Favorite: Houston Astros

Despite a disappointing season last year, the Astros have an improving young core. Carlos Correa just put up 4.9 WAR in his first full season, which he seemed to be playing injured throughout. And he’s only 22! They’re getting a full season of Alex Bregman, who put up a 112 wRC+ in his first big league action. Jose Altuve, still only 26, had a career year, posting bests in walk rate, ISO, WAR, wRC+, OBP, Slugging, and more. George Springer, still only 27, played a full season for the first time, putting up a 124 wRC+ for the third straight season and garnering 4.5 WAR. The Astros don’t only have youngsters, though; they also improved their catching with the acquisition of veteran Brian McCann, and now have a respectable tandem of McCann and Evan Gattis. They’re set for their first full season of Yulieski Gurriel, the 32-year-old Cuban. They also signed three more solid veterans this offseason: Nori Aoki (career .353 OBP), Carlos Beltran (124 wRC+ last year), and Josh Reddick (career wRC+ of  105 and positive defensive marks).

On the pitching side of things, after struggling with shoulder issues for the last couple of years, Lance McCullers (30.1% K-rate last year) is healthy to begin the year. While Dallas Keuchel disappointed last year, his underlying metrics (3.87 FIP, 3.53 xFIP, 3.77 SIERA) suggest that he suffered from some bad luck. Joe Musgrove provided 62 solid innings in his MLB debut last year, and still has room to grow at age 24. Charlie Morton, the oft-injured veteran, showed much improved velocity last year in a small-sample and topped out at 97 this spring (he sat 91-92 in previous years) with his sinker, so he offers some sneaky upside. Collin McHugh is starting the season on the DL, but he has garnered at least 3 WAR in each of the last three seasons. The ‘Stros have some depth beyond those five: Mike Fiers can be an innings eater with the potential to showcase the swing-and-miss stuff that he showed before last year, Brad Peacock struck out a batter per inning in 117 Triple-A innings last year, and Chris Devenski, bullpen ace, started five games last year, putting up a 2.16 ERA in 108.1 innings (mostly in relief).

The bullpen is loaded. Luke Gregerson led the MLB in swinging strike rate last year, Ken Giles has a career 34% K-rate and an only 8.2% walk-rate, Will Harris and Tony Sipp are two lefties who have struck out more than a batter per inning in their careers, James Hoyt had a 2.96 SIERA last year and Michael Feliz had a 2.45. Not to mention, Chris Devenski.

Beyond the obvious depth on the MLB team, the Astros have a solid farm system. They have 9 top-100 prospects, according to KATOH, the stat-based prospect ranking system on FanGraphs. Among them are familiar names such as outfielder Kyle Tucker (119 wRC+ in A-ball last year, 188 in 69 PAs in High-A), David Paulino (1.83 ERA in 64 Double-A innings last year), Francis Martes (3.33 ERA, 2.73 FIP in 125.1 Double-A innings last year), and A.J. Reed (142 wRC+ in 296 Triple-A PAs last year).

Wildcard

Favorite: Toronto Blue Jays

While they lost Edwin Encarnacion, much firepower remains. Josh Donaldson is still Josh Donaldson. Kevin Pillar is one of the best defenders in baseball, accumulating the most defensive runs saved above average out of every outfielder the last two years. I’m expecting a bounce-back from Jose Bautista, who played through injury last season. Devon Travis, who has 4.8 WAR in only 163 career games, is fully healthy to start the season. Russell Martin provides a steady presence behind the plate. Even though his offense has declined over the last two years, Troy Tulowitzki still provides upside at shortstop and defends well. The signings of Steve Pearce (136 wRC+ last year) and Kendrys Morales (whose homerun power should play up  at Rogers Centre) should help offset the loss of Encarnacion.

Their stellar rotation from last year remains intact. Although J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, and Aaron Sanchez are due for some regression, Marcus Stroman was unlucky last year (his ERA-FIP was the 10th highest amongst qualified pitchers last season). It’s also worth noting that Estrada, with a superb rising fastball, is known to defy his peripherals by inducing popups at a high rate. Sanchez is still young (24), so he can improve his skills before regression catches him. Either way, he led the AL in ERA in his second year in the majors and features an excellent sinker. Francisco Liriano provides some sneaky strikeout upside at the back-end of the rotation.

The bullpen is solid too, headed by Roberto Osuna, Joe Biagini (who I profiled last year), and Jason Grilli (who rebounded nicely last year).

Second Wildcard

Favorite: Seattle Mariners

 The Mariners have some upside (Mike Zunino, Mitch Haniger, and Dan Vogelbach are all former top prospects still under 27 years old), but their aging stars (Nelson Cruz is 36, Hisashi Iwakuma is 35, and Robinson Cano is 34) will have to remain effective in order for them to catch the Blue Jays. The ineffectiveness of Felix Hernandez and the injury to Drew Smyly mean the M’s will have to lean heavily on the injury-prone but high-upside James Paxton for innings.

Pennant

Favorite: Houston Astros

With unmatched depth and a stat-savvy UPenn and Northwestern educated GM in Jeff Lunhow, I pick the ‘Stros over the Red Sox (whose depth is rapidly disappearing under old-school president of baseball operations Dave Dumbrowski) and the defending pennant winners (Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are too injury-prone for my liking, and their depth pales in comparison to the Astros).

About those Yankees:

The young trio of Greg Bird, Gary Sanchez, and Aaron Judge will have to really wow in order to make them a contender :(.

Data from Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs. Picture from wordpress.com.

Thanks for reading!

 

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