As regulars will know, inner circle Hall of Fame commenter Howard and I have a running charity bet in which I wager that the Yankees will win the division and he takes a McClellan-like evaluation of his own team’s chances; alas, I’m usually right, and Planned Parenthood gets richer either way. This year, however, the Yankees look to be fielding their weakest team since their run of dominance started when they were baseball’s second best team in 1994. So while I’ll propose the same annual bet, the odds would be generally considered against me. Indeed, appropriately if we’re returning to the early 90s the Blue Jays are the consensus pick for the AL East, and I hope this is right!
Interestingly, though, the Baseball Prospectus projections still show the Yankees as the best team in the division, 7 games better than Toronto. I thought I’d go through the projections position by position to see if I think they’re plausible. (Numbers for regulars and half-regulars only, counting players once; so Youkilis gets full credit at 3B but none at 1B).
CATCHER: Blue Jays +1.4 This seems about right. The Yankees are just punting the position, of course, and it’s hard to imagine they couldn’t have found a way to keep Martin while hitting their 2014 salary target. The damage is mitigated in this case, though, because Arencibia doesn’t really bring anything but medium-range power to the table. Still, in his age 27 year Arencibia has a little upside, so this is probably conservative.
FIRST BASE: Yankees +0.5 Here, I think the PECOTA is just flat-out wrong. The Encarnacion projection is conservative but I’m inclined to be believe sound; I think he was a little over his head last year. But I think expecting 400 PA of fairly high-quality performance from Teixeira is unrealsitic; there’s a good chance he won’t play at all this year, and even if he’s back in June you have to wonder about how well he’ll play coming back from a serious wrist injury. If the definitively replacement-level Overbay ends up getting more playing time than projected this becomes an edge for the Jays pretty quickly, and if Encarnacion can have a year comparable to last year a big edge.
SECOND BASE: Yankees +2.6 No argument here; indeed, perhaps a bit conservative. Obviously, Cano is a key to the Yankee season; he has to be an MVP candidate again if the Yankees are going to make up for their holes. I think he will. Certainly, he’s far more valuable than IzFacio.
THIRD BASE: Yankees +0.7 Again, this seems pretty generous to New York. I like the Greek God of Walks as much as anyone, but 540 PA of high-quality performance seems towards the top range of possible outcomes, and the defense on the left side of the Yankee infield is going to be ugly. It’s pretty easy to see Lawrie being more valuable.
SHORTSTOP Blue Jays +2.9 Of course, the Jays are likely to get the Cano gap back here. Reyes’s performance level bounces around a bit and like most middle infielders he gets hurt, but he’s a championship quality player. It’s dangerous to write Jeter off — he’s coming off a shockingly good offensive year — but a 38-year-old SS coming off a serious ankle injury who’s not ready for Opening Day, you have to consider the possibility that he’s done, and given that he didn’t have any range when he ran well the defense is likely to be even worse than usual. Backing Jeter up is Eduardo Nunez, who combines Jeter’s range, Jose Offerman’s reliability, and Angel Berroa’s bat.
LEFT FIELD Yankees +0.8 Assumes Granderson plays left; my understanding is that it won’t happen but it doesn’t matter in this context. This seems right; Graderson’s injury doesn’t figure to have the lingering effects of the Jeter and Teixeira ones, and while it’s hard to know what to make of Melky I’ll believe he’s a championship quality OF when I see it again. Also, I include the obligatory mockery of the Yankees blowing substantial money because having two shitty backup outfielders wasn’t enough.
CENTER FIELD Yankees +2.1 I certainly like Gardner more than the perennially disappointing Rasmus, but particularly given Gardner’s difficulty staying on the field I don’t like him this much more.
RIGHT FIELD Blue Jays +2.5 Again, seems a little generous to NY. I love Ichiro! but at 39 he’s an adequate corner OF at best and a replacement-level one at worst, although his glove will help. If Joey Bats can play 145 games (granted, a big if) this seems like it could be a 4+ win edge for Toronto.
DESIGNATED HITTER: Yankees +0.7 Basically a wash, neither team really has anything you can be happy with. Hafner has a little more upside, Lind is more likely to make it to May without a season-ending injury (which, in his case, is a mixed blessing.)
ROTATION Yankees +0.6 Overall, this isn’t unreasonable, although it’s a little charitable to the Yankees. Dickey is badly underrated at 1.9 WARP; I know he’s old, but coming of a 54/230 W/K ratio PECTOA is making too much of that (and Kuroda isn’t getting that kind of discount.) On the other hand, PECTOA places more faith on Johnson’s health that I would. Still, you can see a potential edge for the Jays here — if Dickey is comparable to Sabathia, which is very possible, the Jays are likely to be better overall given their depth.
BULLPEN: Yankees ~ + 2.0 A genuinely big edge for the Yanks, who have at least two premimum-quality closers, which is two more than Toronto, and some other good arms. I could see the Yankees overperforming their Pythagorean if Rivera has one more healthy year in him.
So what does this tell us? Well, the Yankees certainly could finish ahead of Toronto, and could win the division. Pre-season picks tend to focus on offseasons, and certainly Toronto got a lot better while the Yankees got worse, but we should also remember that the Yankees were about 200 runs better last year. Making up that gap won’t be easy. Still, I’d lean towards Toronto. The projection systems can’t predict complete collapse seasons, but there are several positions the Yankees could get almost nothing out of this year — SS, 1B, RF, maybe even 3B — in addition to the one position where they’re not even trying to get anything. I’m probably with the consensus that this year the Yankee luck will run out. The next question I’ll have to consider — should Tampa be considered better than Toronto, who are being overrated a bit?