MLB 2015 Preview: American League Central
Victor Martinez was great in 2014 but he and the Tigers are getting a little bit long in the tooth.
Most 2015 projections have Cleveland and Detroit neck and neck. The deciding factor between the two teams will be Cleveland’s relative youth and deep, young pitching staff. Cleveland has perhaps given the rest of baseball the blueprint on how to build a great starting rotation cheaply. The greatest example is Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, who was acquired in a deal that only cost them a half season of Jake Westbrook and $2.7MM. At the time, Kluber had pitched well in the minors but was never particularly young for his age. One thing he had always done was strike out batters, and this is the number one skill any baseball pitcher can have. I am a believer in TINSTAAPP (there is no such thing as a pitching prospect), which essentially postulates that pitchers do not progress in the same manner as hitters and are often thrown off track by injuries. Rather than chasing after the shiny top prospects, cost-conscious teams should be focusing on flawed pitchers with interesting skills. Cleveland did that, and Corey Kluber will help power them to a division crown.
Father time is the only undefeated player in sports, and he has been banging on Detroit’s door the past couple of seasons. With a depleted farm system and millions tied up to SP Justin Verlander and 1B Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers resorted to throwing Hail Mary passes this winter. The most costly of these prayers, signing DH Victor Martinez, shows the power of recency bias. Victor has no position in the field and has a career wRC+ of 125. Last year, he posted a wRC+ of 166. For a 36-year-old man, a team should make its evaluations based on a number closer to 126. Detroit, however, could not stand the thought of losing last year’s most productive hitter and the Tigers signed Victor for $68MM over four years. The problem is that his 641 PA last year represent about a tenth of his career PA, and hitters that age don’t suddenly find power they never had before. This team is getting old fast, and while they still have a chance in 2015, they are nearing the end of the line.
Last year, I praised GM Rick Hahn in large part for not being like his predecessor, Kenny Williams. This offseason, Hahn decided to “go for it.” Chicago had a great 1-2 punch in SP Chris Sale and SP Jose Quintana. The Sox also had a solid shortstop in Alexei Ramirez and one of the best sluggers in the game in 1B Jose Abreu. They also had 2B Marcus Semien, who was just a rookie last year. The wise thing to do would have been to build around that core. Instead, Hahn has attempted to accelerate the process by (among other moves) trading Semien for SP Jeff Samardzija. This deal clearly makes the Sox better now, but even when combined with their other moves (signing RP David Robertson and OF Melky Cabrera), they won’t make the postseason. Hahn’s new approach is exactly the wrong way to go about things and Chicago will pay for it in the long term.
The Royals made an amazing run to end last season that nearly earned them the title of World Champions. They succeeded by building an average team that snuck into the playoffs and got hot. This is the correct method for small market teams (see the Pirates), but Kansas City has not build a team that can be average in the long run. They “went for it,” and all it netted them was an average team that got hot once. Now, the Royals must rely on extremely unreliable veterans and hope it happens again. They signed SP Francisco Liriano (WAR of 1.0 the past two seasons) to a two-year deal for $20MM. They signed Kendry Morales (WAR of -1.7 last year–yes, that’s -1.7) for two years for $17MM. Finally, they signed Alex Rios (0.2 WAR) to a one-year contract for $11MM with an option. That is an awful lot of money for zero production, and KC will not be making a return trip to the playoffs.
The Twins did not lose much this offseason, but considering they were terrible in 2014, this may not be such a good thing. The Twins are a perfect example of a team not knowing they are terrible and acting as if they are not. Last year, they committed $49MM to SP Ricky Nolasco, $24MM to SP Phil Hughes, and $11MM to SP Mike Pelfrey. All of those greenbacks earned them the 18th highest SP WAR in baseball and a 70-win season. This offseason, they doubled down by committing an additional $42MM to Hughes and $54MM to SP Ervin Santana. Talk about lighting money on fire. This is a bad team and marginal improvements for big dollars will earn them nothing but another last-place finish. It’s time to clean house in Minnesota.
Photo by Keith Allison (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)