by Jason Wojciechowski
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Photo by Paula McVann
I know I'm Dr. Negativo most of the time (I was born this way), but Bill's piece at Baseball Prospectus yesterday illustrating things that could go right for the Twins has inspired me. Over the next N days for some yet-to-be-determined N, I'm going to look at the worst team in each division and try to figure out how they might get to 88 wins. It's a modest goal for a good team, but these aren't good teams. It probably wouldn't even get AL East or AL West team into the playoffs, given the potential 95-100-win powerhouses at the tops of those divisions, but it would at least put the erstwhile bottom-feeder into the competition.
Where there is a clear worst team (like the Orioles in the AL East), I'll just go with them. Where there are multiple good choices, I won't choose: I'll do a post for each team. I will omit the Twins, though, because it's not like I have anything to say that Bill didn't already, and his piece is not behind the Prospectus pay-wall, so you can all read it even if you don't subscribe. (You should subscribe.)
My baseline is going to be the current PECOTA/BP depth chart standings found here for subscribers. I'll give myself +5 wins right off the bat for general team luck. Maybe that's cheating, but I'm doing it anyway. Luck happens, +5 is relatively modest luck, and I'm looking to build an 88-win team, not an 88-win-talent team.
Today, we start with the Orioles, who are projected to a 72-90 record at the moment. Giving them +5 for luck means we need to find eleven more wins.
The obvious place to start is the pitching staff. PECOTA sees an entire starting rotation that can't even crack 1.0 WARP despite Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman all having been highly regarded to some degree or another at some point in their careers. What if instead of a crappy season, Britton is merely mediocre and posts 1.0 WARP, and Arrieta not only pitches better than the 4.6 ERA that PECOTA sees, but also pitches 180 innings instead of 108, so that he winds up at about 1.4 WARP? That's +2 easy wins in the starting rotation without even having to make any of the starters a good pitcher. I'm just raising 40% of the rotation to some degree of competence.
The designated hitter spot is a mess for Baltimore. Suppose that the team goes on a tear in the early part of the year and thus looks to bolster the lineup for the stretch run. They acquire Manny Ramirez from the A's, who's shown signs that he can still hit like a Hall-of-Famer but who has turned out to be blocked at DH by Chris Carter's breakout season (a Chris Carter breakout season will be an integral part of getting the A's to 88 wins). He comes to Baltimore in late June and produces 2.0 WARP from there on out. It's not clear who loses playing time as a result because of the rotating cast that will have been playing the position up to that point. If you figure that every time Mark Reynolds starts at DH, that means Robert Andino is starting at third, though, you can see that the players who will be sitting for Manny aren't top-notch guys. Call this a +1.5 improvement.
Catchers have a reputation for developing slower than other players, a reputation that I'm fairly certain is backed up by research. Matt Wieters is still just 26, so it might even be too early for him to fulfill the promise he flashed in the minors in 2008, but if he hits like his 90th percentile PECOTA projection, in the .300/.370/.470 range, then he's a 4.5-win player instead of the ~2 WARP that represents his weighted mean projection. .300/.370/.470 is so elite for a catcher that this is perhaps greedy, but if there's any catcher who could make the leap from "average to above average" all the way to "legitimate star," it's Wieters. +2.5 improvement.
Nick Markakis is what he is: a corner outfielder who played last year at 27 and who has seen his slugging percentage drop every year since 2008, from .491 down to just .406 last season. The man has talent, though (at least with the bat -- he's put up negative FRAA figures in right field each year since 2007), so instead of being basically a league-average player in 2012, perhaps he can return to the heights of 2008, ripping doubles, knocking 20 homers , walking, and generally being an offensive force. A return to form from The Greek could be worth 2.5 wins.
That's +8.5 wins on the big stuff. Finding the other 2.5 is relatively easy by adding in little bits here and there.
Endy Chavez is aging, but I bet he can still rob homers with the best of them, especially compared to the average left-fielder. Let's add +5 runs to his defense. If Brian Roberts stays healthier (not healthy, but enough that he gets 500 PAs instead of the 377 he's now being accounted in the depth chart), that's about another +5 runs compared to, say, Ryan Adams. Adam Jones jumped from basically a .270 TAv in 2009-10 to a little over .280 in 2011. PECOTA, as projection systems do, figures he'll give back those gains in 2012. If he doesn't, that's a ten-run gain over the projection.
The last five runs can come from the bullpen. If Alfredo Simon is identified as a problem and cut early, before he can do a full season's worth of damage, with Darren O'Day getting his innings, that's probably five runs right there. Even if it's not, tiny improvements from Jim Johnson or Matt Lindstrom or whoever can add up to that.
There you have it: 88 wins. There's some implausibility here, obviously. Matt Wieters is unlikely to make that leap, and Nick Markakis's star days are surely done. Further, this type of WARP-adding is a matter not just of being optimistic about certain guys -- it's about figuring that nobody else will underperform their projections. What if, for instance, Mark Reynolds is a one-win player instead of being worth two? Or if Chris Davis is such a disaster that he adds no value at all, gets sent down, and basically has his performance replaced by Matt Antonelli? What if J.J. Hardy gets hurt?
Still, I'd like to think (not so much as an Orioles fan, but as someone who doesn't find mediocrity very interesting) that the scenarios here for where improvement can come from aren't so far-fetched as to be laughable. Of course, as I referred to in the opening, 88 wins probably doesn't get the Orioles anywhere in the East anyway. Even noting that many of these extra wins will likely come at the expense of their AL East brethren, Baltimore in this situation would probably still be fighting for the second wild card spot, not a division title.