It has now been three weeks since the Winter Meetings concluded, and many of the best free agents still remain unsigned.
Edwin Encarnacion, for one, has seen his market evolve throughout the entire winter, and it still remains murky even as the new year approaches.
In November, the Toronto Blue Jays reportedly offered Encarnacion a four-year deal worth about $80 million. But, in an apparent attempt to replace the slugger in the event he does return, the team signed Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce. They are far inferior options, yes, but those deal could be what ultimately keeps the Jays from bringing Encarnacion back.
The Texas Rangers are perhaps the most fascinating team of the 2016 Major League Baseball season.
There's usually not a lot of depth to a team that is 87-59, leading their respective league and producing the second-best record in all of baseball. Meaning, it's usually pretty evident as to why they're good. This is a team that should be a true World Series contender.
But when looking at the postseason odds, especially the chance to win the World Series, the Rangers are listed sixth, with a 9.0 percent chance to win it all.
Don't go straight to blaming the sabermetric community for this. The Texas Rangers are actually not that good.
One of the most effective ways to measure a team's success and sustainability is through run differential. Quite plainly, run differential takes the amount of runs a team scores and subtracts out the amount of runs they've allowed.
This is a great, all-inclusive stat because it boils baseball down to its two most simple concepts: scoring and preventing runs. Obviously, the best teams should be able to score the most and allow the least of runs.
Take the Cubs, for instance. The Cubs' run differential is +227 through 144 games, a good 57 runs above the second-place Red Sox (!!!). For some context, the Cubs are on pace to post a +255 run differential. The best run differential of all time, though, is +411 by the 1939 Yankees. Though they won't beat it, this Cubs team is historically good.
Now, looking at the Rangers, it would be expected to see something similar, though perhaps not as extreme. However, that's not quite the case.
The Rangers have just a +23 run differential this season, which ranks them 12th in the Major Leagues and seventh in the American League. The Rangers have a worse run differential than the Mariners (+54) and Astros (+36) and yet are ahead of those teams by 9 1/2 and 11 1/2 games, respectively.
The Rangers are on pace to post a +26 run differential this season, making them similar to the 2015 Indians (+29) who finished 81-80. The 2016 Rangers already have a better record. For the year prior, the Royals posted a +27 run differential and finished 89-73. But the Rangers need to just win three games to beat that team, too.
(Interestingly enough, the Rangers posted just a +18 run differential in 2015 and won the AL West.)
So how do the Rangers manage to win all these games, when, in theory, they should not?
Well, it's quite simple actually. The Rangers are 33-10 in one-run games. These are occurrences where the Rangers pick up a win but only improve their run differential by one run. One-run games are often considered to have elements of luck. One base hit that was caught when the game is on the line could change the entire result of a game. On the contrary, if the Rangers blew out a team, that result would happen regardless if a base hit late in the game was taken away by a defensive gem.
No other team in baseball has more than 27 one-run wins this season, with most teams hovering around .500, which should be expected.
Remember the Phillies' "hot" start, when they went 15-10 in their first 25 games? Well, they were 8-2 in one-run games to begin the year. Since? The Phillies are 18-18.
The thing with the Rangers, though, is that they manage to sustain amount of one-run wins, though seemingly improbable. Why is this the case?
The first thing to come to my mind was their bullpen. A good bullpen usually equates to shutdown success late in games, especially late in close games (think the Royals). However, though, the Rangers' bullpen is quite poor, ranking 24th in the Majors in fWAR and posting the fourth-highest ERA.
So, maybe it's hitting in high leverage situations? Maybe the Rangers have a nose for the "clutch," allowing them to get key hits in situations where the game is on the line.
And you know what? The stats back this theory up. The Rangers have an .822 OPS this season in situations that are considered "high leverage," (good for second in the Major Leagues) whereas they have just a .760 OPS overall. This may be due to having the fourth-highest BABIP in high leverage situations overall. The Rangers are getting lucky time and time again.
It's not even as if they are making hard contact with the game on the line, ranking 21st in hard hit rate in these high leverage situations. They are, though, posting the second-highest line drive percentage, and line drives are the most likely batted ball to become hits.
So as the Rangers conclude their 2016 season and ride into the playoffs, they might just be doing that with lots of luck on their side.
**All stats are through Tuesday, September 13**
We've made it! This is our last weekend without regular season baseball, with Opening Night coming next Sunday. We have arrived at my last division preview, as this time I take a look at the American League West. They have five teams that all have arguments for contention in 2016, but who will?
1. Houston Astros -- 2015 Record: 86-76; Projection: 92-70
The Astros narrowly missed out on winning this very division last year, falling two games shy of the Rangers in the standings. Fans still weren't upset by any means. The team hadn't made the postseason since 2005, and they had some of the worst teams in baseball from 2011 to 2013, losing an average of 108 games during those horrid years. Last season was a huge turnaround for them, and it should only serve as the beginning of a huge window of contention for the 'Stros.
To find the heart and soul of this Houston team, look no further than the middle infield, with 21-year-old Carlos Correa and 25-year-old Jose Altuve being among the best shortstops and second basemen in the league, respectively. The Astros practically had no turnover in their lineup going into the 2016 season, with only Chris Carter leaving via free agency. Other than that, this team is ready to pick up where it left off.
Their pitching staff is deep. I had absolutely no problem with the team taking a shot at Doug Fister to help with the back end of their rotation. I, in fact, loved it. He was an awfully good starter not too long ago, and at 32, he should still be in his prime or close enough to his prime to be a valuable piece. The team upgraded their bullpen, their lone issue in 2015, this offseason with the addition of Ken Giles from Philadelphia. Giles, with his 100 mile per hour fastball and wipeout slider, is one of the best up-and-coming closers in baseball and should be able to finish off games with ease.
Overall, the Astros have the makings of a ball club that could be very dangerous in the 2016 playoffs. The laughingstock of the league no longer, many will be paying attention to Houston for many reasons. Plus, who isn't excited to see what Carlos Correa can do in a whole season?
2. Texas Rangers -- 2015 Record: 88-74; Projection: 90-72
When the Rangers acquired Cole Hamels from the Phillies at the trade deadline last season, their main intention was to have him for a possible run into the postseason in 2016. They were 50-52 at the time and seven games out of the division. Slowly but surely, the Hamels acquisition became not just a 2016 move, but a 2015 move too, as the Rangers propelled themselves towards the postseason. They went 38-22 the rest of the way, and they found themselves playing the Blue Jays in the American League Division Series, where they lost in five games.
The Rangers' lineup is solid from top to bottom. Probably the most underrated player there is Delino DeShields, who, as a Rule 5 draft pick, went out and posted a .718 OPS, stole 25 bases, and provided fine defense. DeShields could even have a bigger year in 2016, as he stole 101 bases in 2012 while in the Astros system. With more of a green light on the base paths, DeShields could be a huge headache to pitchers. Also, the Rangers added Ian Desmond to the mix this year, where he'll serve as an outfielder until Josh Hamilton can find a way to get healthy (if he does at all). On a one-year, $8 million deal, Desmond looks to be a steal and may be able to have a solid year in a hitter's park.
As for their staff, the biggest addition (or more like a re-addition) the Rangers will be getting this year is Yu Darvish, who missed all of last year with Tommy John surgery. Darvish and Hamels should give them one of the better one-two punches in the American League. As for their bullpen, the Rangers took on Tom Wilhelmsen in a trade with the Mariners this offseason, where he'll be in the back-end of the 'pen with Jake Diekman, Sam Dyson, Keone Kela, and Shawn Tolleson.
The Rangers should have a very good year in 2016, but the Astros are just a bit better in terms of depth and in the rotation. I expect Texas to have a good shot at the playoffs, though.
3. Seattle Mariners - 2015 Record: 76-86; Projection: 82-80
The Mariners did a lot this offseason. Perhaps the move I liked the most, however, was the hiring of Jerry Dipoto to be their general manager and their subsequent hiring of Scott Servais to be their manager. They needed an executive like Dipoto to come in and clean house, while building around the talent that they already have in store, with players like Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, and Nelson Cruz.
The Mariners brought in quite a few mid-range additions this offseason: starter Wade Miley, outfielder Nori Aoki, reliever Steve Cishek, reliever Joaquin Benoit first baseman Adam Lind, outfielder Leonys Martin, catcher Chris Iannetta and many, many others. If I spent time on every one, I'd be here all day. However, I'd like to point out that as a whole, I loved what the Mariners did this offseason. They attacked their weaknesses from 2015, like the pitching, especially out of the bullpen. Miley is a huge bounce-back candidate for their rotation; though he had a 4.46 ERA last year, his peripherals were very good (147 strikeouts and 64 walks in 193 2/3 innings) and advanced stats like FIP and xFIP suggest that his ERA should have been closer to 4.00. FIP in particular said that Miley should have had a 3.81 ERA last year with better defense behind him.
The Mariners' core part of their lineup is similar to what it was in 2015. In terms of wRC+, the Mariners had the seventh-best offense in the league. If they want to be better than that, they'll need Cano to play like he did in the second half. He had a .331 batting average, hit 15 home runs, and posted a 157 wRC+ in the latter half of 2015. There's reason to believe he'll be back to where he was, as he is now fully healthy after battling a long-term stomach illness. Overall though, there's reason to have hope in the Mariners' lineup in 2016.
Looking at the team as a whole, it's really hard to know where the Mariners stand in 2016. It is impossible to determine if they will mesh, if their pitching will hold up, or if they can beat out some of the better American League teams. I initially thought that the Mariners could win the AL West, but I'm still skeptical as to whether they will put it all together on the field.
4. Los Angeles Angels - 2015 Record: 85-77; Projection: 81-81
The Angels are wasting the best player in baseball. Mike Trout has only seen the postseason once (in 2014 for a mere three games). And he won't see it again this year. The Angels are coming off a season where they were oh-so-close to making the postseason, but just could not do it. I liked the addition of Andrelton Simmons to fill a whole at shortstop, but are they really going into 2016 with a platoon of Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry in the outfield? I am not a fan.
Outside of Trout and Albert Pujols, I have concerns about who will provide the offense in Anaheim. The team had five players with an OPS+ of 100 or greater in 2016. One of them is gone (David Freese), and the other two--Kole Calhoun and C.J. Cron--were just above 100 at 104 and 106, respectively. The Angels ranked 12th in the American League in runs scored in 2015. That could only be worse this year. Mike Trout can only do so much, L.A.! That's what I love about baseball; one player cannot make a team a playoff team.
The rotation is fine. I am a fan of Garrett Richards at the top there and Andrew Heaney more towards the back. Even Hector Santiago was solid last year, working to a 3.59 ERA in 33 games (32 starts). But then the Angels have Jered Weaver, who has struggled to work above 80 mph this Spring Training and looks even more hittable than last year when he worked to a 4.64 ERA. Matt Shoemaker is the wild card here, as he had a 3.04 ERA (3.26 FIP) in an excellent rookie year, but posted a 4.46 ERA (4.59 FIP) last year. What Shoemaker will we see next year?
The Angels have plenty of concerns in my eyes, but there's definitely a chance they contend, especially if their offense can pick up some of the slack. They've got a good couple of stars there, but I'm worried about the depth, or lack thereof. The Angels will keep themselves in the mix if they can win the close games and beat the teams they should beat in 2016. Because I don't think they'll be blowing anyone away.
5. Oakland Athletics - 2015 Record: 68-94; Projection: 78-84
The Athletics missed the playoffs in 2015 for the first time since 2011, and I don't see them reversing their fortunes. The front office may still have hope, though, considering Sonny Gray is still in an Oakland uniform. This is despite the fact that he was a hot name on the trade market this offseason, and the Athletics are not expected to contend next year.
The team made a few modest upgrades this offseason, bringing in relievers Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, John Axford and Marc "Scrabble" Rzepczynski; starter Rich Hill and Jed Lowrie, Khris Davis, and Yonder Alonso in the lineup. Each move came with a purpose, but my favorite of all of them was the trade for Davis, who is a candidate to a ton of home runs in 2016. This is something the A's lacked last year. Davis hit 27 in 440 plate appearances with the Brewers last season, posting a 122 OPS+. There's a lot to like about his upside on the field, but the A's must like him due to the fact that he's inexpensive and controllable through the 2019 season.
As for their pitching, you can't go wrong with Gray, who, at 25, was named to his first All-Star team last year. He posted a 2.73 ERA in 31 starts and 208 innings last season, striking out 169 and walking just 59. Gray is the ace of Oakland's staff, and his excellent control gives me plenty of reason to believe that he'll be the ace for years to come. Hill was the another addition for the A's this offseason, and he earns $6 million in 2016 after making just four starts last year. However, Hill's four starts were fantastic, as he posted a 1.55 ERA in 29 innings with a 36 to five strikeout-to-walk ratio with the Red Sox. Those are again reasons to believe that his success was sustainable. The A's hope he'll be just good enough to be worth the $6 million they owe him.
Overall, the Athletics are another puzzling case in the American League West. I'm not sure how big of an impact their new additions this offseason will make. However, I can say without much doubt that Oakland will be improved after a bad year last year, but the question is how much.
Up Next: Postseason and Award Picks
The 2015 regular season has come to an end. Twenty teams went home packing for the offseason today, ending what has been a long road of just over six months of baseball. With the Cover Those Bases season awards, I am selecting who best made the 2015 season a great one. Without further ado, here are my selections.
Using Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds, you should be able to tell who has the best chance of doing just that. Teams really should take those odds to determine whether they should be buyers and sellers because more often than not, they are right.
After games being played on July 6 last year, five of the ten eventual postseason teams had a 80 percent chance of making the playoffs or better. Every team that did have an 80 percent or greater chance of making the playoffs on this date last year did.
The team with the highest percent chance to make the playoffs on July 6 that ultimately didn't was the Milwaukee Brewers, who had a 71 percent chance to punch their ticket, but collapsed down the stretch and failed to make it.
Only three (Orioles, Royals, and Pirates) had less than a 50 percent chance of making the playoffs following action on July 6. By July 31, the Orioles were up to a 71 percent chance, the Royals were at a 17 percent chance, and the Pirates were at a 46 percent chance.
Knowing this, I will use Baseball Prospectus' current postseason predictions to determine who should buy and who should sell at the 2015 Trade Deadline.
All In (85% or greater)
St. Louis Cardinals (99.3%)
There's no reason why the Cardinals, who own MLB's best record at 54-28, should consider selling. In fact, Baseball Prospectus says that they have a 99.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, leaving just a very small chance for an extreme collapse. If the Cardinals play just .500 ball the rest of the way, that would put them on pace for 94 wins, which would definitely put them in prime position to punch their ticket to the postseason. The Cardinals have no reason to do anything but buy.
Los Angeles Dodgers (92.9%)
The Dodgers have the second-highest playoff percentage in the league, and nothing suggests that this team won't buy at the trade deadline. I predicted them to go out and get Johnny Cueto, perhaps the best pitcher available not named Cole Hamels. The Dodgers are always willing to spend money and prospects to make their team better and can easily justify doing so at the deadline.
Washington Nationals (85.6%)
The Nationals have arguably not played their best baseball yet, but still have an 85.6 percent chance to make the playoffs. They could use some reinforcements in their bullpen, but most of the additions the Nationals will be getting will be players coming back from injury, such as Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, and Stephen Strasburg. They may not need to make a ton of moves in July, but if they do, they have good reason to do so.
Houston Astros (84.7%)
The Astros have already shown interest in some of the top pitchers that will be available, and Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds completely backs that up. Houston's playoff percentage, at 84.7 percent, is so close to 85 percent that I had to shove them into this category. The Astros have showed that while they are a bit of a surprise, they still can win ballgames and do it over a period of time. The Astros by no means are "pretenders," as they have been able to hold a comfortable AL West lead since late April.
Should be buyers (70-85%)
Pittsburgh Pirates (81.3%), Chicago Cubs (73.1%)
The Pirates and Cubs have a case of some serious bad luck. They are playing in the National League's toughest division and would be either leading or close to leading any other division in the league. The only reason I'm wary of either of these teams buying at the deadline is because they are not division leaders and have more of a chance to collapse and fall out of the playoff race altogether. Unless they believe they have a real shot at the Cardinals (which it appears they don't), they shouldn't completely unload their farm systems to go out and get the best guy on the market.
Kansas City Royals (75.3%)
Of the three teams in this category, I am most comfortable with the Royals buying at the trade deadline due to the fact that they lead their division by a comfortable margin and need just one or two pieces to really put the pressure on the rest of the division. All signs point to the Royals making the playoffs again this year, so I would go ahead and pencil them in as buyers at the deadline.
Los Angeles Angels (64.8%)
The Angels are in a good position right now. They are playing good baseball and have shown the need for an upgrade in left field. Of the teams listed in this section, I truly believe they are the best and most complete team, so therefore they should be buyers at the deadline. The Angels could use some rotation help as well, but if they patch up a few spots, they will get into the postseason. My verdict? They should be buyers.
AL East: New York Yankees (59.4%), Toronto Blue Jays (39.6%), Tampa Bay Rays (34.9%)
The American League East division is lumped together because the division is so muddled and close that really anyone could win it. Baseball Prospectus' simulations give the Yankees the best chance to go to the playoffs out of that division, but with some rotation help, the Blue Jays are the division's best team. The Yankees and Rays should stand pat or make small moves at the deadline, while the Blue Jays should go out and make a splash for a rotation piece.
Detroit Tigers (36.7%)
With Miguel Cabrera being sidelined with his hamstring injury, I'm going to pencil the Tigers in as should be sellers, but as this team continues to try and make a run once again, they will find themselves trying to buy. The Tigers are heading towards a Phillies-esque fall, and if they don't realize that soon, it could only get worse if they decide to buy at the trade deadline in hopes for one last run at the World Series.
Maybe/Stand Pat (20-30%)
New York Mets (28.9%)
Even if the Mets added an offensive piece, I don't think that would be enough to get them to the playoffs this season. With that said, however, I could see them dealing for a guy with more than one season of control, as their young and talented pitching staff comes into their own. The Mets couldn't justify buying for a rental player, but a guy who is at least signed through 2016 could make sense.
Baltimore Orioles (28.7%)
The Baltimore Orioles have a ton of free agents at the end of the season that they probably should move. The Orioles could be one of those teams that tries to get 25-man roster guys with more years of team control in return. The Orioles could be a team that buys and sells at the trade deadline, and I would be fine with that.
San Francisco Giants (22.9%)
It's an odd year. The Giants aren't good enough to win the NL West, and considering that they have to deal with the Cubs and Pirates for the Wild Card, it will be tough for them to really make a run into the postseason. However, they still have a good core group of guys and the team has proved me wrong before. They probably should stand pat.
Shouldn't buy (Less than 20%)
Minnesota Twins (18.2%)
The Twins just aren't that good. Sure, they had a good run earlier this season, but all the numbers suggest that they were going to fall out of first in the AL Central. The Twins should really try and go for 2016, when some of their rookies will be more polished.
Texas Rangers (15.0%)
While the Rangers shouldn't buy, they probably will, as I consider them to be in a similar boat as the Tigers are in. The Rangers could legitimately contend, but they would more than a couple of upgrades, to the point where they probably shouldn't go for it this season.
Cleveland Indians (13.5%)
The Indians were a popular postseason pick prior to this season, but Baseball Prospectus' simulations show that they would need some serious luck to actually get there. The Indians shouldn't sell any pieces other than the impending free agents because my gut says that they will be back in the postseason sooner than later.
Boston Red Sox (11.8%)
The Red Sox are in a tough position right now. It might not be time for a fire sale quite yet, but it's definitely not time to go out and try and contend this season.
Seattle Mariners (7.0%)
The Mariners have had some issues staying in the race this season, and while they shouldn't sell off their entire team, they really shouldn't be buyers either.
Oakland Athletics (6.8%)
The Athletics are already shopping their pieces and it looks like they will be sellers.
Arizona Diamondbacks (6.4%)
The Diamondbacks are a team that should stand pat. They still have pieces to contend in the near future and as their pitching improves with guys coming back from injury, they could be a legitimate contender coming 2016.
Atlanta Braves (3.8%)
The Braves, especially in the offseason, have committed to becoming a selling team. They don't have any exciting pieces, but even though they have kind of surprised, they should by no means buy.
Chicago White Sox (3.2%)
The White Sox are in a tough position. They reportedly won't have a fire sale, which makes sense considering how much money they spent in free agency, but they need to get rid of Jeff Samardzija and still be planning to try again in 2016.
San Diego Padres (2.7%)
The Padres could buy at the deadline, but in all reality, they shouldn't. They've got some important games coming up that they need to win if people start seriously seeing them as contenders. Once again, they are proving that the winners of the offseason don't necessarily win during the season.
Miami Marlins (1.6%)
The Marlins shouldn't go into a fire sale, but Mat Latos, Dan Haren, Brad Hand, and other free agents at the end of the season should be gone.
Cincinnati Reds (1.1%)
The Reds have Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and possibly Aroldis Chapman available, and while they won't sell until after they host the All-Star Game, I expect it to come, as it should.
Colorado Rockies (0.2%)
I'd pull the trigger and deal Troy Tulowitzki. It's time for a real change in Colorado if they want to be relevant down the road.
Milwaukee Brewers (0.2%)
The Brewers should enter into a fire sale.
Philadelphia Phillies (0.0%)
Now, these rankings and categories don't mean that each of these teams will do as I advise. Their postseason percentages could change and perhaps an addition is all they need to do that. However, Baseball Prospectus' odds are very accurate and should not be taken lightly. Teams really should use them to determine whether they could justify buying at the deadline.