It's three weeks until baseball. And since it is Saturday, that means it is time for another division preview. After taking a look at a competitive AL East last week, I delve into the American League Central, home of the defending World Series champion Royals. This is a competitive division that may end up producing two playoff teams.
1. Kansas City Royals -- 2015 Record: 95-67; Projection: 93-69
Here we go again. After winning the American League in 2014 but losing the World Series to the Giants in seven games, most analysts thought coming into 2015 that the Royals just weren't that good. I, however, predicted them to win the division but never thought that they'd get back to the World Series, let alone win it. Now this season, many analysts are again picking against the Royals, but I just cannot get myself to do it.
The biggest move the Royals made this offseason was the re-signing of Alex Gordon to play left field. Outside of his good statistical season in 2015 (120 OPS+), Gordon is the heart and soul of this Royals team, and their front office recognized the need to pay him what he deserved. They also added Ian Kennedy to their rotation and Joakim Soria to their bullpen, but lost Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist, and others.
The Royals' lineup does something very few lineups do: put balls in play. Their refusal to strike out makes them so dangerous and definitely helped them win the World Series last year. They have built many stars through their organization, including Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, and Gordon. The depth of their lineup is matched by very few American League team, and it should help them a very fair share of games in 2016.
As for their rotation, the loss of Cueto hurts. I, unlike others, like the signing of Kennedy. With the Royals' stellar defense, the team should be able to get plenty of value out of the starter. I would not be surprised if he had a really solid season. The lack of an ace in their rotation does hurt, and if they aren't at the top of the division at the end of the season, it is because their pitching faltered at some point or another.
2. Cleveland Indians -- 2015 Record: 81-80; Projection: 91-71
While the Royals' pitching may be their downfall, the Indians' pitching could be the reason they win this division. The team made a few modest moves this offseason, but when you have a rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Josh Tomlin, you can't help but be excited. Indians' starters posted the fourth-lowest ERA in the American League.
The Indians helped fix their woes at third base with the signing of Juan Uribe this offseason. He is getting up there in terms of age, but has still proved to be a valuable asset over the past few years. Three other signings-Will Venable, Rajai Davis, and Mike Napoli-could all find themselves in the lineup come Opening Day. They add to the already-existing nucleus in Cleveland of Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes, and Michael Brantley, who is expected to begin the season on the disabled list.
A full season of Lindor should be huge for the Indians offense, which, even in 2015, was one of the better offenses in the AL. The loss of Brantley for an extended amount of time due to shoulder surgery definitely hurts, though. However, the Indians are in prime position to make the postseason in 2016 thanks to pitching alone. I would not be surprised to see the Indians in the Wild Card game, and if everything goes right, they may be able to overtake the Royals as American League Central champions.
3. Minnesota Twins -- 2015 Record: 83-79; Projection: 85-77
The Twins have the brightest future of any team in the American League Central. Their turnaround almost began in 2015; the Twins were in the Wild Card hunt for most of the year, and they finished above .500 for the first time since 2010. Three stud consensus top-100 prospects (per Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus)-Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, and Max Kepler-should find their way into the big leagues this season. Miguel Sano, who had the sixth-highest HR/FB ratio in the Majors (min. 300 PA), has his first full season at baseball's highest level. The stars appear to be aligning for the Twins.
But in 2016, they're still a bit away. The rotation has questions. Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson, Ricky Nolasco, and Tyler Duffey probably won't be able to hold their own against some of the staffs just inside their own division. The bullpen is good, and Glen Perkins remains one of the most underrated closers in baseball. Again, though, I don't see their bullpen keeping pace with the Royals' bullpen, per se.
The lineup was given a boost with the signing of Korean slugger Byung-ho Park, who projects out as their designated hitter. Park, who has looked good in Spring Training, could end up being a fantastic one-two power punch with Sano. Add in Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer (who's still a fairly solid contact hitter), and the Twins are looking at a formidable and deep lineup.
My target date for the Twins' next postseason team is 2017 or 2018. I still leave the door open for a run in 2016, but that would be based upon perhaps unrealistic development from top prospects that have yet to see even a cup of coffee in the Majors (Berrios, Kepler). Let's just say this: What Carlos Correa did in 2015 by coming up to the Majors and succeeding right out of the gate is the exception to the rule. Twins fans, 2016 isn't your year, but you are on the up and up.
4. Chicago White Sox -- 2015 Record: 76-86; Projection: 81-81
The White Sox confuse me. Do the White Sox confuse you too? They were easily the hardest team to predict in this division. The team has some good pieces, but I just don't like the fact that five of their projected starting nine were not in the organization last season. Brett Lawrie, Todd Frazier, Austin Jackson, Alex Avila, and Jimmy Rollins are all new additions to the club, and I don't know how they will mix together.
The biggest move that the White Sox made this offseason was the acquisition of Todd Frazier from the Reds. The 30-year-old Frazier did hit 35 home runs last season, posting a .806 OPS (117 OPS+) in 678 plate appearances. However, his career OPS is almost 100 points lower outside of Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. I'm not sure how he'll do out in the South Side of Chicago. The only real staple in the White Sox' lineup is Jose Abreu, who, even in a season considered a down year, hit 30 home runs and posted a 135 OPS+. As a whole, though, I have my doubts in the fluidness of the White Sox' lineup and how they will fare over the course of a season.
I do, however, like the White Sox' pitching staff. Chris Sale is dominant. Jose Quintana's and Carlos Rodon's best days may still be ahead of them. John Danks is an innings eater. And Mat Latos may have a bounce-back season and be a valuable asset as well. In the bullpen, the Sox have a nice group of arms in David Robertson, Matt Albers, Nate Jones, and Zach Duke. The team had one of the better bullpens in terms of xFIP, and with no significant losses there, they should be just fine in 2016 too.
Overall, the White Sox just don't appeal to me as a team destined for contention in 2015. I'll give them credit where due, though. They do appear to have a plan, but I'm just not sure if they will have strong enough chemistry to win the division in 2016.
5. Detroit Tigers -- 2015 Record: 74-87; Projection: 77-84
I hate to say it, but the Tigers may just be falling down a 2012-2014 Philadelphia Phillies path. The team is trying to piece together free agent signings with their aging core, something the Phillies did to no avail during that time period. The team didn't get what they wanted--a World Series title--with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez closer to their primes, and there is no reason to believe they will do so now, even after the additions of Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann, and a whole new back-end of the bullpen.
The Tigers had five hitters-Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias, Yoenis Cespedes, and J.D. Martinez-who posted a 100 OPS+ (considered league average) or higher last season. Cespedes is gone, but is basically replaced with Upton. Victor Martinez will hopefully be 100 percent in 2016. I'll admit: the Tigers lineup is very good. They were among the best offensive teams in baseball last year, adjusted for park factors. But offense is nothing when there is no pitching to support it.
Even with the addition of Zimmerman, who I wouldn't consider an ace, the Tigers have lots of unknowns in their rotation in 2016. Anibal Sanchez had an awful year last year with a 4.99 ERA, and his peripherals (Ks and BBs) were equally as bad. Justin Verlander was decent, but still only made 20 starts and missed time due to injury. Daniel Norris is a promising young starter, and he could have a really good year. But then the Tigers brought in Mike Pelfrey, an innings eater at best, to round out the rotation. As for the bullpen, the Tigers brought in Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, and Justin Wilson this offseason to attempt to improve on the third-worst bullpen in baseball last season by fWAR. The Tigers are notorious for building bad bullpens, but maybe they'll be better this season with a new regime in the front office.
The overarching theme of this preview, however, is age. The Tigers' main guys are getting up there and that might not bode well for them. The best case scenario for Detroit is that 2015 was a fluke, everyone stays healthy, and they challenge the Royals for the AL Central title. But I just don't see that happening.
Next up: AL West.
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.
The best player on this year's free agent market is Max Scherzer from the Detroit Tigers. Scherzer was offered a qualifying offer earlier today, but should still have a very strong market considering his accolades and performance on the field.
The 30-year-old Scherzer will be hitting free agency for the first time in his career, as he just wrapped up the arbitration process this past offseason, netting a one-year, $15.53 million deal from Detroit. Considering that the qualifying offer would actually be a decrease in pay for Scherzer, there is an extremely low chance he takes it. Where could he go and what contract could he get?
Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported that Scherzer could net a seven-year, $175 million contract from his new team. Scherzer declined an extension from the Tigers that was worth $144 million over six years back prior to this season. He posted another very good season this year and should expect to make more than $144 million.
The St. Louis native Scherzer was selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2006 MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, out of the University of Missouri Columbia (Columbia, MO). He came up to the big leagues with Arizona for a brief period, but was traded in the three-team trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees, and Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson to the Diamondbacks.
Since, Scherzer has improved every year. He completely broke out in 2013, going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA in 214 1/3 innings pitched, which netted him the 2013 Cy Young award.
This past year, Scherzer went 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA in 33 starts coming off his Cy Young season. He struck out 252 hitters and walked just 63 over his 220 1/3 innings of work. Scherzer may have resulted from some poor defense, as his 2.85 FIP suggests that his ERA was 0.30 inflated.
It will be hard to pinpoint an exact location for Scherzer now, but I have a strong feeling he ends up in Boston to pitch for the Red Sox. The Chicago Cubs are in for one, or more, top tier starting pitchers, but I cannot see Theo Epstein giving up a second round pick to go get him. The Yankees could be in on him, but a recent report said they weren't going after top starting pitching.
The Red Sox want to make another run at the AL East title in 2015. They acquired Yoenis Cespedes and Allen Craig at the trade deadline from the Athletics and Cardinals, respectively, to bolster their lineup and outfield. They still have a strong lineup that has some young talent, but did post a .684 OPS last year, which ranked 22nd in the majors. The Red Sox might need to really retool in order to contend once again.
Other suitors for Scherzer are pretty obvious, the Yankees and Cubs. I'm not fully convinced that the Yankees will stay out of the top bidding this season, and the Cubs are going to go after some top pitching. But one, other potential suitor, the St. Louis Cardinals, might be a dark horse for Scherzer.
Scherzer discussed the idea of pitching in St. Louis in March.
"It would be too cool," Scherzer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Rick Hummel. "I grew up there. When you’re a little kid, you picture yourself putting on the (Cardinals) uniform."
No free agent starting pitcher has made over $150 million since CC Sabathia signed with the Yankees prior to the 2009 season. We'll see how the market plays out for Scherzer, but I have the Red Sox signing him to a six-year, $150 million contract, similar to the deal Zack Greinke got from the Dodgers prior to the 2013 season. No matter how you slice it, Scherzer will get paid.
Cuban star outfielder/second baseman Rusney Castillo is closing in on signing with a big league club, reports say. He could get a deal in the five-year, $60 million range, with the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, Phillies, and Tigers being the main bidders. I strongly believe that the Detroit Tigers will end up signing Castillo and there are a lot of good reasons as to why.
First, the Tigers are not usually in on international free agents, which makes it even more interesting on why they are in on Castillo. The Tigers are more of a traditional team and have not gone out deep for international free agents. Now that they are making a change, it could possibly mean that they are really interested in Castillo as compared to other free agents similar to him.
The Tigers are falling fast. They are no longer a guarantee to make the playoffs, let alone go deep into them. On August 7th, Detroit had an 89% chance of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus, including an 82.5% chance of winning the division. Following yesterday's games, the Tigers only have a 60% chance of making the playoffs and a 44% chance of winning the division.
If the Tigers brought Castillo aboard, they might be able to form a spark that not only brings them into the playoffs, but helps them get hot and dominate the American League in pursuit of their first World Series championship since 1984. We have seen the spark that Yasiel Puig started in Los Angeles, the spark that Jose Abreu created in Chicago (although they will not be a playoff team), who says that Castillo cannot work the magic for Detroit? Or, is it to late? Or, is he not the real deal?
Those questions are for Detroit's management to decide. Bringing Castillo on might not only boost them into the playoffs, but it could fill a big hole in a few years when Torii Hunter and Rajai Davis only under contract through 2014 and 2015, respectively. Instead of the Tigers signing a 30-year-old free agent outfielder in two years, why not sign Castillo, a 27-year-old outfielder with perhaps his best years to come? Their interest in him is beginning to add up.
Castillo is getting closer to signing on with his first major league club. The Tigers make sense for many reasons, but he may be the player they need to save their season.
Follow Devan on Twitter for the latest news and rumors @CoverThoseBases.
Boy, has this season gone by fast. It feels like just yesterday the Boston Red Sox were hoisting the 2013 World Series trophy, and everyone else was waiting for the season to start again. It feels like just yesterday that Opening Day was here and that the teams were back on the field to start a new season with a clean slate. But this first half of the season has gone by fast. Really fast. Now we are at the All-Star break, and it is time to give out some "first-half awards," talk about some surprise teams, and just recap what went on during this fantastic first half of the 2014 season.
American League Awards:
MVP: Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Trout can do it all. He can hit for average, hit for power, runs well, plays decent outfield, and has an average arm. He is the closest player in the major leagues to being a true five-tool guy. It's about time that the 22-year-old gets an MVP award, don't you think? Trout is having another fantastic season at the dish, posting the highest fWAR and wRC+ in the major leagues with 5.5 and 181 marks, respectively. He has a 1.005 OPS, which ranks tops in the American League. And he has a .310 average, good for 13th in the majors. If he is not the AL MVP, then who is?
Honorable Mentions: Josh Donaldson, Jose Abreu, and Miguel Cabrera
Rookie of the Year: Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox
If Masahiro Tanaka had stayed healthy, it would have been a tough choice for this award. But he couldn't. The 27-year-old Abreu, right out of Cuba, was thrown into the American game of baseball and had to adjust. The adjusting part was likely the easiest for Abreu, who has taken the major leagues by storm. With 29 homers, Abreu leads the American League in bombs, and only needs 20 in the second half to tie Mark McGwire for most home runs in a rookie season. That by itself is deserving of the Rookie of the Year award, but for good measure, Abreu has a .292 batting average and a .630 (!!!) slugging percentage.
Honorable Mentions: Masahiro Tanaka and George Springer
Cy Young: Felix Hernandez, RHP, Seattle Mariners
This season, Felix has just been plain old Felix. Having perhaps the greatest season of his career, Hernandez is 11-2 with a 2.12 ERA and a 2.04 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). His 5.2 fWAR leads all pitchers, and his 2.43 xFIP ranks second to only Clayton Kershaw, who, as we all know, is a National League pitcher. The amazing thing about Hernandez is that his change-up, the pitch he uses second-most (to his sinker) holds hitters to a minuscule .157 batting average (32-for-142). If Hernandez records just eight more wins, he ties his all-time high.
Honorable Mentions: Jon Lester, David Price, and Garrett Richards
Manager of the Year: Mike Scioscia, MGR, Los Angeles Angels
Many people still question the contracts the Angels gave to Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and how they have not turned the team into a World Series contender. Well, the contracts are still bad, but the critics have to be quiet, at least for this year. The Los Angeles Angels are getting the job done in the American League West, and both Pujols and Hamilton have performed. Scioscia has managed the Angels since 2000, and he is on pace to finish with the third-highest winning percentage in his managerial career. The Angels are on pace for a record of 98-64.
Honorable Mention: Lloyd McClendon
The National League first-half awards will be announced tomorrow. Here's a teaser: Troy Tulowitzki will not win the MVP award. Be sure to check them all out!