Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, March 25, 2024 -- "Season Preview 2024: Teams #15-13"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Season Preview 2024: Teams #15-13
March 25, 2024

It doesn’t always work out that my projected top 12 teams in baseball are the 12 playoff teams, but that is the case this year. As I wrote in the last issue, though, don’t get too caught up in the ordering. There’s a virtual tie in the middle of the bell curve.

15. Boston Red Sox (83-79, 776 runs scored, 752 runs allowed, fourth in AL East)

I seem to have been higher on recent Red Sox teams than most. For all the errors made by ownership, the team on the field is turning over in an intriguing way. They’ve identified the defense as a problem and have taken steps to address it, trading for Tyler O’Neill and Vaughn Grissom, and now putting Ceddanne Rafaela on the Opening Day roster. Rafaela should immediately be one of the game’s best defensive outfielders, and a pasture of O’Neill, Rafaela, and Jarren Duran would be an enormous upgrade over last year’s group. Wilyer Abreu may also be on the roster as the fourth outfielder, which would further limit Masataka Yoshida’s innings out there.

Fenway Park messes with outfielders’ raw statistics, making something like Defensive Efficiency Rating misleading. Outs Above Average, based on Statcast data, shows the Sox as having the eighth-worst outfield in the game in 2022, fifth-worst in 2023. This year’s group will be better than that, and that’s the biggest reason I have them rated this highly.

Yoshida as a bat-only player intrigues me as well. Adding all that defense will have an effect on the team OBP, and Yoshida should be a salve for that. He tired badly in the second half last season and lost the thread at the plate, with just seven walks after the All-Star break. Even with that, he had a 14% strikeout rate and an 81/34 K/BB over the full season, ending with a .289/.338/.445 line and 8-for-8 stealing bags. Left alone to DH he will be less likely to tire and should be the OBP/doubles contributor the Sox signed him to be.

The biggest concern here has to be the pitching, especially the starting rotation. The only big swing Craig Breslow took in his first year, signing Lucas Giolito, turned into a big whiff when Gioiito tore his UCL. He will miss 2024. Having traded Chris Sale for Grissom, Breslow is left with the same shallow rotation that undercut recent Sox teams, again pretending Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock are full-time starting pitchers instead of very good relievers.

Houck has both an enormous third-time-around split (.303/.391/.566) and his performance collapses after he goes 50 pitches in a game:

               AVG   OBP   SLG   K%  BB%
Pitches 1-50  .205  .284  .294  27%   8%
Pitches 51+   .290  .370  .464  22%  10%

Houck’s career high is 119 innings, and he threw 114 2/3 last year. There is very little reason to think he’s a major-league starting pitcher. Insisting he can be one hurts both the rotation and the bullpen.

Whitlock has almost an identical profile -- loses effectiveness in a hurry, gets blasted the third time around, has no track record of carrying a starter’s workload. Boston’s insistence that these two can be MLB starters is baffling and frustrating. Just sign Jordan Montgomery already.

Houck and Whitlock would lengthen a bullpen that should be pretty good in the seventh through ninth innings, though with age and injury risk in both Kenley Jansen and Chris Martin. Josh WInckowski helps, as his own experiment with starting is over, and lefty Brennan Bernardino was a very good matchup guy as a 31-year-old rookie. All these pitchers will benefit from the better outfield defense.

The Upside: The improved defense drives a big drop in run prevention, and even in a rough AL East is enough to push the Red Sox into the playoff picture at 89-73.

The Downside: Injury and indecisiveness mean that Alex Cora never settles on a lineup or defensive alignment, a problem exacerbated by the collapse of the back end of the rotation. The Sox allow 800 runs and slip under .500 at 78-84.

Electric Youth: With Ceddanne Rafaela making the roster, we’ll see if Cora’s insistence that he’d only do so if he were the everyday center fielder holds. Rafaela, like Jarren Duran and Mookie Betts before him, is a converted infielder, and like Betts, Rafaela looks like he’ll be a plus-plus outfielder. He can run like crazy -- 115/32 SB/CS in the minors -- and drive the ball. To quote Keith Law, though, he “might swing at a butterfly if it flew within 10 feet of him.” It’s an entertaining, and highly watchable, package of skills.

14. San Diego Padres (84-78, 714 runs scored, 670 runs allowed, third in NL West)

The Dylan Cease trade is exactly what they needed, replacing Blake Snell with the right-handed, more reliable version of Snell, and doing it for two years at a reasonable price in talent. They didn’t swindle the White Sox, who need to collect talent as they embark on a rebuild; they did, however, acquire a playoff starting pitcher without dealing one of their top four prospects, depending on how you view Thorpe. It was worth three wins to this projection, given the low quality of pitchers Cease bumps in San Diego.

Adding Cease for a reasonable price does underline the path they took to get there. Could they have traded for Cease with Dylan Lesko or Robbie Snelling instead of Thorpe, and retained Juan Soto in the process? This lineup badly misses Soto, and the dropoff from him to Jurickson Profar and other waiver bait in left field is as steep as any team faces this year.

Cease provides stability to a rotation loaded with question marks. Michael King is continuing a return to starting, and hasn’t carried a full workload since 2018. The Padres, fresh off their success with a similar case in Seth Lugo, can be confident about managing King. Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove combined for just 41 starts last season, and that number has to rise to the 50s. The internal depth here is very weak, across the roster.

The Padres are a riddle. How much regression to the mean can you project from any team in one-run and extra-inning games if that team bled off two key contributors in the offseason? Snell and Soto were worth 12 wins to the 2023 Padres, which is about the gap between their underlying performance and their 2023 record. Which factor will pull more strongly on the 2023 team? In making projections, I use last year’s third-order record rather than actual record as a baseline, but I was flummoxed a bit about whether that was still relevant here.

The other complicating factor is the manager. I was a critic of Mike Shildt’s work with the Cardinals, and see the change from Bob Melvin as a significant downgrade, the largest drop in managerial quality in baseball. I suspect what will happen, though -- as we saw in Texas last year -- is that the performances and outcomes in close games will regress to .500, and Shildt will get a lot of the credit for it.

The Upside: They get 110 starts from the top four starters, and pristine health helps them moot the depth issue and get back to the playoffs at 87-75.

The Downside: Things go wrong and Shildt is absolutely not the person to make them right. The bottom of the lineup is a disaster on the way to 73-89.

Electric Youth: The decision to make 21-year-old Jackson Merrill a center fielder was defensible only to the extent that Merrill was going to be left alone in center, rather than asked to play three positions a week. Merrill, who certainly has the tools of a center fielder, started and played every inning of the Padres’ two games in Seoul in center. It’s a good sign for the team’s top prospect, someone who might win NL Rookie of the Year.

13. Texas Rangers (84-78, 844 runs scored, 794 runs allowed, third in AL West)

Projecting the Rangers is a damned near impossible task, because no matter what the current reports are, I have no confidence in my ability to project the number of starts Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom will make. ZiPS has 24. Rotowire, Steamer, Derek Carty’s The BAT, and Ariel Cohen’s ATC all say 19. I want to take the under on all of it, and that’s how I get the 2024 champs who won 90 games at 84-78.

I’m also pretty low on the bullpen. Bruce Bochy got a ring by loading up on three relievers in the playoffs, all three pitching as well for a month as they ever have. If you’ll recall, though, the Rangers’ bullpen was a problem for most of last season. In September, as they chased a division title, Rangers relievers were 25th in ERA and 23rd in FIP. They’ve added two old relievers in David Robertson and Kirby Yates, pitchers who could be effective, unavailable or both over six months.

Balanced against all this is that, hoo boy, are they going to score runs. This team is going to look like the classic Rangers teams from various eras, ones that had to win 7-5 and 8-7 most nights. The Rangers are running back the team that was third in MLB with a 114 wRC+, third in OBP, third in runs scored, and upgrading its two weak spots with two top-five prospects in Evan Carter and Wyatt Langford. I have them leading the AL with 844 runs scored, and I might well be low. Three of the projected five best hitters on the 2024 Rangers -- Carter, Langford, and Corey Seager -- combined for just 611 MLB PA last year.

It’s just a matter of whether they can stay in very crowded AL West and AL wild-card races until the pitching gets back to full strength. They got a lot of good work last year from the likes of Andrew Heaney and Dane Dunning, and if that back end can just be average-minus, just keep from losing games by themselves, the Rangers will be well-positioned if and when their best starters return.

The Upside: They push above 900 runs scored and pitch just well enough to make that work, then shoot past the Mariners and Astros with a 38-22 finish to a 94-68 season.

The Downside
: The shaky bullpen and back end make Rangers games highly entertaining runfests, but not enough of them go the Rangers’ way as they miss the playoffs at 81-81.

Electric Youth: Evan Carter came up at the end of last year, hit .306/.413/.645 in September and then .300/.417/.500 during a run to a championship...and he’s already like the girl in that meme watching her boyfriend check out someone else. Wyatt Langford, 22, the #4 pick in last year’s draft, destroyed four levels of the minors, including posting a .539 OBP at Triple-A, and he’s made the Rangers’ roster off a .375/.429/.732 spring. He’ll DH to start the year because the Rangers have three good outfielders, but he has the speed to be plus in either corner.