Gammons: Races look great on paper
Statistics project a fascinating year in AL East, NL West
This is Part 1 of a two-part look previewing the season ahead of Spring Training.
In New York, Yankees fans called talk shows and claimed they were canceling season-ticket plans in protest of the exile of Johnny Damon, after Damon's market price sank like a ranch home in Fort Myers, Fla. Then the media jumped in, criticizing Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, some for spending too much, some for not spending enough on Damon and some for spending too much and too little at the same time.
In Boston, corners of the media, dismissing the concepts of baserunning and defense, have been near hysteria comparing the Red Sox 2010 offense to that of the Padres and Royals because of the club's decision not to re-sign Jason Bay.
In Los Angeles, the signings of such second-tier names as Vicente Padilla have fans wondering whether the highest paid offseason additions may be the McCourts' lawyers.
Seven months from now, we will have seen the sagacity of the work of Cashman and Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, Cubs GM Jim Hendry and the Mets' Jeff Wilpon. Clubs that feel they must spend to win the winter back pages and ticket-package wars have usually faded by Labor Day, but rather than looking at the upcoming season through the prism of who added or preserved the most glamorous commodities -- Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Matt Holliday, Bay, John Lackey, Javier Vazquez -- there are those who use a methodology for their analyses.
PECOTA projectionsAmerican League
Some turn to Baseball Prospectus and Clay Davenport's PECOTA, which breaks down why the Tampa Bay Rays project to be one of the best teams in baseball -- they had the best record in the game in the program's first run and in the latest update fell just a game out of the AL East title.
Many teams use similar projection methods. One has the Red Sox as a 110-win team. Another, in the American League, rates the Red Sox, Rays and Yankees as the three best in the game. Another, in the National League, has the four best as the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Phillies.
PECOTA has the Athletics, Rangers, Mariners and Angels in that order in the American League West, but two teams' projections have it as Angels, A's, Rangers and Mariners. PECOTA has Florida finishing last, two games behind the Mets, while there's one club whose computer has Florida winning more games than any National League team but the Phillies and Cardinals. PECOTA has only the Phillies, Cardinals, Braves, Dodgers, D-backs, Rockies and Ginats winning more than 82 games in the NL.
We all know these projections and predictions are subject to human variation. If Brandon Webb, Jeff Francis and Chad Billingsley are all healthy enough to throw 200 innings, the NL West will be a fascinating race, just as the Giants are a six-week hamstring pull to Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain away from being a 72-win team. If Francisco Liriano is as good as he looked this winter, aren't the Twins a potential 88- or 90-win team in a division where PECOTA predicts they will be the only above-.500 team? Of course, no computer can measure what will happen as the Twins go outside after having the biggest home-field advantage of any team in the past five seasons, going 242-154 in the Metrodome and 191-208 on the road. We don't know about the financial effect on two good, well-run teams in St. Petersburg and Oakland if they both are led to believe that they are permanently homeless, which is essentially the case in each city.
No one knows whether Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes can remain healthy, whether Cole Hamels can get back to being a master after a year of recovery from his 2008 innings. No one knows whether B.J. Upton, David Price and Wade Davis are going to jump to elite status, or if all of a sudden in the second half Dustin Ackley looks like a young, lightning-fast Chase Utley as the Mariners' second baseman. No one knows what happens if Jason Heyward is an impact rookie star in Atlanta, or what impact Buster Posey may have in San Francisco, Brian Matusz in Baltimore, Michael Taylor in Oakland, Justin Smoak in Texas, and, yes, even Stephen Strasburg in Washington.
PECOTA projectionsNational League
But after the Yankees' deserved run led to more than three months of sighs about the sport's economic caste system, it is fun to start playing what-ifs in preparation for the sounds of pitchers and catchers reporting. It's testament to the management of the Rays that they are even in these discussions as one of the three best teams in the business, just as it is a testament to the reconstruction of the Athletics that they're in such speculation when their payroll is half that of the Angels.
We talk about the hopeless feeling, but the fact remains that if any team in the AL Central can have enough to win 85 games, it can be in the race with 10 days to go in the season. If one were a Dodgers fan and had to read more about divorce than being in on Lackey, it might be hard to take. But having the Dodgers limited to a payroll in the $90 million range -- yes, right around where the Twins live -- means there's the possibility of a very robust race with the Dodgers, Rockies and D-backs, and maybe even the Giants with the right development of Madison Bumgarner, Jonathan Sanchez and Posey.
You can spit your dip and curse the new-age sabermetrics, but they are a real part of sports (ask the brilliant people who run the San Antonio Spurs). They have dramatically affected the Hall of Fame voting process. They righted the Cy Young Award balloting to give Lincecum and Zack Greinke chances they might not have had a decade ago.
They're also fun. Going through the PECOTA team pages, one can see that Alex Rodriguez (47.4), Evan Longoria (44.4), Dustin Pedroia (41.3), Mark Teixeira (41.0) and Ben Zobrist (37.8) are rated as the best players in the AL East in projected VORP (value over replacement player), a statistic Indians manager Manny Acta will lay on you occasionally, or that Lackey and CC Sabathia, at 43.1, are projected as having the best VORPs of any of that division's pitchers. I find it fascinating that PECOTA rates Andre Ethier, Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Kemp as the three top players in the NL West, and, knowing that, I can't accept Ryan Rowland-Smith being a better pitcher than Brett Anderson. See me in September on that one.
That statistical analysis studied, there are the human issues every team is confronting. Part II of the look ahead to Spring Training will be the 20 most important human story lines, including Ackley's conversion to second base, Matt Bush's push for redemption in Tampa Bay and Tony La Russa's preparation for what onslaughts may confront Mark McGwire and the Cardinals.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.