Friday, March 25, 2011

AL Central Projected Standings: 2011 Edition

Ah, the AL Central. Although the Twins have had a great deal of success in the division over the last decade, many people are quick to chalk up that success to the weakness of the division rather than the strength of the team. Sure, barring the Twins’ runaway title last year, the AL Central race in recent years usually comes down to the final games of the season, meaning that the title chase is often a close, exciting race that highlights the parity of the division. But is it a good division? While it’s maybe not the AL East, you’d be hard pressed to say that there aren’t three quality teams at the top of this division that all have a shot at the playoffs. As we’ve already covered the individual previews for these teams, we thought we’d take a shot at making some foolish projections that will likely be proven wrong by July (except for the fact that the Royals and the Indians will be league doormats again, which is pretty much guaranteed). Baseball Prospectus aggregates their PECOTA projections into Depth Charts, which they then use to project team standings. It’s obviously not a perfect system, but we’ll use them as a baseline to start our projections and pick out areas where we agree and disagree.

Detroit Tigers (AK)

(83-79) 722 RS 705 RA .266 BA .332 OBP .413 SLG

Honestly, I think that the fact that PECOTA is so high on Max Scherzer is half the reason the Tigers season projection is so bullish. As I covered in my earlier preview of the Tigers, they didn’t add that many impact players, so I’m having trouble seeing how they are suddenly contenders. It seems like every year, the Tigers are someone’s sexy pick to surprise in the AL Central and every year, they fall short of the mark.

Aside from Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer the Tigers starting rotation doesn’t inspire much fear. Scherzer’s numbers have been pretty consistent over the past two seasons and I suppose his PECOTA projection (200IP (13-13) 3.57 ERA/1.29 WHIP, 199K, 3.4WAR) isn’t that outlandish. Porcello can be expected to have a bounceback year, but Coke and Penny are complete wild cards.

The Tigers offense ought to be formidable, especially with the addition of Victor Martinez alongside the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez. One thing you can put lots of money on is some regression from Austin Jackson in terms of his batting average and on-base percentage from last year. His .341 OBP was serviceable in the lead-off spot last year, but if he regresses to the .320 OBP that PECOTA has him projected at, Leyland would have to have some serious coconuts to continue batting him lead-off.

Honestly I expect more of the same this year from the Tigers...they’ll contend through April and May and fall off in June and be out of it by August. They simply don’t have the rotation depth that both the Twins and Sox have, rendering a good offense rather useless. They may very well win 83 games, but 83 games isn’t going to win this division.

Minnesota Twins (AK)

(83-79) 719 RS 704 RA .274 BA .338 OBP .406 SLG

For a team that scored 781 runs (sans Morneau for half the season mind you) and only gave up 671 runs, this projection seems like a bit of a slap in the face. That was the most runs scored in the AL Central and the least runs allowed. Sure they lost a couple of starters in the off-season (Hardy & Hudson) and sure they lost half the bullpen, but the starting pitching is pretty much unchanged from last year, they have what looks to be a healthy Morneau once again, and Joe Nathan is slated to return to his closers role.

I’m not going to bet against this team, no matter how shoddy the bullpen looks, because year-in and year-out they have proven to be contenders. I have full confidence in the Twins starting staff, I think their offense will be at least as good as last year’s and I think this team will win at least 90 games...with the usual caveat being team health. Aside from the bullpen, there isn’t much reason to doubt this team. After going 47-25 against AL Central foes last season, I suspect they’ll have a little more difficulty this year, but I see them as a strong contender to once again win the AL Central.

Chicago White Sox (AK)

(82-80) 737 RS 725 RA .264 BA .328 OBP .427 SLG

The offensive projections for this team are about right. They are pegged to lead the division in slugging which should come as no surprise. With the addition of Adam Dunn to a lineup that already features power-hitters like Konerko, Rios, Quentin, and Alexei Ramirez, they should easily lead the AL Central in HRs. Batting average and On-Base Percentage are another story, however, as PECOTA only projects 2 of the 9 starters to have a .275 or higher average and only 3 of the 9 to have an OBP above .326. Nevertheless, the Sox look to have a much more competent offense this season than last.

I think the true strength of this team lies in their pitching, specifically the top end of their rotation and the bullpen. John Danks has been a horse for this team for the past 3 seasons and is just now entering the prime of his career. If Gavin Floyd can avoid his perennial early-season struggles he could really put something together, and I’m just now mentioning Edwin Jackson and former Cy Young award winner Jake Peavy. They have the potential for a very solid 1 through 5 and their bullpen is even better. They have a cast of serviceable righties and lefties (Crain, Ohman, Santos, Bruney), all leading up to flame-throwing Chris Sale and dominating lefty closer Matt Thornton.

When I look at it on paper, this is the team that looks to give the Twins the most trouble. Having Dunn in the lineup reminds me of when Thome was filling that role for the Sox and that starting rotation looks like it has the stuff to go toe-to-toe with the Twins. Better get up on this team early boys, it’s gonna be tough once you get to the ‘pen.

Cleveland Indians (ML)

(74-88) 701 RS 768 RA .256 BA .335 OBP .395 SLG

In our team preview of the Indians, we didn’t have a whole lot to say, because frankly, this Indians team looks basically similar to last year’s team that won 69 games. PECOTA has them slated for five more wins, which may be enough to keep them out of last place, but this team certainly doesn’t look like a contender this year. Having a full year of Carlos Santana will certainly help, and the team’s OBP is projected to be the second-highest in the division (buoyed by OBP all-stars Santana and Shin-Soo Choo), but the Indians, like the Royals (spoiler alert), are probably still a few years away from challenging for division title.

As we covered in our preview, some help is on the way this year from their 7th-ranked (acccording to Baseball America) farm system, likely starting with five-star 2B prospect Jason Kipnis. Bryce Stowell is a power bullpen arm that might see 2011 action as well, but neither of these guys are probably immediate impact players in the short term. The rotation is a huge question mark outside of Fausto Carmona, and although there are a few promising youngsters like Drew Pomeranz on the way up, overall I’d expect only modest improvements from the 2011 version of the Indians. If I had to take the over-under on 74 wins, I’d probably take the under.

Kansas City Royals (ML)

(68-94) 678 RS 807 RA .264 BA .326 OBP .393 SLG

I have to say I have a great amount of admiration for Royals fans, especially Royals bloggers. To stick with a team that has been this bad for this long takes a special breed of dedication. The sad news is for Royals nation is that 2011 isn’t going to be their year. For a team on the verge of losing 95 games for a third straight year, the PECOTA projection of 68-94 isn’t much of a victory, and their 678 RS projection is a small improvement over the 676 they actually scored last year. PECOTA has Kila Kila’hue looking like an All-Star (which is surprisingly very optimistic for PECOTA) and Billy Butler can still rake, but this team will struggle to both score and prevent runs. The rotation could be especially bad - with the departure of Zack Greinke, they can really only hope for Jeff Francis to regain some of his 2007 form and for Luke Hochevar to finally take a step forward, both of which are big ifs (although Hochevar did manage a respectable 3.93 FIP last year).

The really good news for Royals fans is that the cavalry is coming - their farm system is STACKED with premium talent, the consensus best crop of minor leaguers in the game, some of whom could potentially make an appearance in 2011 (although I wouldn’t be surprised if the Royals were stingy on starting the clock on service time with these guys). Will Myers (catcher), Mike Moustakas (3B), and Eric Hosmer (1B) can all flat-out mash and are rated among the top-three propects in all of baseball at their respective positions. Mike Montgomery and John Lamb are excellent left-handed starters as well and will at some point provide a boost to the floundering rotation. The rest of the division should be on notice that the Royals are poised to contend within the next few years, even if this season will likely be more of the same. I don’t think they’ll hit 95 losses again and I could see them getting past 70 wins, but they’ll still be in last place. But maybe not for long.

So in light of these extremely in-depth analyses, here are our projected standings for the Central (just for fun, here were our predictions last year for 2010). In hindsight, the Twins surpassed our expectations, we hit the Sox and Tigers pretty much right on, and both the Indians and Royals were a little worse than we thought (PECOTA slated the Indians for 83 wins and the Royals for 78 in 2010 though...oops).

Minnesota Twins 90-72
Chicago White Sox 86-76
Detroit Tigers 84-78
Cleveland Indians 72-90
Kansas City Royals 70-92

So yeah, we’ve got the Twins winning the division again. Call us homers if you will, but we don’t see how this year’s team is 11 wins worse than last year’s. Valencia may regress a bit, Thome might not capture the lightning in a bottle that he had last year, and Pavano may pitch closer to his 4.02 FIP from last year than his 3.75 ERA (all of which may explain part of PECOTA’s projected dropoff), but 11 wins is a pretty substantial regression for a team that is largely unchanged outside of the bullpen and middle infield. The bullpen has question marks to say the least, but there’s no reason not to expect at least modest rebounds from Span, Kubel and Cuddyer, and the starting rotation has depth behind emerging ace Francisco Liriano. We’re optimistic about the Twins barring a good reason not to be, and we’re also a little more bullish about how the rest of the division will fare overall. If history has taught us anything about this division, however the final standings shake out, it should be another close race.We'll see you in a week.

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