The Tampa Bay Rays surprised us in 2008. Most of us knew that they had plenty of talent in the pipeline, and that in the next few years it would all come together to make them contenders. Few thought that would happen last year. Yet they ended the season with the second best record in the AL and beat out the Red Sox (and the Yankees) for the AL East title. It seems we get a bit of a surprise every year, so Tom Verducci wonders who it will be in 2009.
Verducci begins by discussing the criteria of a breakout team. First and foremost, they had to have losing record the previous year. He notes that 29 of 112 playoff teams since 1995 have had a losing record the previous year. Not only that, but 11 of the last 13 to do it had a record lower than their Pythagorean record. Run prevention is also more important than run production for these teams. Verducci notes that the 2007 Rays scored more runs than the 2008 Rays. In fact, no turnaround team this decade has done so without improving their run prevention from the previous year. Finally, teams with 98 or more losses are basically beyond hope, as the ’99 Diamondbacks have the biggest turnaround, having lost 97 games in 1998 before making the playoffs in ’99.
Finally, onto his picks.
Detroit Tigers. Really? Didn’t Verducci just talk about the value of run prevention? I suppose it’s tough to do worse than they did last year in that department, as they were third worst in the AL, posting a 4.90 team ERA. True, they could see a rebound from Verlander, which would help. On the other hand, their best starter in 2008 was a 26-year-old who doesn’t exactly have a stellar minor league record. Their bullpen is still a huge question mark, too. So they’ll need a bounceback from Verlander, an improbable repeat from Galarraga, a complete comeback from Dontrelle Willis, a solid showing when Jeremy Bonderman shows up, and some solid work out of Nate “6.35 ERA and they let me pitch 168.2 innings” Robertson. I’m not placing any bets here.
Braves. Great choice. They’ve added two quality pitchers in Javy Vazquez and Derek Lowe, plus Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami. They’ve got some arms on the farm, too, in case something goes wrong with their 2008 ace Jair Jurrjens, or if Kawakami ends up being spelled I-G-A-W-A. They could use some help with the bats, sure. As far as run prevention goes, they took definite steps to improving their 4.46 team ERA, which ranked 12th in the NL (though they were within 0.1 of being eighth).
A’s. This is a tough call. Their offense looks pretty set with the additions of Jason Giambi and Matt Holliday. The left side of their infield is still well below average unless Eric Chavez decides that he’s healthy and ready to hit, and even then they have a hole at shortstop with Bobby Crosby. On the run prevention side they’ll have a tough time improving on their 4.01 team ERA (5th in the AL). They’ve got a number of options should a starter fail, but there’s no big-time talent like Rich Harden or Dan Haren among them (at least that I’m aware, unless you’re counting Brett Anderson, who is only 21 years old). So why do I think they can be a turnaround team? Billy Beane obviously spent a lot of time tinkering and creating the team the way he wanted. He’s got a number of options. Plus, the Angels did nothing to improve their team this off-season.
Orioles. Seriously? At least ‘Ducc admits it’s virtually impossible: “Realistically, they have no shot at the playoffs, not in the AL East.” So why did he even bother to add them? Yes, they’re building a quality team and I certainly trust them in the hands of Andy MacPhail. They’re not going to be as bad in 2009 as they were in 2008, but the competition ahead is still stiff. It would take some major issues from the three top teams in the division for the Orioles to even have a chance. I do think, however, that they’ll put the Jays in the cellar this year (and considering the Jays had the best team ERA in the AL last year, that’s saying a lot for the competition in the AL East).
A surprise team doesn’t have to be a winner, though. In 2007 we saw the Chicago White Sox go 72-90 after having the inverse record in 2006 and winning the World Series in 2005. In 2008 that was the Detroit Tigers, who made it to the Series in 2006 and finished with an 88-74 record in 2007. They had an inverse of their 2007 record in 2008. So who are my fall-off-a-cliff candidates for 2009?
Mets. Yes, they improved one of their biggest 2008 weaknesses, the bullpen, in a big way. The rest of the team has issues, though. Their starting outfield is Fernando Tatis, Carlos Beltran, and Ryan Church. That’s not bad, but it also contains two guys who didn’t get to 350 at bats last year. That means Nick Evans will get some time out there, and he’s anything but a sure thing. They’ll need another big year from Carlos Delgado, and at 37 years old that’s a big question. In the rotation they have Santana, which is a force you cannot deny. Beyond that they have a guy who walked 105 hitters last year (and who was league average in overall performance), a guy who saw a 48-inning increase over his previous year, a guy coming off rotator cuff surgery, and Tim Redding. There’s potential for a fall there, especially in the NL East.
White Sox. They have so many questions. Who plays center, and can he be league average? Can Alexei Ramirez post a league-average OBP (and can he not get caught in 9 or 22 steal attempts?), can Konerko have a full, quality year as he did in 2007? Can Josh Fields handle third? Can one of their prospects handle second? Can Bartolo Colon hold up over the course of the season? Can the Sox find a useful fifth starter from their internal options? Was 2008 Gavin Floyd for real? I’m not saying these will all go wrong for them, but I think they’re deep questions that could lead to a team with some serious flaws.
Dodgers. If they bring back Manny, I suppose the story changes. However, if he walks they might have some problems in the West. Not that their peers have improved substantially. But the Rockies and Giants have decent-looking teams, as do the Diamondbacks. In any case, an infield of Casey Blake, Rafael Furcal, James Loney, and Blake DeWitt doesn’t sound too inspiring, especially when you start to think about injury issues. They’ll also be heavily reliant on youngsters in their rotation, and a repeat performance by Hiroki Kuroda.
Brewers. A 90-win team in 2008 likely won’t be in 2009. We know of their losses this off-season, and it was all on the run-prevention end. If they get Sheets back and he’s healthy they’ll have a shot in the central, or at least at the Wild Card. Absent that, though, they’re looking at Yovani Gallardo as their ace, followed by Jeff Suppan, David Bush, and Manny Parra. Yeah, Sheets would help a lot.