Friday, March 27, 2015

10 Reasons Why Cardinals Will Be MUCH Better Than Last Year

Last year, the Cardinals managed to win 90 regular season games despite having an "off year" offensively.  That's putting it mildly.  Based on an OPS+ of 93, it was their second worst offensive season of the millennium.  For the record, only the 2007 Cardinals (92 OPS+) were worse, offensively.

Last year, they managed to win 90 games despite outscoring their opponents by only 16 runs (619 to 603).  Helping their cause was a major league-leading 23 shutouts from the pitching staff, which easily offset the 12 times the offense was blanked by the opposition.  Also, despite the rather shaky performance of closer Trevor Rosenthal - who allowed 39% of first batters to reach base - he still managed to save 45 games - while the rest of the bullpen secured another ten.  Those 55 saves also happened to be the most by any major league team.  In other words, the Cardinals were usually engaged in low-scoring games that were decided by two or fewer runs.

Another thing that helped St Louis win a few extra games was a vastly improved defense.  Essentially, the Redbirds went from being the second-worst defensive team in the league in 2013 (only Philadelphia was worse) to becoming the second-best defensive team in 2014 (only Cincinnati was better).  The addition of right fielder Jason Heyward (from Atlanta) - one of the best defensive players in all of baseball - should put the Cardinals on top of the defensive metric charts by a wide margin in 2015.

Heyward's addition to the roster is just one of the ten major reasons the Cardinals will be vastly improved over last season.  Actually, he's probably the number one reason, since he's upgrading a position - right field - that was among the worst in baseball last year for St Louis.  The other nine reasons for the team's vast improvement over last year is based on the assumption that certain players (Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn & Matt Holliday for example) will perform similarly this season as last.

Without further adieu, here are ten players who will add significantly greater value to the Cardinals in 2015 than the previous season:

* Yadier Molina suffered through an injury-marred season in '14 - playing in just 110 games, with diminished offensive production (.282/.333/.386).  Yadi turns 33 in July, so a gradual decline in his skills is inevitable; however, he should be relatively healthy this season, so appearing in 140 games is likely, and a more potent offensive attack (.300/.360/.420) should be in the Cards as well.

* Kolten Wong is poised for a break-out season based on how well he finished last year - especially with his stellar performance in the postseason.  Wong struggled early in the season, then after a brief stint in the minors, returned with renewed confidence and impressive power numbers.  In 113 games Kolten finished with a .249/.292/.388 slash line.  The other part of the second base dilemma last year was the woeful final season free agent Mark Ellis compiled.  In 73 games, he hit .180 with absolutely no power.  With Wong taking over on a full-time basis at second base, he should be able to play 150 games with this type of offensive production:  .275/.330/.450.  He'll probably hit 15 home runs, steal 30 bags and possibly win a Gold Glove Award.  Yes, second base is in good hands again.

* Jaime Garcia has had a host of shoulder problems that has limited his work to just 99 innings over the course of the last two seasons.  He appears to be healthy again and should be able to work 150 quality innings.  His work this spring has been surprisingly effective, exceeding any reasonable expectation so far.  His contribution to the Cardinal's success could be huge - possibly NL Comeback Player of the Year material.

* Kevin Siegrist had a variety of physical ailments last season that caused his ERA to skyrocket from 0.45 in '13 to 6.82 last year.  He appears to be healthy again, with renewed confidence and effectiveness (5 IP - 0 ERA with 6 SO and just 1 BB so far this spring).  Look for numbers much closer to 2013.

* Michael Wacha appears to be healthy again and ready to dominate batters with his blazing fastball and devastating change up - like he did late in 2013.  He'll be the number three starter - and would be a number one on most teams.  That's scary.

* Jordan Walden, who came over from the Braves in the Heyward deal, is another power arm in the bullpen (254 strikeouts in 211.2 career innings pitched), capable of closing out games whenever needed.  Having another viable option will undoubtedly take some of the pressure off Trevor Rosenthal, who probably needed a break from time to time last season, but rarely got one.

* Speaking of Trevor Rosenthal...expect him to dominate hitters they way he did late in 2013, when he was almost flawless.  In 2014, Rosenthal's walk rate was over five batters per nine innings.  That's going to be cut in half.

* Marco Gonzalez has been impressive so far this spring (3-0 - 0.71 ERA), giving manager Mike Matheny another viable (left-handed) candidate for the starting rotation.

* John Lackey should be able to log close to 200 innings of solid starting pitching - another key to helping the bullpen stay fresh through the long season - and deep into the postseason.

* Jason Heyward - previously mentioned - but his impact on the Cardinals' success will be the greatest, since their biggest weakness from 2014 - right field - is now among their biggest strengths.  Heyward is a viable MVP candidate - particularly if he hits for the type of power he's shown in the past (27 home runs a couple of years ago).  Even if he just matches his career averages (.262/.351/.429), with his exceptional defensive play, he's an elite player.  For the Cardinals front office, the decision to sign him to a long-term contract (he'll be a free agent after this season) should be a top priority - and nailed down sooner than later.

I don't think there's any doubt the Redbirds will be a much better team this year than last.  In fact, the 2015 edition of the St Louis Cardinals may surpass the overall performance of the 2004 and 2005 teams.

Here's a ranking of each season of the millennium, combing the team OPS+ and ERA+ (defensive metrics not included):

Rank   Year    OPS+   ERA+  Total  Postseason?
1(Tie)   2004    107     113       220    Y
1(Tie)   2005     98      122       220    Y (Best Pitching of the Millennium)
3          2013    102     110       212    Y
4(Tie)   2011    112       99       211    Y (Best Offense of the Millennium)
4(Tie)   2002    102     109       211    Y
6(Tie)   2000    103     107       210    Y
6(Tie)   2001    100     110       210    Y
6(Tie)   2009     98      112       210    Y
6(Tie)   2012    107     103       210    Y
10        2010    100     109       209    N
11        2008    107     101       208    N
12        2003    111      90        201    N (Worst Pitching of the Millennium)
13        2014     93      105       198    Y
14        2006     97       98        195    Y
15        2007     92       95        187    N (Worst Offense of the Millennium)

Obviously, these numbers provide a good measurement of the team's regular season performance - but once the postseason begins, anything can happen (example:  2006).

What can we expect in 2015?  Here's my guesstimate:  OPS+ 102 - ERA+ 119 (Total 221).  By the time we factor in the expected superior defensive metrics, this could shape up to be the best Cardinal team of the millennium.  No kidding.

Odds makers currently give the Cards a 12 to 1 shot to win the World Series.  I think that makes them highly underrated...

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ranking NL Central Starting Rotations

Now that free agent pitcher James Shields is officially off the market (signing a four-year deal with the San Diego Padres), we now have a clearer picture of how the starting rotations of the five NL Central teams will be staffed - at least for now.  Once the season begins, there may be some changes - particularly at the lower end of the rotations, where the competition for the fifth spot usually has a good number of candidates - from aging veterans to unproven rookies.

For rating purposes, we'll compare each team's Number One Starter, their Number Twos, and so on and so forth.  Included will be a brief picture of last season's performance and any significant issues that may be pertinent, such as the relative risk for arm/shoulder/elbow trouble.

Here we go:

NUMBER ONE  

1 - Cueto (CIN) 20-9 - 2.25 ERA - 243.2 IP - 160 ERA+ (Age 28) - After an injury-plagued 2013 season, he was the second-best pitcher in the NL last season.

2 - Wainwright (STL) 20-9 - 2.38 ERA - 227.0 IP - 154 ERA+ (Age 32) - Had a "dead arm" phase in the second half - Had minor off season elbow surgery which is a concern heading into the new season.  When healthy, he's among the top 4 or 5 pitchers in MLB.

3 - Lester (CHI) 16-11 - 2.46 ERA - 219.2 IP - 155 ERA + (Age 30) - Had his finest season in 2014, but pitching for Oakland, inexplicably failed to hold the Royals at bay in the AL Wild Card game.  Not a good way to end a season.

4 - Liriano (PIT) 7-10 - 3.38 ERA - 162.1 IP - 117 ERA+ (Age 30) - Health issues last year - could be a problem again in 2015.  

5 - Garza (MIL) 8-8 - 3.64 ERA - 163.1 IP - 104 ERA+ (Age 30) - Durability and a volatile demeanor could be troublesome in 2015.

NUMBER TWO

1 - Lynn (STL) 15-10 - 2.74 ERA - 203.2 IP - 134 ERA+ (Age 27) - Had his finest season, by far, in 2014, although pitching with low run support cost him some wins - Should be just as good - if not better - in 2015.

2 - Arrieta (CHI) 10-5 - 2.53 ERA - 156.2 IP - 151 ERA+ (Age 28) - Pitched extremely well last season with a relatively light workload - Will need to post similar results while eclipsing 200 IP to give team a reasonable shot at postseason play.

3 - Peralta (MIL) 17-11 - 3.53 ERA - 198.2 IP - 107 ERA+ (Age 25) - Thanks to getting a lot of run support, actually won more games than any NL Central pitcher not named Cueto or Wainwright in 2014 - Will he be so fortunate in 2015?

4 - Bailey (CIN) 9-5 - 3.71 ERA - 145.2 IP - 97 ERA+ (Age 28) - Will need to bounce back from a mediocre 2014 - Lower the ERA, increase the workload - Otherwise, it could be another painful season for the Reds.

5 - Cole (PIT) 11-5 - 3.65 ERA - 138.0 IP - 98 ERA+ (Age 23) - Has potential to have breakout season in 2015, but needs to work more than 200 IP to give Pirates a reasonable shot at a division title.

NUMBER THREE

1 - Wacha (STL) 5-6 - 3.20 ERA - 107.0 IP - 115 ERA+ (Age 22) - If he's fully recovered from his shoulder problems, he should be able to dominate opposing lineups like he did late in the 2013 season (and postseason) - His workload will probably be limited by a cautious brain trust - still, 150+ IP would be a welcome asset to the pitching staff.

2 - Lohse (MIL) 13-9 - 3.54 ERA - 198.1 IP - 107 ERA+ (Age 35) - Not overpowering, but reliable - Age may start becoming a bit of a factor, especially if his not-so-fast-fastball loses some velocity in 2015.

3 - Leake (CIN) 11-13 - 3.70 ERA - 214.1 IP - 97 ERA+ (Age 26) - A steady workhorse - Should give Reds another 200+ IP in 2015.

4 - Hammel (CHI) 8-5 - 2.58 ERA - 108.2 IP - 128 ERA+ (Age 31) - Pitched well with a limited workload last season - Needs to double the output in 2015 to give Cubs any postseason hopes.

5 - Burnett (PIT) 8-18 - 4.59 ERA - 213.2 IP - 81 ERA+ (Age 37) - Pitching for a miserable Phillies team last season - Still durable after all those years, but age-related decline likely to continue - Probably should retire - Would be no surprise to see him released by the All Star break.

NUMBER FOUR

1 - Worley (PIT) 8-4 - 2.85 ERA - 110.2 IP - 125 ERA+ (Age 26) - Good numbers in limited action last season - It may not take long for this guy to supplant Burnett in the number three slot in the rotation.

2 - Fiers (MIL) 6-5 - 2.13 ERA - 71.2 IP - 178 ERA+ (Age 29) - Had the highest ERA+ in the division last season - but needs to at least double his innings pitched in 2015 to give rotation the necessary boost to stay in the race.

3 - Lackey (STL) 3-3 - 4.30 ERA - 60.2 IP - 86 ERA+ (Age 35) - Acquired from Boston prior to the trade deadline last season - Struggled in limited action - Whether or not he can bounce back in 2015 remains to be seen.

4 - Wood (CHI) 8-13 - 5.03 ERA - 173.2 IP - 76 ERA+ (Age 27) - Durable, but ineffective last season - He may not be able to improve in 2015 - The Cubs will be in trouble if he doesn't pitch more effectively this season.

5 - Cingrani (CIN) 2-8 - 4.55 ERA - 63.1 IP - 79 ERA+ (Age 24) - After showing flashes of brilliance when first called up in 2013, regressed significantly last season - Without vast improvement this season, the Reds will have serious issues.

NUMBER FIVE

1 - Hendricks (CHI) 7-2 - 2.46 ERA - 80.1 IP - 155 ERA+ (Age 24) - Encouraging results in limited exposure last season - If he can come close to duplicating this performance with 160+ IP, Cubs should easily escape the cellar.

2 - Locke (PIT) 7-6 - 3.91 ERA - 131.1 IP - 91 ERA+ (Age 26) - Assuming Burnett flops for the Pirates in 2015, the team will desperately need this guy to pitch better than last year - and work closer to 200 IP.

3 - Martinez (STL) 2-4 - 4.03 ERA - 89.1 IP - 91 ERA+ (Age 22) - Has the raw talent to develop into a top end of the rotation starter - If he does, Cards could run away with division title.

4 - Nelson (MIL) 2-9 - 4.83 ERA - 69.1 IP - 77 ERA+ (Age 25) - Expected to improve this season - Nowhere to go but up.

5 - Desclafani (CIN) 2-2 - 6.27 ERA - 33.0 IP - 61 ERA+ (Age 24) - Posted a decent 3.78 ERA in the minors last season - Significant improvement is critical in the fifth spot in the rotation if the Reds hope to have any chance at all in the division race.

OVERALL ROTATION RANKINGS

1 - St Louis Cardinals - The combination of Wainwright, Lynn and Wacha should be dominant in 2015.

2 - Chicago Cubs - The addition of Lester and the continued development of their younger talent brings some measure of credibility to a franchise desperate to win.

3 - Milwaukee Brewers - Lacking a true "ace", but still capable of keeping their team in most games.

4 - Pittsburgh Pirates - A shaky rotation with the potential to be a total disaster.

5 - Cincinnati Reds - After Cueto, a lot of question marks.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Ranking NL Central Position Players

After months of careful study and analysis, using advanced metrics and common sense, I've ranked all the position players in the NL Central who are most likely to be in the starting lineup on a regular basis - at least, at the beginning of the season.

However, there could be significant changes as early as May - at least for one team:  The Chicago Cubs.  Around that time, their highly touted third base prospect - Kris Bryant - will probably be called up from the minors to add much needed offensive firepower for a team expected to contend for a division title (Las Vegas odds makers list them at 12 to 1 to win the World Series; along with the Cardinals!).  One thing is certain:  The Cubs will not win the NL Central - let alone even qualify for a wild card berth with their current projected lineup (even with five Jon Lesters in the starting rotation).

A comparison of the five NL Central teams' primary position players sheds some light on who are legitimate contenders - and who are the pretenders:

Catcher

In the wake of an injury-plagued season in '14 (only 110 games played), the Cardinals' Yadier Molina has reportedly shed twenty pounds, hoping to take some pressure off a bum knee.  If he can stay reasonably healthy this season, he should be able to outperform Milwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy (#2) who had his best season last year (.301/.373/.465 with a NL-most 53 doubles).

Cincinnati's Devin Mesoraco (#3) who hit 25 HR (most by any MLB catcher) in just 114 games appears to be a rising star.

Pittsburgh is going to miss Russell Martin (now with Toronto), although his replacement - Francisco Cervelli (#4) - should be adequate.  Unfortunately for the Pirates, "adequate" may not be good enough to help nurture a mediocre pitching staff through a challenging season.

The Cubs acquired Miguel Montero (#5) from Arizona for his "pitch framing" ability; somehow overlooking his sharp offensive decline in the past two seasons - a trend that will likely continue in 2015.  As far as "pitch framing" goes, it didn't really help the D-Backs' atrocious pitching staff last year (4.26 ERA was 2nd-worst in the league, behind Colorado's 4.86 ERA).

First Base

Chicago's Anthony Rizzo, after a breakout season, appears to have overtaken the Reds' Joey Votto (#2), who will be trying to return to form after a couple of seasons of nagging injuries which dramatically hurt his production (only 62 games played last season).

The Cardinals are hoping Matt Adams (#3) will regain that power stroke he had in '13 when he hit 17 HR in 319 PA.  If he does, he could surpass Votto and possibly Rizzo.

Milwaukee's newest addition - Adam Lind (#4) - could be an offensive weapon (.321/.381/.479 in 96 games) - although somewhat of a defensive liability.

Meanwhile, the Pirates are desperately hoping Pedro Alvarez (#5) rebounds after a disappointing '14 - when he hit just 18 HR - half the total from '13.

Second Base

Pittsburgh's Neil Walker (.271/.342/.467 with 23 HR) is an All Star caliber player who is just entering his prime.  If anyone's going to challenge him, it could well be the Cardinals' Kolten Wong (#2), who not only has excellent defensive skills, his hitting should be greatly improved in '14.

Third ranked Scooter Gennett (.289/.320/.434) of Milwaukee has a decent bat but needs work on the defense to reach All Star status.

The Reds' fourth ranked Brandon Phillips (.266/.306/.372) nearly punched out a Cincinnati beat reporter a couple of years ago for noticing his OBP sucked.  It still does, and his defensive skills are slipping for the aging hot dog, as well.

The Cubs are praying that fifth ranked Javier Baez (.164/.227/.324) will cut down on his strikeouts (95 in 229 PA).  Otherwise their postseason hopes get very dim.

Third Base

The Reds' Todd Frazier had a breakout season in '14 (.273/.336/.458 with 29 HR) - and he's good with the glove to rank a notch ahead of the Redbirds' Matt Carpenter (NL-most 95 BB), who displayed remarkable postseason power (4 HR in 39 PA) after hitting just 8 HR in the regular season.

Pittsburgh's third ranked Josh Harrison (.315/.347/.490) had a career year in '14 - will likely regress a bit in '15.

Aging Aramis Ramirez (#4) of Milwaukee (.285/.330/.427) posted his lowest SLG since '02 - and his glove is suspect at the hot corner, as well.

Either Mike Olt or Tommy La Stella (#5 & 5A) will likely be in the lineup for the Cubs on Opening Day - and neither one is going to do much to enhance Chicago's postseason dream.  Maybe rookie Kris Bryant will get called up by May and have a monster season - because that's what they need to be competitive.

Shortstop

Jhonny Peralta (club record 21 HR for SS) was better than expected last year for St Louis, when he was arguably, the best shortstop in either league.  He'll likely regress a bit in '15, but should still be better than Starlin Castro (#2) who hit well (.272/.339/.438) but still has defensive issues.

Pittsburgh's Jordy Mercer (#3) is a solid defensive player with a decent bat, while the Reds' Zack Cozart (#4) is a very good defensive player with a weak bat (.221/.268/.300).

The Brewers' Jean Segura (#5) is a good defensive player whose production fell off considerably in '14 (.246/.289/.326) compared to '13 (.274/.329/.423) when he was an All Star.  If he doesn't improve this season, the Brewers could be in serious trouble, along with the Cubs.

Left Field

Pittsburgh's Starling Marte (.291/.356/.453) is a five tool player who will only get better in '15 and beyond.  Matt Holldiay (#2) is starting to show some age-related regression, with a career low .441 SLG last season.  If he can hit 20 HR and drive in 90 again, the Cards should return to the postseason for a record fifth straight season.

The Brewers' third ranked Khris Davis (.244/.299/.457 with 22 HR) should post better offensive numbers in '15, but his defense is still suspect.

Marlon Byrd (#4) - the new addition to the Reds' lineup - hit a career high 25 HR with the Phillies last season, but at the age of 37, may show some regression this season.

The Cubs' Chris Coghlan (#5) is a pretty good hitter (.283/.352/.452) but an atrocious defensive player.

Center Field

Andrew McCutchen (.314/.410/.542) is the best player on an improving Pirates' franchise, although he's overrated, defensively.  Two seasons ago, Milwaukee's Carlos Gomez (#2) played a spectacular defensive CF, regressing slightly last year, but his hitting was nearly a carbon copy (.284/.356/.477 with 23 HR).

After a lackluster '13, third ranked Jon Jay (.295/.359/.396) rebounded nicely for the Cardinals in '14 - especially defensively.

Cincinnati's speedy Billy Hamilton (.250/.292/.355) is ranked at #4, but will likely show overall improvement as his career progresses.

Dexter Fowler's (#5) ability to get on base (.375 last season) will help the Cubs' offense this season, but defensively, he's a liability.  In other words, he's got lots of company in Chicago.

Right Field

The Cardinals' big acquisition this off season - Jason Heyward - will solve the team's biggest weakness last season - although duplicating a 7.0 WAR may be a difficult assignment.  However, if he can find his niche in the St Louis lineup, he could have his best offensive season in '15 - and the Cards should cruise to another division title.

The Brewers' injury-plagued Ryan Braun (#2) discovered that playing without his special vitamins wasn't so easy last year - posting career lows in his entire slash line (.266/.324/.453).  He's bound to improve on those numbers in '15, but he'll never get back to that PED-enhanced production from a few years ago.  Defensively, a liability.

The Cubs' hot rookie sensation - third ranked Jorge Soler (.292/.330/.573 in 97 PA) - may continue where he left off last season - or he may find out that big league pitching isn't so easy to hit this year.  If he flops, more trauma at Wrigley Field for another painful year.

The Pirates are counting on rookie Gregory Polanco (#4) to improve on last season's 89 game introduction to the major leagues (.235/.307/.343).  If he struggles once again, it's going to be tough for Pittsburgh to reach the postseason for a third straight year.

How bad was Jay Bruce (.217/.281/.373) last season for the Reds?  So bad, that even a couple of relatively untested rookies from Chicago and Pittsburgh are already ranked ahead of him.  He's got to get better in '15.  There's nowhere to go but up from a negative 1.1 WAR.

SUMMARY

The Cardinals and Pirates - with three players each ranked number one at their positions - figure to have the best overall lineups in the NL Central.  The difference between those two teams seems to be pitching - the Cardinals have the advantage - barring any significant injuries.

It would be a mistake to count any team out of the race for the division title (even the Cubs).  If Votto returns to form this season, the Reds could be much better.  The same goes for the Brewers with their former golden boy, Braunie.

For the Cubs, they need three relatively unproven rookies to rise to the occasion, if they hope to rise in the standings - which may be asking too much, too soon.  

PROJECTIONS

St Louis should win division title again
Second place could be a tight race between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati - even Milwaukee or Chicago could sneak up there if all their pieces fall into place
In other words, second through fifth place is almost a toss up between four teams




Sunday, February 1, 2015

Are the Cubs Really Going to Challenge the Cardinals?

Apparently, the Las Vegas odds makers believe the Chicago Cubs are for real - giving the franchise that hasn't won a World Series in 106 years a legitimate shot to win it all in 2015 (12 to 1).  Only the Washington Nationals (11 to 2) and Los Angeles Dodgers (8 to 1) are considered to have a better shot at becoming World Champions.

Joining the Cubs at 12 to 1 are the Boston Red Sox, LA Angels of Anaheim and the St Louis Cardinals.  In other words, the Cubs have made such an off-season splash, they're perceived to be on equal footing with the Cardinals, heading into the new season.  Technically, they will be tied for first place prior to Opening Day.  That's the good news.  The bad news:  They have to play 162 games.

I'm not just mocking the Cubs because of their past history of ineptitude.  Actually, their immediate future - this season - is destined to disappoint their delusional fan base for the 107th consecutive year; but who's counting?

Here's a comparison of each team's anticipated lineups for the upcoming season.  These are the  position players expected to start most of the games (along with last season's WAR & projected WAR for this season):

C     Yadier Molina (2.3 WAR - Projected 5.5)     Miguel Montero (0.6 WAR - Projected 1.5)
1B   Matt Adams (2.2 WAR - Projected 3.5)        Anthony Rizzo (4.9 WAR - Projected 5.5)
2B   Kolten Wong (2.1 WAR - Projected 4.5)       Javier Baez (-1.1 WAR - Projected 1.5)
3B   Matt Carpenter (2.8 WAR - Projected 3.5)    Tommy La Stella (-0.4 WAR - Projected 1.5)
SS    Jhonny Peralta (5.7 WAR - Projected 3.5)     Starlin Castro (1.9 WAR - Projected 3.5)
LF    Matt Holliday (4.0 WAR - Projected 4.5)      Chris Coghlan (0.6 WAR - Projected 1.0)
CF    Jon Jay (2.8 WAR - Projected 2.5)                Dexter Fowler (1.5 WAR - Projected 2.5)
RF    Jason Heyward (7.0 WAR - Projected 5.5)    Jorge Soler (1.1 WAR - Projected 3.5)

Total Cardinals (28.9 WAR - Projected 33.0)         Total Cubs (9.1 WAR - Projected 20.5)

For the Cubs, their third baseman of the future - Kris Bryant - may be called up early enough in the season to have a positive impact on the team's fortunes.  There is very little doubt he'll be an elite player - possibly near "Mike Trout" levels of performance, once he gets acclimated to the major leagues.  Let's say he's called up early enough and performs at a ridiculously high rate to produce a 10.0 WAR.  We'll remove La Stella's projected 1.5 WAR and insert Bryant's projected 10.0 WAR to change the team projection to a 29.0 WAR.  Even then, it's probably not going to be enough to catch the Cardinals - who also have better pitching than their arch-rivals.

The bottom line:  Those 12 to 1 odds may be appropriate for the Cardinals.  But it's a sucker bet for the Cubs.


Friday, January 30, 2015

Will the Pirates Challenge the Cardinals in 2015?

The Pittsburgh Pirates may have finished in second place (88-74) last season - two games behind the Cardinals (90-72) in the NL Central - but they actually were a better team, saber-metrically speaking.  Pittsburgh's Run Differential (+51) was significantly better than the Cardinals' (+12), who really had no business winning 90 games - but they did.  Call it luck or clutch performances or brilliant managing or whatever you want to call it - but according to Bill James' Pythagorean Winning Percentage, St Louis should have won just 83 games.

In fact, the Cardinals' team WAR was just 3.5 (above league average) in 2014 - 5th best in the National League.  The two best NL teams - Washington Nationals (+16.6) and LA Dodgers (+15.8) were both eliminated in the first round of the playoffs - and the third best team - Pirates (+9.2) - didn't get past the wild card game - eliminated by the eventual World Series champions - San Francisco Giants (+5.1) - who "on paper" were just the 4th best team in the NL.  Of course, they took care of the Cardinals in a five game NLCS before eventually knocking off the KC Royals in a seven game Fall Classic.

Much has happened since the Cardinals' season ended in San Francisco last October.  In the wake of  the Oscar Taveras tragedy, the need to fill a glaring hole in right field produced the Shelby Miller (and Tyrell Jenkins) for Jason Heyward (and Jordan Walden) trade.  Last season, the right field position for the Cardinals generated a WAR that was -3.1 (below league average) - only the Cincinnati Reds (-3.3) fared worse in the entire National League.

What was a black hole last year figures to be a shining star this year, however.

With Yadier Molina's injury-plagued season, Cardinals' catching was also significantly below average - but that too, figures to change for the better this season.  Additionally, with Kolten Wong's anticipated improvement at second base, what was once a weakness in 2014 should now be a strength in 2015.  Wong could very well have an All Star-caliber season in 2015; certainly, greatly improved over last year.

Optimistically, it's not unreasonable to anticipate a better offensive season from veteran left fielder Matt Holliday after a down year, as well; and despite the projections for Matt Adams to merely repeat last year's production at first base, I think he'll improve; plus the right-handed swinging backup Mark Reynolds should help spark additional offense against left-handed pitching.

The only position that may see a downward shift in production is at shortstop, where Jhonny Peralta performed far above reasonable expectations in 2014; especially defensively.  It was a career year, so it's unlikely he'll be able to repeat it.  Speaking of "career years", Matt Carpenter had one in 2013 - but after moving from second base to third base last year, his production slipped quite a bit; but it's not unreasonable to expect better numbers from him in 2015.

Despite Trevor Rosenthal's 45 saves last season, the entire bullpen (aside from Pat Neshek) had a down year; it's likely going to be much better (and healthier) this season.

The starting rotation did a good job last season; and with a return to form from a healthy Michael Wacha. he could pick up where he left off in the latter part of 2013.  That, along with injury-free seasons from Adam Wainwright & company, the rotation should be among the best in the league this season.  If Jaime Garcia can contribute even close to 100 quality innings this year, that would be a bonus; an unexpected bonus, actually.

In other words, there is reason for optimism for the Cardinals heading into the new season.  If all goes as planned, the Redbirds should return to the postseason for a franchise-record fifth straight year; and in the process, capture their third straight NL Central title.

If St Louis is going to be challenged in the Central, the most likely candidate is still the Pirates, although they have some issues that may prevent them from making a serious run.

First and foremost, they lost their fine catcher, Russell Martin (5.4 WAR) to free agency (Toronto Blue Jays).  Meanwhile, his replacement - Francisco Cervelli - is going to be adequate, but hardly an All Star caliber player (In a seven year MLB career, Cervelli has appeared in 250 games, posting a career WAR of 4.0).

Like the Cardinals in 2013, the Pirates were an offensive juggernaut last season; in fact, the WAR from their "non pitchers" was 12.3 above league average, which was tops in the NL.  However, the loss of Martin and the recent trade of right fielder Travis Snider to Baltimore (2.5 WAR) for a minor league pitching prospect - is bound to slow down the offense this season.  In Snider's absence, Pittsburgh is planning to use rookie Gregory Polanco, who had limited success in 89 games last year (.235/.307/.363), but may or may not pan out this year.  They've also added Corey Hart (-0.5 WAR) as a possible alternative in right field (or first base) - although his better days are well behind him.

Last season, the Pirates' pitching (-3.1 below league average WAR) was their weak link, and unfortunately for them, it's probably going to be even weaker in 2015, after losing free agent Edinson Volquez (2.0 WAR) to the KC Royals and replacing him with over-the-hill A.J. Burnett (-0.3 WAR with the Phillies), who is now 37 years old and fading fast.  At best, their starting rotation is shaky; at worst, a disaster.

If the Pirates are going to contend, they're going to need stellar seasons once again from guys like Andrew McCutchen (6.0 WAR), Starling Marte (5.6 WAR) and Josh Harrison (5.2 WAR).  Plus, they need Pedro Alvarez to return to 2013 form, when he led the NL with 36 home runs, primarily batting in the cleanup spot in the lineup; however, that's a long shot.  This is a major hole in their lineup as it stands right now; and without a viable number four guy, there's little chance for the Pirates to be raising the Jolly Roger enough times to overtake St Louis.

The Pirates are still a good team, but they won't be as good as they were the last two seasons.

The Cardinals will be better than they were last year; maybe even better than they were in 2013, when they went to the World Series.  Whether or not they make it back to the Fall Classic in 2015 remains to be seen.  Odds-makers are giving them a 12 to 1 shot of winning the World Series.

Odds makers are giving the Cubs the same shot of winning the World Series.  Seriously.  The Cubs.










Sunday, January 25, 2015

2015 NL Central Projections: Cardinals Overwhelming Favorite?

With all the recent hype surrounding the Chicago Cubs (new manager, new left-handed pitching ace, new center fielder, bold new prediction from first baseman to "win the NL Central"), the Las Vegas odds makers have given the lovable losers a legitimate shot to win the World Series (around 12 to 1?).

At the same time, unimpressed with the off-season moves of the St Louis Cardinals, those same odds-makers have downgraded last year's division champions - giving them about the same chance of winning the World Series as last year's cellar-dwelling Cubs.

That's just f***ing ridiculous.

Assuming WAR actually means something (generally speaking, it does), let's take a look at the entire NL Central's off-season moves, from a Wins Above Replacement perspective.  This will tell us if a team's additions, along with their subtractions actually figures to help them win more games in 2015.

Obviously, there are still some free agents floating around out there that could alter these projections; not to mention a few blockbuster trades that may happen before the season begins.  For now, here's the way things have gone for each team:

CARDINALS - 16 players that spent all or part of the 2014 season on the roster are gone.  The most notable subtractions are reliever Pat Neshek (2.3 WAR) and starter Shelby Miller (1.7 WAR).  Neshek - a free agent who had a career year in '14 - signed with the Houston Astros; Miller was traded to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for right fielder Jason Heyward (7.0 WAR) - who becomes a free agent at the end of this season; so this deal is a long term risk, but a short term bonanza.

All of the remaining 14 players that are gone had slightly negative WARs.  In fact, the grand total of the 16 subtractions is NEGATIVE 1.2 WAR.  Branch Rickey used to call the act of dumping a player with declining skills "Addition by Subtraction" - and that concept seems to apply here.

Obviously, the Heyward acquisition is the most significant of the front office's additions during the off-season, but there were four others:  Jordan Walden (0.9 WAR), Mark Reynolds (0.6 WAR), Dean Anna (0.2 WAR) and Matt Belisle (0.1 WAR).

Total WAR for additions:  8.8 - Add in 1.2 WAR from subtractions - NET GAIN: 10.0 WAR

CUBS - 8 players that spent all or part of the 2014 season on the roster are gone.  The most notable subtractions:  Jeff Samardzija (1.8 WAR - now a starting pitcher for the White Sox) and former third baseman Luis Valbuena (1.4 WAR) who was traded to the Houston Astros for center fielder Dexter Fowler (1.8 WAR).  All told, the Cubs gave up a total WAR of 1.8 in their subtractions.

Additions:  The biggest coup in the free agent market - left-handed ace Jon Lester (5.2 WAR) was a step in the right direction for the franchise with the worst pitching in the division last season (707 runs allowed).  They also signed former Cards closer Jason Motte (-0.1 WAR) - trying to make a comeback after TJS - and reacquired starting pitcher Jason Hammel (3.1 WAR) - However, the Hammel signing doesn't add to the team's total WAR since his contribution was already factored in from last season.  Along with the previously mentioned Fowler, the other additions include catcher Miguel Montero (0.6 WAR) and utility outfielder Chris Denorfia (0.1 WAR).

Total WAR for additions:  7.6 - Lost 1.8 WAR from subtractions - NET GAIN:  5.8 WAR

The rest of the NL Central have either regressed or improved only slightly:

REDS - 11 subtractions and 4 additions equals 1.1 WAR 

PIRATES - 11 subtractions and 5 additions equals NEGATIVE 3.9 WAR

BREWERS - 13 subtractions and 4 additions equals NEGATIVE 4.3 WAR

NL Central Projections for 2015 - The "Starting Point" for each team is their Pythagorean Winning Percentage from 2014 (Based on Run Differential).  As we can see, four out of the five NL Central teams won more games than their run differential would normally produce (especially the Cardinals):

Team         W-L in '14 vs Pythagorean  - 2015 W-L Projection

Cardinals         90-72           83-79                   93-69
Pirates              88-74           87-75                   83-79
Reds                 76-86           79-83                    80-82
Cubs                 73-89           71-91                   77-85
Brewers            82-80           80-82                   76-86

It looks like it's going to be a tight race for last place in the NL Central in 2015.  It seems as though the Cubbies might be able to escape the cellar; but just by the slimmest of margins.  Certainly, this isn't what all those delusional Cubs fans are expecting for the upcoming season - not to mention those Las Vegas odds-makers.  Sorry.  Please accept my condolences for another season of futility.

Maybe 2016 will be better.  But don't count on it.


                                


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Rick Reuschel Won 2 Gold Glove Awards - Deserved 12

What do Andy Messersmith, Jim Kaat, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, Joaquin Andujar and Fernando Valenzuela have in common?

They were all NL Gold Glove Award-winning pitchers who didn't deserve the honor.  In each case, the Gold Glove Award should have gone to just one guy:  Rick Reuschel.  All told, ten seasons of Gold Glove snubs are represented by these six fine NL pitchers (Messersmith and Kaat both won two in a row, and Niekro won three in a row).

How did this happen?  It may sound preposterous, but I have it figured out.

Andy Messersmith:  GG in '74 and '75 for no real reason; at least it had nothing to do with actually "fielding" his position well.  His Range Factor of 1.91 in '74 was slightly better than league average (1.88).  He followed that up with a 1.51 in '75, which was significantly worse than league average.  Let's face it:  He was chosen simply because he was a high profile free agent who was signed by the Dodgers in '74 - and they went on to play (and lose) in the World Series.  Somehow, the aura of all that notoriety lasted for another season; hence, the ridiculous second GG.

Rick Reuschel led the NL with a 2.77 Range Factor in '74 and a 2.95 in '75.

Jim Kaat:  GG in '76 and '77 for no real reason; except his reputation from all those GG seasons in the AL carried over in his first two seasons in the NL.  Kaat's Range Factor for both seasons was exactly 1.46.  These would be the last of 16 Gold Glove Awards Kaat would bag.  He actually deserved the first four.

Rick Reuschel led the NL with a 2.63 RF in '76 and a 2.57 in '77.

Phil Niekro:  3 straight GG - '78 (2.21 RF) - '79 (2.29 RF) & '80 (1.90 RF).  Niekro had never won before, so it was simply his time.  He was very good with the glove, but somebody else was better.

Rick Reuschel led the NL with a 2.52 RF in '78, a 2.86 RF in '79 and a 2.94 RF in '80.  Do we detect a trend yet?

Steve Carlton was about as "high profile" as it gets for a pitcher in '81.  He was a taciturn World Series champion in '80 and he was closing in on the 3000 career strikeout plateau.  Of course, that has nothing to do with "fielding" - which Carlton rarely did that season (1.18 RF).

Rick Reuschel led the NL with a 2.59 RF in '81.  Can you believe it?

Reuschel was out of commission for the '82 and '83 seasons.  When he came back in '84, he was still leading the NL with a 2.53 RF, but '82 World Series champion Joaquin Andujar posted a respectable 2.38 RF to take home the Gold.  He was colorful, and that's good enough here, folks.

By 1985, the opposing coaches and managers in the NL finally realized this Rick Reuschel fellow was pretty darned good with the glove.  He won GG number one with a 2.97 RF.

Fernando Valenzuela:  GG in '86 with a very nice 2.54 RF.  He almost deserved it.

Rick Reuschel led the NL with a 2.84 RF in '86, so it appears he should have won back-to-back Gold Glove Awards.  But no.

However, Reuschel led the NL with a 2.50 RF in '87.  Not coincidentally, his team - the San Francisco Giants - just happened to play the Cardinals in that season's NLCS, thus creating the perfect candidate for the GG:  Big Daddy!

For his career, the underrated Reuschel had a career 2.52 RF (compared to NL average 1.89 RF).  In the National League, only Greg Maddux was a better fielding pitcher in the history of the Gold Glove Award.  He was a guy who deserved all 18 of his Gold Gloves; proving that sometimes, they do get it right.