Opening Day is less than two weeks away, which means we shouldn’t expect more than two or three pitchers to tear elbow ligaments before the season starts. That kind of confidence makes a season preview less of a fool’s errand by the day.
This year, I’m using the same data I compiled to list the 100 best players in the game to guess how well teams will perform this year. In case you need a refresher, I took a stab at each player’s 2015 WAR with a formula that weighted his 2014 WAR four times, his 2013 WAR twice, and his 2012 WAR once, then adjusted based on a standard aging curve and added or subtracted as much as one win based on subjective assessments of expected health and how well past WAR may reflect his current skills.
By adding every position player’s and starting pitcher’s projected WAR and a 51-win adjustment to balance the league to an 81-win average (it’s not unreasonable that a team full of replacement players might go 51-111, though most experts estimate a few wins worse than that), I came up with a baseline for each team’s ability. I then added or subtracted as many as three wins based on perceived quality of each team’s relief pitching and as many as two wins based on my estimate of the value the manager might add or subtract and formulated my official projection.
Only the Rockies got a full three-win adjustment, docked for their putrid bullpen (as if their rotation weren’t bad enough). The Indians, Giants, and Cubs fared the best here, each getting positive adjustments for both their relievers and their skippers.
Let’s look at team projections by division, starting with the National League:
3. New York
If everything that can go wrong for the Nationals goes wrong, they might only win the division by five games. They might not even have the best record in baseball. My system is inherently conservative in that it starts every team with 51 wins and limits the number of players who can contribute more WAR, ignoring likely sub-replacement-level performances altogether. As a result, teams may be bunched together in the middle a bit too much. No AL team wins more than 89 games. No team wins more than 92 games. Except the Nats, who win 101. With a negative-two-win adjustment for their awful manager.
The Marlins project to contend for a Wild Card spot, even with “only” three wins from Jose Fernandez. 13+ WAR from their outfielders certainly help. I have the Mets at 77 wins, but if Matt Harvey is healthy and dominant again and the bullpen is even average, they could be a better-than-average team. Both of those teams’ playoff hopes hinge on taking advantage of their games against Atlanta and Philly to offset their games against Washington.
The Phillies, with 66 wins, look like the worst team in the league. I’m sure this is an optimistic projection.
1. St. Louis
2. Pittsburgh (WC1)
It doesn’t feel right saying this, but this might be the strongest division in baseball in 2015. The Cards are a force as usual, with Jason Heyward stepping in as their best player, possibly making an MVP push under a coaching staff that has made stars out of so many scrubs.
The Pirates are solid all over the field, projecting for more than one WAR out of every offensive position. If Gerrit Cole emerges as an ace and they get anything out of the back end of the rotation, they could contend for the division.
The Cubs may suffer from my prediction’s ignorance of minor league numbers. My system gives a total of three WAR to Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Javier Baez, mostly in the form of subjective bonuses. It’s entirely possible that they’ll all undergo growing pains and the Cubs will be bad for one more year, but it’s also possible that Bryant hits like he has this spring and the Epstein-Maddon dynasty in Chicago begins now.
I see the Brewers and Reds winning 81 and 80 games, respectively, and both are capable of more. More likely, injuries will drag down one of the non-Cardinal teams in this division and they’ll struggle to win 70 games, but they all have the pieces to make a run at 90.
1. Los Angeles
2. San Francisco (WC2)
3. San Diego
I’ve seen it posited that the Dodgers are the equal of the Nationals, poised for a 100-win season. While I see them winning the division as usual, I don’t see the same magic I saw a few years ago. Even if he hadn’t been traded, the promise of a 40-40 season from Matt Kemp has gone the way of the 300-game-winner. Hanley Ramirez is back on the other coast. Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and newcomers Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick are all over 30 and unikely to put up another peak season. While there’s so much to love about Kershaw and Puig, the pitching could lack depth if Hyun-jin Ryu’s injury is serious, and this isn’t a team that’s going to score 850 runs. They’re good, but vulnerable.
I’m always surprised by the Giants’ success, as the whole seems to much greater than its parts. This year, I’m throwing them a two-win bonus for Bruce Bochy and a third for a solid bullpen, bringing their otherwise-average roster to 85 wins, within two of the Dodgers. This includes aggressive projections for the injured Hunter Pence (3.2 WAR), Brandon Crawford (2.5), and Joe Panik (2.0), but it’s appropriately conservative with the rotation, not expecting as many as two WAR from anyone but Bumgarner.
Despite all the Padres’ upgrades, I don’t quite buy them as a contender, as their rotation could be shaky and their outfield defense looks atrocious. I see Justin Upton topping 3 WAR, but no other position player contributing more than 2.5. They’re still better than the Rockies, who have no pitching, and the Diamondbacks, who don’t have much of anything beyond Paul Goldschmidt.
2. Boston (WC2)
3. New York
5. Tampa Bay
This division is just impossible to project. The Orioles lost their best reliever, their best home run hitter, and their former face-of-the-franchise leadoff man, and failed to bolster their rotation. Still, they should get major steps forward from Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, and Chris Davis if they’re healthy. With a little Showalter magic, I see 87 wins and a hard-fought division title.
The Red Sox are trying to win with depth, which my system may not fully appreciate, since it doesn’t dock other teams who are more likely to see negative WAR from injury replacements and other role players. The Sox seem to have multiple good players ready to play every position, which is enviable on the surface, but it will put John Farrell in a difficult place trying to find plate appearances for so many borderline stars. The rotation is deep and good enough to win games if they’re scoring a lot of runs, but there will be pressure on the gloves of Xander Bogaerts and Pablo Sandoval with all these ground-ball pitchers on the mound. The bullpen could struggle too if Koji Uehara isn’t healthy and effective. This could be another 100-win juggernaut or another 70-win bust. I’ll take the middle road and predict 85 wins, just enough to steal the last playoff spot.
The Yankees have the division’s best pitching, both in the rotation and the bullpen, but their lineup is untested in the middle infield and elderly everywhere else. If Brett Gardiner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann bounce back with big seasons and Michael Pineda gives them anything, they’re contenders. If the luck they’ve had with injury replacements these past two years wears off, they could be ticketed for the basement.
I might have picked the Blue Jays to win the division before Marcus Stroman got hurt. Now I see 80 wins. That seems harsh, but they’re asking a lot of two old pitchers and a bunch of young ones and hoping Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin deliver the goods which which they surprised A’s and Pirates fans over the past two years.
The Rays might be good again. I’m not convinced.
3. Kansas City
Without the relief pitching and managerial adjustments, the Tigers take another division crown, but isn’t that the story of the 2010s Tigers? Cleveland has a far better manager in Terry Francona and a solid bullpen, enough to vault them to 87 wins, while the Tigers project a fraction of a win behind the Red Sox for the last playoff spot. This may be the last year of Detroit’s championship window, so don’t be surprised if they make a major splash at the trade deadline and claim one more crown.
Kansas City needs to find a lot of the magic they had last year, whether that means repeat performances from Lorenzo Cain and Sal Perez or resurgence from Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. They didn’t get better in the offseason, but Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy might emerge as the aces the Royals need to win their first division title since before either was born.
Chicago filled a lot of holes, but a few remain, including at least one outfield spot and most of the bullpen. The Twins, despite an awful rotation, aren’t a terrible team, projecting for 76 wins.
2. Seattle (WC1)
I was surprised to see the Angels with the best projected record (89-73) in the American League, but when everyone’s bunched together, it helps to have a 10-win player in the fold. Without Trout, they’re a below-average team. With him, they’re the best in the league. How very un-baseball.
Seattle is a real contender this year, combining the thump of Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager with the wizardry of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. What separates this team from prior iterations is a little depth, with Austin Jackson, Nelson Cruz, Brad Miller, and Mike Zunino projected for at least two wins and James Paxton primed to join that core.
Like Boston, Oakland’s depth might be missed here, but I don’t see how they find enough wins on this post-Donaldson, post-Moss roster to make the playoffs again. Houston (77 projected wins) is getting better. Texas (74) isn’t.
Predicting short-series results seven months in advance is even more foolish than the preceding exercise, but that’s what I’m here for, right?
Pirates over Giants
Mariners over Red Sox
Nationals over Pirates
Cardinals over Dodgers
Mariners over Angels
Orioles over Indians
Nationals over Cardinals
Orioles over Mariners
Nationals over Orioles, four to negative twelve.