The Double Play: Playoffs in sight for Nationals, Yankees?
In advance of the 2014 MLB season, Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe are debating some of the big questions heading into the year. Yesterday, the question was which of last year's postseason teams would miss out in 2014. Today’s topic: Which teams who didn't make the playoffs last season will qualify this year?
CLIFF: The Nationals are the easy pick here. They are the only other contender in the National League East, where the defending division champion Braves' rotation has been significantly weakened by injury and free agency. Also, the expectations for the team going into last year—when many, including both Jay and myself, picked them to win the pennant—largely carry over to this season. The Nationals went 34-20 (.630) over the final two months of last season and were the last NL team eliminated in the regular season. This year, they have added Doug Fister to their rotation, will open the season with Anthony Rendon at second base, and can hope for the improved health of Jayson Werth (who finished last season looking like the player the Nationals signed away from Philadelphia), Wilson Ramos, and Bryce Harper. There's also the continued promise of a breakout season from Harper, who came to camp noticeably bulked up.
In the American League, the list of players the Yankees have added this winter, be it via free agency or a return to health, is impressive, but they're in a tough division and still have a lot of age and injury concerns to contend with. With the A's being the team Jay and I agreed was the second-most-likely 2013 AL playoff team not to reach October this year, a better bet would seem to be another team in the American League West. Given the issues facing the Rangers' rotation this spring, including the loss of Derek Holland for half of the coming season and injury and durability concerns surrounding Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando, I'm going to go with the Angels here. I think the Halos had a very effective offseason, stand to have a much-improved stating rotation, and may not miss Mark Trumbo much at all given Raul Ibañez's similar production in recent years. Factor in the potential for significant rebounds from Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and I could see the Angels, who won 89 games just two years ago and were a .500 team according to third-order wins last year, making it back to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
JAY: I agree with you completely on the Nationals, both for the reasons you list and the change in managers from Davey Johnson to Matt Williams. Johnson is a great baseball mind who did a fantastic job in 2012, but he seemed at a loss as to how to face last year's challenges, and deserves some blame for the apparent communication gap between manager, players, training staff and front office. Williams has a reputation for toughness, which might be a concern when it comes to handling injured players, but his progressive approach to statistical analysis means he can't be pigeonholed so easily. The Nats are said to be planning to use more defensive shifts this year, and I think that should help improve a team that was subpar in the field (11th in defensive efficiency at .693, 13th in Defensive Runs Saved at -22).
Among the other NL options, the only ones I really considered for more than a moment are the Diamondbacks and Giants, and I can't say I'm nearly as sanguine about what they did over the winter compared to Washington. Arizona again punted on young players for reasons that have more to do with makeup than performance, and they just lost Patrick Corbin for the year. San Francisco brought in Tim Hudson and Mike Morse, but there's enough concern about Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum that I wouldn't go out on a limb to pick them.
As for the AL, I'll go with the Yankees over the Angels (whom I didn't give much thought to for this) and the Rangers (whom I dismissed over the starting pitching injury situation). Yes, the infield and bullpen are shaky, but Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran are huge upgrades over what they're replacing, Jacoby Ellsbury adds a different dimension, the Alex Rodriguez distraction is gone, and anything Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira provide will be an improvement on what their undead fill-ins provided last year. Plus, I'm more optimistic about their rotation after a few spring turns than I was this winter. I was already optimistic enough about CC Sabathia to name him my Boom pick among AL starting pitchers. Masahiro Tanaka appears to be settling in quickly, and Michael Pineda has arisen from the dead to take the lead in the fifth starter race.
CLIFF: I feel like the Yankees are the team with the widest range of possibilities heading into this season. Anything short of 100 wins or losses seems possible for them. Obviously their upside is considerable, and it's worth noting that they've only missed the playoffs once in the last five years and twice in the last 19. But it seems to me there's an almost equal potential for disaster. I'm not nearly as optimistic about Sabathia. In a recent conversation, a scout who has seen him pitch this spring described him as "a number-three starter on his good nights." Elsewhere, there are age, injury, or performance concerns about nearly every other key player on the roster. Yes, I can absolutely see enough things going right that the Yankees win 90-plus games and return to the playoffs, but I could also see enough things going wrong once again that they come closer to their third-order win total from a year ago, which was just 72, which would make them like some combination of the 2013 Blue Jays and 2012 Red Sox.
Going back to the NL, the Diamondbacks had the next-best record after the Nationals last year, so they obviously bear watching, and I agree about the Giants' considerable potential to bounce back from a lousy 2013 season (though I also share your doubts about just how much they'll actually improve). To those three (including the Nationals), I'll add the Brewers, who I don't think will return to the playoffs, but who I see as likely to experience considerable improvement over their 74 wins from a year ago. Full, productive seasons from Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez alone could accomplish that, and Matt Garza improves their rotation and adds overall depth to their pitching staff, which desperately needed it. Their long-term prognosis as an organization is poor due to their barren farm system, but, again, they under-performed their third-order record by more than six wins last year and look to be a better team this year, which suggests at least a winning season, one possibly aided by games the Reds and Pirates are likely to give back after poor offseasons.
JAY: Indeed, the variance on the Yankees is higher than your average team. It's not difficult to see a path to 95 wins ... or 75 wins. Having said that, I'm certainly not sold on the Angels as being the more likely team to elbow their way back into the playoff picture, both due to the sudden declines of Pujols and Hamilton and to the strength of the rotation. I'm skeptical about Jered Weaver remaining effective after having lost around 3.5 mph from peak velocity. I also wonder whether Tyler Skaggs can undo the changes to his mechanics from Arizona, and if Garrett Richards will ever be more than Some Guy — and that's without talking about the loss of Mike Scioscia's Magic Bullpen Touch™. For all of the concerns about the Rangers' rotation, I have more faith in their remade offense's ability to outscore opponents and stay ahead of the pack.
Over in the NL, whatever I'm doing, I'm not buying the Brewers as more than mid-division fodder. They've got some talent; I'm a fan of Jean Segura, Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez, and I'd like to think Yovani Gallardo can bounce back, but Juan Francisco or Mark Reynolds at first base leaves me cold, I'm expecting a significant falloff from Braun, and jeez, I just want Ramirez and Rickie Weeks to be healthy again, but I see their futures as not-so-productive. That looks to me like a team lucky if they make it to .500, forget contending.
CLIFF: I share your reservations about both the Angels and Brewers, but I guess I'm just a bit more optimistic about both than you. As for the Rangers' offense, I'm not as sanguine. I see that lineup as Choo, Prince, a 35-year-old Adrian Beltre, and a lot of wishing, hoping, and middling performances. Leonys Martin and Elvis Andrus are in the lineup for what they do outside of the batter's box. Alex Rios and Geovany Soto have been wildly inconsistent from year-to-year (and backup catcher J.P. Arencibia is an out-machine). The potential designated hitter platoon of Mitch Moreland and rookie Michael Choice might work, but could also flatline, and all of that puts a ton of pressure on Jurickson Profar to carry more offensive weight than should be expected of him as a 21-year-old in his first full major league season, no matter how bright his future. Given the questions on their pitching staff, both in the rotation and bullpen, I'm not convinced their outlook is any brighter than the Angels'.
JAY: I'd like the Rangers more if they had decided to retain Nelson Cruz as a DH option, but even without him, if you look at the meager level of production Choo and Fielder are replacing (David Murphy and Moreland), those are huge upgrades, and I think it will be interesting to see the extent to which Choice plays his way into the picture; he or Alex Rios could see time in center if they don't feel they're getting enough from Martin. I also wonder if this Andrus injury opens the door for Profar to return to shortstop and give the Rangers a look at Rougned Odor, who tore up High-A and Double-A (.303/.362/.472 with 31 steals) as a 19-year-old, at second base. For all of that, there's still a whole lot that needs to go right in a rotation that's lost its margin for error with the injury to Holland; guys like Tommy Hanson, Joe Saunders and Colby Lewis don't fill anyone with confidence.
CLIFF: Wait a second. How are Choo and Fielder replacing Murphy and Moreland if Moreland is still set to be a regular part of the lineup? In terms of the lineup, Choo is replacing Kinsler and Fielder is replacing Cruz. Still upgrades, but not as large as you portrayed. Rios, who made 465 plate appearances for the White Sox last year, is replacing Murphy (476 PA for Texas). Moreland is still there. The Andrus injury just plays more to my point. Odor has just 30 game above Double-A, and moving Profar to short would just perpetuate the jerking him around between positions that many believe contributed to his poor showing at the plate last year.
JAY: I can see why what I wrote about Moreland confused you, but you're overcomplicating that part of it—he's likely a part-timer instead of a full-timer. Choo's playing left, which is mostly where Murphy stank up the joint (412 PA). Rios is playing rightfield, where Cruz missed the last 50 games. Fielder is playing first base, where Moreland, who took 511 PA there, is out of a job. Moreland is part of the DH arrangement, which could include Choice as well as a rotation of anybody else who needs a half-day rest. Choice and Rios both have experience in centerfield, which could have an impact on Martin if Washington is ... pro-Choice.
(Sorry.)CLIFF: We'll have to agree to disagree on who's replacing who, there. I think my accounting above gives a more realistic view of the size of the improvements being made. At any rate, we've once again shown that the AL West is going to be a very interesting division and is arguably the hardest to call heading in to the season.