It occurred to me that perhaps the Yankees’ error bars are so wide is somewhat due to where they are on the win curve: in the middle, just short of contention (83 projected wins). This is roughly where the Royals were a year ago, and of course the Yankees EXPECT to win, and PLAN to win, at least theoretically. So of course, if they had no real upside, they wouldn’t be where they are. The Mets, on the other hand, are coming out of a period of self-inflicted awfulness, and don’t really expect to win, so they might not really be working on a large 2014 upside. In order to explore this notion, today I will try to look at the upside/downside of the other team projected for exactly 83 wins, the Tampa Bay Rays. Of course, they get to 83 wins in a very different manner (I think ARod, Tex and CC between them exceed the Rays payroll) but they DO plan to contend – they have been contenders now for a while. They are coming off a downish year, but overall their low-cost strategy is not a “be mediocre and break through every once in a while” but rather “trade stars when they get expensive but get quality prospects in return, and compete with cost-controlled assets year after year”. How well they will be able to do this continuously is a matter of debate, and depends on whether or not they really are smarter than everyone else (evidence so far suggests yes, but the GM architect of their success is now with the Dodgers). Anyway, here goes.
The Rays fell to earth with a thud in 2014, winning only 77 games and finishing fourth in the AL East. They won at least 90 games each of the previous 4 seasons, though, so you can’t just consider them a bad team, and FG is obviously projecting some bounce back, even though they made no moves to improve the team this offseason. The Rays were 2 games over .500 at 4-2 and 7-5, lost 4 straight to 7-9 and were never over .500 again. They were at 23-28 after 51 games, in 4th place but only 6 games behind, on May 25, but beginning on Memorial Day they ended their season prematurely with a 10-game losing streak, followed by a single win and 4 more losses. Losing 14 of 15 put them at 24-42, deeply (15 games) in last and with no hope of recovery. They went 53-43 the rest of the way, a pace which would have netted them 89 wins and a wild card berth had they sustained it all season. Of course, they traded David Price to the Tigers in July essentially announcing that they were (rightly) punting the season. At the time of the trade they were 51-53, having gone 27-11 for a month and a half (a 115 win pace!) but while only 7 back were still in 4th place and the trade was made. They were under .500 the rest of the way.
Here is what they look like going into 2015 (All WAR given is fWAR unless otherwise noted, FG means FanGraphs):
Catcher – Rene Rivera is a 31-year-old catcher, acquired from San Diego in the 3-team Wil Myers trade. Rivera has been around FOREVER, breaking in with Seattle in 2004 at 20 years old for 3 AB. In 2005 as a September callup he got 50 PA and batted .396/.408/..521 in those games. This earned him a starting berth for 2006 (at age 22) and he was pretty awful: .152/.184/.253 (!) before the Mariners gave up after 106 PA. He returned to the minors for FIVE YEARS when in 2011 the Twins gave him a 114 PA trial in which he was actually WORSE (.144/.211/.202 in a better park for hitters). In 2013, now 29, he played in 23 games for the Padres (OPS 596) but they liked his defense enough to live with the bat, and gave him 329 PA in 2014. His defense WAS excellent and hitting (.252/.319/.432) surprisingly good, and this amounted to 3.0 WAR bringing his career total up to 2.5 (!). The Rays had some experience with a catcher who was great behind the plate, a super framer, and a zero with the bat, since in 2014 Jose Molina got 237 PA of .178/.230/.187 for them. His ISO (SLG – AVG) of .009 is the worst I have ever seen, by a LOT – only two of his 40 hits were for extra bases, both doubles. Rivera is projected at 400+ PA of .228/.280/.354 which would be a big step up (to dreadful) and 2.0 WAR. He has NO upside, but a 2 WAR downside in my opinion.
First Base – A “resurgent” James Loney played 158 games for the 2013 Rays, did reasonably well (2.7 WAR) despite not hitting like a first baseman (.299/.348/.430) with mediocre defense (he had a good glove rep but never had good numbers) so after paying him $2M for that season, they signed him for 3/$21M. Ugh. He posted a .290/.336/.380 line and his defense was poor, resulting in 0.5 WAR in 155 games. FG expects some rebound, to 1.2 WAR. I suppose there is upside there (he could get 2.5 WAR again) but he is 30 and the 2013 2.7 was a career high. He has 9.6 career WAR in 4700+ PA, so his rate per 600 is about the 1.2 they give him, and players don’t normally break out at 30 after so much history. His upside is probably 2, and his downside is less than zero. And he is signed for next year, too.
Second Base – Nick Franklin was acquired in the David Price trade. He broke into the majors in 2013 with Seattle, where in 412 PA his .225/.303/.382 line plus below-average defense plus the second-base position adjustment earned him 0.5 WAR. Back in the minors in 2014, he came up briefly with the Mariners, and in September with the Rays, and between them got 90 PA of .160/.222/.247 with average fielding (in a VERY small sample) good for -0.2 WAR. He turned 24 today (!) so he likely has some upside, hard to say how much. He did hit some in the minors, and has a decent fielding rep, and on that basis FG projects him for 1.3 WAR. I think his chance of 2.5 WAR is less than his chance of 0.0 WAR, so I think that this error bar is tight, too.
Shortstop – The Rays signed Asdrubal Cabrera at 1/$7.5 to play shortstop for them, their big free agent move. He is 29, and has 4000+ PA over 7 seasons, all with the Indians (until a late season trade last year to the Nats). His career ,268/.330/.409 is OK for a ordinary-fielding middle infielder, and he has 14.6 career WAR over those 7 seasons, 2.1 per. His 2014 was 1.7 and his 2013 was 0.5, with both offense and defense in decline. FG has him projected at 1.6 WAR in 455 PA. He may exceed the playing time projection, but that won’t help the WAR because his backups produce at about the same rate that he does. I don’t see much upside here, at all, as his three seasons of 2.8 WAR or more were all based on his BAT, with wOBA in the .350 range, and he has been at .308 for a couple of years now. And his downside is the 0.5 of just a year ago.
Third Base – Here you have the great, great Evan Longoria. In seven seasons with Tampa Bay, he has two above 7, two 6-7, one in the 5s, one in the 3s and 1 in the 2s (in WAR). The 3.4 was last year, but 6.8 the year before. He is still only 29, and the projection of 4.8 seems pretty reasonable, and he could obviously exceed that (e.g. he projects at 630 PA, but he hit 700 last year, so an 11% increase would make 5.4) but not by too much – FG expects a full bounce back. His downside, unless he gets hurt, is probably last year’s 3.4. He is the gold standard – you pretty much get what you get.
Left Field – The Rays unloaded Matt Joyce and FG doesn’t know what to do with his replacement. FG has Steven Souza (26 year old rookie acquired from Washington) at 280 PA in left and 175 in right, Kevin Kiermaier at 420 in right and 105 in center, Desmond Jennings at 525 in center and 105 in left, with others getting 100-200 PA each at a variety of outfield spots. I consider Souza to be the leftfielder, and combining the PT I get 1.6 WAR in 455 PA. He obviously has upside, as a rookie, as well as downside, but 26-year-old rookies essentially never post 5 WAR – he is limited by the fact that he hasn’t come up earlier.
Center Field – Jennings is good, and projects for 2.8 WAR. He has been 3.2-3.3 for 3 straight years, so that should be the projection, and I suppose 4 is an upside. Barring injury (and there is no history) there is no real downside. A solid major league regular.
Right Field – See comment on left field. I am going to consider Kiermaier the regular, 2.3 WAR per FG. He earned 3.8 WAR last year in 364 PA, so the projection of 2.3 in 525 is pretty pessimistic. He is 25 and I see lots of upside: he can hit, he hits for some power (10 HR 16 2B and 8 (!) 3B), and plays a fine right field. The Rays traded Wil Myers to play this guy, and I like his upside, which could be 5-6 WAR.
DH – Jon Jaso, I guess, along with the miscellaneous outfielders not given slots above. Jaso is 31, started with the Rays, bounced around and was reacquired this offseason. Despite his age is ML service time is only 5 years, so he got $3M in an arbitration settlement. His career wOBA of .339 was exactly duplicated last year, and the 0.7 WAR projection reflects the lack of defensive value. No upside or downside to speak of.
Well, that worked! Here is a team projected for the same wins as NY (though fewer batting WAR) but with MUCH lower error bars. I don’t think any reasonable projection of this team would have the batters more than 3-4 wins above their projections – a few could have better years, of course, but SOMEONE will be hurt and SOMEONE will stink. While this is clearly true of the Yankees (and all teams) there are so many MORE unknowns with NY that there is a much better chance that multiple good things will happen to offset fewer bad things. The Rays downside is a bit larger, perhaps 5-6 fewer wins from the hitters.
Alex Cobb – He is 27, and projects to 2.8 WAR. He earned 2.7 last year, 2.4 in 2013, and 2.0 in 2012, so what you see is what you get, I guess. He was on the DL in 2012 and 2013, but not for long, so he is a typical, solid, ML pitcher, not an ace but a good guy to have. Small upside and downside.
Chris Archer – He is 26, and projects to 2.0 WAR. He earned 3.1 last year, his first full season, but only 1.2 in 23 starts in 2013. He has more upside than Cobb, but is less proven.
Jake Odorizzi – He is 25, and projects to 0.9 WAR. He was a rookie last year and earned 2.0, with 9.32 K/9 and 3.16 BB/9 so it looks like all upside to me. A breakout candidate.
Matt Moore – He is 26, and was hurt all year (2 starts) last season (no minor league appearances). In 2013 as a 24-year-old he earned 1.8 WAR in 27 starts, and in 2012 he earned 2.5 in 31 starts. His career ERA is better than his FIP, which in turn is better than his xFIP, which explains the 0.8 projection. If healthy, I expect his upside to be more like 2.5, and of course a downside of zero loses only 0.8 WAR.
Drew Smyly – now 26, he started 7 times for Tampa Bay in 2014 after being acquired from the Tigers in the David Price trade. His 3 ML seasons are 1.8, 1.9, 2.3 so the trend is good, and no DL stints to date. The projection of 1.8 is probably reasonable, but he seems a good candidate to be over rather than under.
The rotation is young, but not super young. They have upside, but not super upside. I see more potential here than in the batters, perhaps as much as 5-6 wins, but probably more like 3-4. And, of course, pitchers get hurt, and there is not too much depth, unless (as so often is the case) the Rays have a hidden Alex Cobb or David Price biding time in AA to fool us all.
Surprisingly, the Rays big signing was free agent Grant Balfour, a career reliever (2/$12). He MUST have more upside than downside, because FG projects him at 0.0 WAR! He was productive for Tampa yesteryear (2008-2010) but has one total year in his career over 1.5, so the upside isn’t that high. Jake McGee projects as the star of the bullpen at 1.6 after posting 2.6 last year, but he is injured and his future is murky. The Rays total bullpen only projects to 2.6, and somehow you feel they will be better than that. The upside can’t be large, though, unless they uncover hidden resources – there is no David Robertson here, by my eye test.
Clearly the Rays can exceed their projection (as can any team) but it is a bit harder to see where the wins come from. If the batters contribute 3-4, the rotation 3-4 and the bullpen chips in a win, it still only gets them to 89-90 and marginal contention, and ALL of these elements doing so well is unlikely. The Rays project to an 83 win team, and it is hard for me to see why. But I do think they will come in within a tight band of 77-85 wins, while the Yankees band looks more like 70-95.