December 3, 2015

MLB Off Season: AL East – The Best Move (and a plan B) for every team.

The Baseball off season is by far the most active and interesting of the four major North American sports. Superstars are routinely traded, prospects dealt for established players, and gigantic contracts handed out (all with guaranteed money – in MLB, that signature means something).

Because of that, the MLB off season is often as interesting as the games itself. Below we outline what we think is the best possible move – as well as a plan B – for each team. We’re not suggesting these are the most likely things to happen, nor are we suggesting that they all can happen, just that these are the optimal moves for each club.

Green Monster.jpg

We’ve tried to consider all the factors inherent in payroll, team outlook, and front office goals. The one thing we don’t really consider are the rumors about what cities or clubs a player might “like”, unless the player’s explicitly said they’re leaning towards one city over another (and even then, paycheck and playoff-contending rosters always seem to take precedent).

In evaluating contracts and team spending, we’re working under the assumption that 1 WARWins Above Replacement. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s contributions in all facets of the game and quantify how many more wins that player contributed than a “replacement level” player would have (a replacement level player being a hypothetical “AAAA player” every team has in its farm system. costs about $7m on the open market, so contracts that return better than that rate are good, those that don’t are bad.

Jump to a Division

AL East – AL CentralAL West
NL EastNL CentralNL West

Having looked at the National League, we move to the AL East, home to some of the biggest payrolls in the Majors.

Baltimore Orioles

MLB Ranks: Chris Davis on August 10, 2011
Team wRC+Weighted Runs Created Plus: A comprehensive measure of offensive production relative to the league. 100 is average and each point above or below is a percentage better or worse than the average player.: 21st
Starter FIP-Adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching. A measure of the events “under the pitcher’s control” (HR, BB, Ks, HBP) that attempts to remove the influence of team defense – whether good or bad – on the pitcher’s stats. It is then adjusted for park effects and related to league average FIP. 100 is league average and every 1 point deviation from 100 is a percentage point better or worse than league average. E.g., an FIP- of 90 means the pitcher’s FIP was 10% better than league average, and an FIP- of 110 means it was 10% worse.: 27th
Bullpen FIP-: 6th
Team DEFDefensive Runs Above Average. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s defensive contributions, including a positional adjustment (i.e., a shortstop is considered more defensively valuable than a LF). Roughly 9-10 DEF is equal to one Win Above Replacement.: 15th
Pythagorean W-LExpected Win-Loss record based on the number of runs scored and allowed by the team. Comparing the actual win-loss record to the expectation can give insight into whether a team was “lucky” or “unlucky” (often due to record in 1-run games or extra inning games, two situations where teams are roughly .500 over time, but can vary greatly in a single season).: 83-79 (LuckThe difference between Pythagorean (i.e., expected) Win-Loss record and the actual win-loss record. Provides a rough insight into whether a team’s record was better or worse than could be expected from their runs scored and allowed. -2)

Team Need: Replace or resign Chris Davis, bolster the rotation (which lost its only good starter in Chen), and get a halfway decent right fielder (-1.4 fWAR from the position in 2015).

The Orioles are not in as good a situation as their record suggests. They’re playing in the AL East with perpetual spending Yankees and Red Sox, the newly crowned titans in Toronto, and Tampa Bay, which always seems to do more with less at a rate other (non-Billy Beane-helmed) teams can’t match. The Orioles need to be a 90-win team, minimum, which is a problem since their best pitcher and second-best position player are free agents.

Chris Davis 2012Move to make: Resign Chris Davis. Unless his price just gets astronomical, the Orioles can’t afford to let Davis walk. He’ll be 30 next year, so he’s not young, but neither is he that old.

He’s also the Orioles best hitter (their only real threat other than Manny Machado), and he’s been a 5.5 WAR player in two of the last three years (with a horrific 2014 sandwiched in the middle). With the relative dearth of top offensive talent on the market, they can’t let Davis walk.

Plan B: Sign two of the second-tier starters. The Orioles rotation was the epitome of mediocrity, with not a single starter posting even a 95 FIP-. They likely aren’t going to shell out for Greinke or Price (nor does it seem likely either would want to join Baltimore), so adding a Jordan Zimmerman (he wouldn’t even need to leave the DC Metro Area) or Yovani Gallardo upgrades that rotation spot, turning it from a relative weakness into a mild strength. Sometimes that’s the best that can be done.

Boston Red Sox

MLB Ranks: Pablo Sandoval (17234905956)
Team wRC+Weighted Runs Created Plus: A comprehensive measure of offensive production relative to the league. 100 is average and each point above or below is a percentage better or worse than the average player.: 13th
Starter FIP-Adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching. A measure of the events “under the pitcher’s control” (HR, BB, Ks, HBP) that attempts to remove the influence of team defense – whether good or bad – on the pitcher’s stats. It is then adjusted for park effects and related to league average FIP. 100 is league average and every 1 point deviation from 100 is a percentage point better or worse than league average. E.g., an FIP- of 90 means the pitcher’s FIP was 10% better than league average, and an FIP- of 110 means it was 10% worse.: 11th
Bullpen FIP-: 30th
Team DEFDefensive Runs Above Average. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s defensive contributions, including a positional adjustment (i.e., a shortstop is considered more defensively valuable than a LF). Roughly 9-10 DEF is equal to one Win Above Replacement.: 12th
Pythagorean W-LExpected Win-Loss record based on the number of runs scored and allowed by the team. Comparing the actual win-loss record to the expectation can give insight into whether a team was “lucky” or “unlucky” (often due to record in 1-run games or extra inning games, two situations where teams are roughly .500 over time, but can vary greatly in a single season).: 81-81 (LuckThe difference between Pythagorean (i.e., expected) Win-Loss record and the actual win-loss record. Provides a rough insight into whether a team’s record was better or worse than could be expected from their runs scored and allowed. -3)

Team Need: Fix the third base situation.

The various 3Bs that Boston rolled out in 2015 combined for an incredible -2.5 fWAR. That’s more than 4 wins below what is expected from a completely average MLB starter.

That “production” was capstoned by the -2 WAR performance of freshly-signed free agent Pablo Sandoval, who slashed .245/.292/.366 while barely hitting double digit home runs (10), fewer than 50 runs and RBI (43 & 47), and fielding atrociously. That the Red Sox gave 505 plate appearances to Sandoval is all one needs to know to understand that the Red Sox’ season did not go as planned.

Daniel Murphy on June 16, 2009Move to make: Sign Daniel Murphy. The Red Sox don’t have any major 3B prospects hitting the majors soon, so they’ll either need to sign a free agent to address the position or decide that Brock Holt is a workable stopgap. Given Holt is average with the bat (98 wRC+ each of the past two seasons) and derives a decent part of his value from his defense, sticking him at 3B – easily his worst position – doesn’t make sense.

Murphy plays a solid third and can play at 1B and 2B as well, to spell the regular starters there. The Red Sox fill their one big hole, open Holt up to ply his defensive efforts elsewhere, and likely do it at a reasonable price, so just in case Sandoval remembers how to hit, the Sox will have a useful trading chip.

Plan B: Sign Ben Zobrist. Zobrist can fill much the same role as Murphy, though 3B isn’t one of the regular stops on his super-utility tour, and he’s arguably a better player than Murphy. He’s also four years older and may end up going for more money over fewer years because of that.

New York Yankees

MLB Ranks: Alex Rodriguez 2008-04-19
Team wRC+Weighted Runs Created Plus: A comprehensive measure of offensive production relative to the league. 100 is average and each point above or below is a percentage better or worse than the average player.: 6th
Starter FIP-Adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching. A measure of the events “under the pitcher’s control” (HR, BB, Ks, HBP) that attempts to remove the influence of team defense – whether good or bad – on the pitcher’s stats. It is then adjusted for park effects and related to league average FIP. 100 is league average and every 1 point deviation from 100 is a percentage point better or worse than league average. E.g., an FIP- of 90 means the pitcher’s FIP was 10% better than league average, and an FIP- of 110 means it was 10% worse.: 15th
Bullpen FIP-: 19th
Team DEFDefensive Runs Above Average. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s defensive contributions, including a positional adjustment (i.e., a shortstop is considered more defensively valuable than a LF). Roughly 9-10 DEF is equal to one Win Above Replacement.: 21st
Pythagorean W-LExpected Win-Loss record based on the number of runs scored and allowed by the team. Comparing the actual win-loss record to the expectation can give insight into whether a team was “lucky” or “unlucky” (often due to record in 1-run games or extra inning games, two situations where teams are roughly .500 over time, but can vary greatly in a single season).: 88-74 (LuckThe difference between Pythagorean (i.e., expected) Win-Loss record and the actual win-loss record. Provides a rough insight into whether a team’s record was better or worse than could be expected from their runs scored and allowed. -1)

Team Need: Fix their 2B issues (and continue to be more than the sum of their parts).

For a team that seems a clear contender and projects as an 88-win team, the Yankees seem surprisingly mundane. They managed the 6th best offense in MLB, but their two most productive hitters were the surprisingly resurgent Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. The former has been a league average hitter over the past three seasons (and below league average over the past two) and the latter is a player many thought would never play meaningful baseball again, much less be one of the best players on a contender.

The Yankees face several issues, however. There’s obviously the big question of whether the 36-year old Teixeira and the 40-year old A-Rod (turning 41 in July), will produce at even 75% of what they did in 2015 (not surprisingly, the projections say no: Steamer predicts 1.6 fWAR and a 111 wRC+ for Tex, and 0.4 fWAR/ 104 wRC+ for A-Rod). They also have issues with a talented-but-fragile rotation (no starter pitched 30 games) that ranked firmly in the middle of the MLB pack in 2015.

Their biggest hole however is at 2B, where they got -1.2 fWAR in 2015. Robert Refsnyder is a solid offensive player who did well in his short 2015 debut, but there are major issues with his defense – it’s hard to call someone a 2B prospect when it’s clear he can’t yet play the position. Until he can clearly handle the defensive side of things, the Yankees have a major hole to fill.

Brandon Phillips on June 26, 2011Move to make: Assuming the team believes they’re a win-now contender: trade for Brandon Philips. The Reds are clearly in firesale mode, with everyone up for grabs. Philips is on the backside of his (frankly, overrated) career, but he’s still a solid starter and will give the Yankees a solid defensive 2B with a league average bat and good baserunning.

Plan B: We’re saying this a lot, but it’s hard not to see Zobrist as a solid addition to most contenders. He plays several positions, swings a solid bat, and is likely to be available at a good price after a down year. The only danger is that 2015 wasn’t just a down year, but rather the first step of a steep decline.

Honestly, even if it was, and Zobrist is a 2WAR super-sub now, he’s still an upgrade over what the Yankees rolled out at 2B in 2015.

Tampa Bay Rays

MLB Ranks: Kevin Kiermaier on June 28, 2014
Team wRC+Weighted Runs Created Plus: A comprehensive measure of offensive production relative to the league. 100 is average and each point above or below is a percentage better or worse than the average player.: 7th
Starter FIP-Adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching. A measure of the events “under the pitcher’s control” (HR, BB, Ks, HBP) that attempts to remove the influence of team defense – whether good or bad – on the pitcher’s stats. It is then adjusted for park effects and related to league average FIP. 100 is league average and every 1 point deviation from 100 is a percentage point better or worse than league average. E.g., an FIP- of 90 means the pitcher’s FIP was 10% better than league average, and an FIP- of 110 means it was 10% worse.: 8th
Bullpen FIP-: 25th
Team DEFDefensive Runs Above Average. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s defensive contributions, including a positional adjustment (i.e., a shortstop is considered more defensively valuable than a LF). Roughly 9-10 DEF is equal to one Win Above Replacement.: 4th
Pythagorean W-LExpected Win-Loss record based on the number of runs scored and allowed by the team. Comparing the actual win-loss record to the expectation can give insight into whether a team was “lucky” or “unlucky” (often due to record in 1-run games or extra inning games, two situations where teams are roughly .500 over time, but can vary greatly in a single season).: 81-81 (LuckThe difference between Pythagorean (i.e., expected) Win-Loss record and the actual win-loss record. Provides a rough insight into whether a team’s record was better or worse than could be expected from their runs scored and allowed. -1)

Team Need: Bolster the bullpen with value arms.

No team – other than maybe the Oakland Billy Beanes – does more with less than the Tampa Bay Rays. Yes, they finished 4th in the AL East, but they did so with the 3rd lowest payroll in MLB. The next closest divisional payroll was the Orioles, who spent 46% more to win one more game. The Yankees spent almost three times as much to win seven more games, and the Red Sox spent almost 2.5x as much to win two fewer games.

Despite all that success, their financial situation means that the Rays are constantly walking a tightrope – one bad move and they risk one heck of a tumble. One place they need to treat most carefully this offseason is in addressing their 1B issues. They received -2.6 fWAR from the position in 2015, giving the majority of PA to James Loney (-1.3 fWAR and 88 wRC+) and Jake Elmore (-1.0 fWAR, 51 wRC+). A team hoping to contend absolutely cannot get that kind of negative production from the 1B slot. Worse yet, Loney is slated to make $9.6m in 2016 – the 2nd highest salary on the team, behind only face-of-the-franchise, Evan Longoria (who was a steal at his $11m salary, providing 4.2 fWAR).

The Rays have Casey Gillaspe in their farm system, but he’s likely a season or two away from earning a starting slot. They also have Richie Shaffer, who got his first few games in 2015 and plays the other corner at 3B, where the Rays are obviously set. The Rays may think that Shaffer will hit well enough to hold down the corner until Gillaspe’s ready – if so, their biggest weakness becomes their bullpen.

The Rays’ pen was one of the worst in the majors, with a gigantic dropoff after their three best arms (Alex Colome, Jake McGee, and Xavier Cedeno – notable not the top three in innings pitched, those spots held by pitchers who finished with the worst, 2nd worst, and 4th worst xFIP- in their pen).

MG 9928 Trevor CahillMove to make: Take a flier and sign Trevor Cahill. On the surface, Cahill did not have a great season in 2015. He had an ERA of 5.40 and produced only 0.1 fWAR. However, he’ll only be 28 in 2016, he’s just a few seasons removed from being a league average starter (which means above average reliever), and his peripheral stats looked much better than you’d imagine.

Despite that ugly ERA, he had a SIERA of only 3.33 and an xFIP- of 90. His K% was the second highest of his career and his BB% was his lowest, resulting in the best K-BB% and K/BB ratio of his career. Because his 2015 was so bad on its surface, the Rays can likely sign him for a very affordable price – at worst, he’s likely an inning eater, at best he can be a front end bullpen arm who’s hitting his peak years.

Plan B: Try and flip Loney for a bullpen arm. It’s unlikely anyone will want Loney, but he’s only got one more year on his contract, and despite that $9.6m being high for the Rays, if he can produce even 1.5 WAR (he averaged that over 2013-2014), he’s worth it for another team with a short term 1B need. Unfortunately, Loney’s trend has been the wrong direction, going from 2.6 fWAR to 0.8 to -1.3, so it’s unlikely. Loney’s such an anchor that getting rid of his salary for anything in return will be of value to a club that is always working on razor thin margins.

Toronto Blue Jays

MLB Ranks: Josh Donaldson on September 30, 2015
Team wRC+Weighted Runs Created Plus: A comprehensive measure of offensive production relative to the league. 100 is average and each point above or below is a percentage better or worse than the average player.: 1st
Starter FIP-Adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching. A measure of the events “under the pitcher’s control” (HR, BB, Ks, HBP) that attempts to remove the influence of team defense – whether good or bad – on the pitcher’s stats. It is then adjusted for park effects and related to league average FIP. 100 is league average and every 1 point deviation from 100 is a percentage point better or worse than league average. E.g., an FIP- of 90 means the pitcher’s FIP was 10% better than league average, and an FIP- of 110 means it was 10% worse.: 20th
Bullpen FIP-: 15th
Team DEFDefensive Runs Above Average. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s defensive contributions, including a positional adjustment (i.e., a shortstop is considered more defensively valuable than a LF). Roughly 9-10 DEF is equal to one Win Above Replacement.: 14th
Pythagorean W-LExpected Win-Loss record based on the number of runs scored and allowed by the team. Comparing the actual win-loss record to the expectation can give insight into whether a team was “lucky” or “unlucky” (often due to record in 1-run games or extra inning games, two situations where teams are roughly .500 over time, but can vary greatly in a single season).: 102-60 (LuckThe difference between Pythagorean (i.e., expected) Win-Loss record and the actual win-loss record. Provides a rough insight into whether a team’s record was better or worse than could be expected from their runs scored and allowed. -9)

Team Need: Help in the starting rotation.

The Jays were good. Like, very good. Like, they projected out to win 102 games and should have won the AL East easily, good. That impressive run differential was driven by the league’s best offense, however, and the Jays had an average pitching staff, at best. While the made the move to get David Price down the stretch, they’re no guarantee to keep him, leaving their rotation’s cupboard very bare.

It’s not a good sign that a guy you picked up at the deadline and pitched only 11 starts for your team easily led your team in fWAR (Price produced 2.7 fWAR in 11 starts, ahead of Mark Buhrle at 2.1 and R.A. Dickey at 2.0 – the former turns 37 in 2016 and could easily retire, the latter will be 41). In addition, they’re also losing starter Marco Estrada to free agency. The Jays have some nice arms in the minors, but they’re all several years from contributing to a top club.

You know he's already got the uniformMove to make: Sign either Price or Greinke. The Jays are 100% legit World Series contenders – they need an ace, period. There are two aces out there, go get one.

Plan B: Failing that (or, ideally, in addition to that), sign one or two of the second-tier starters. Cueto and Samardzjia both make sense as starters who know the AL, and Jordan Zimmermann won’t be your ace, but he’ll eat innings as a solid #3 or, at his best, a #2.

That’s it for the American League East, join us later in the week as we finish our series with the American League West.

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