Thursday, February 7, 2013

2013: Tigers or Athletics?

Today's issue of Joe Sheehan's Newsletter, spurred by rumors of Felix Hernandez signing a $175 million contract, posits that the Mariners are "the fourth-best team in a division with three of the top ten teams in baseball ..." 

Few would argue that the Rangers, who have reached two of the last three World Series, or the Angels, having signed Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke* this offseason, are not among MLB's best. But placing the A's among a group that includes the aforementioned Rangers and Angels means that two of the Nationals, Blue Jays, Tigers, Dodgers, Reds, Giants, Braves, Rays and Yankees are not top-ten teams. I emailed Joe how that could be, and he replied that while he hadn't researched the topic, he's sure that the A's are better than the Tigers.

*This is what happens when I write at 11pm. This is also why I haven't written in two years. 

My first response was that Tigers < A's is, if not a narrowly-held position, then a quietly-held one -- I've not heard anyone tout the A's for 2013. Indeed, Sportsbook set the A's at 30-1 to win next year's World Series, longer odds than the Cardinals and Rays.* Sportsbook's odds imply that the Red Sox and A's are equally likely to win the World Series. Now, online gambling lines qualify less as research than entertainment, so let's dig a little deeper. 

*The A's play in one of the toughest divisions in baseball while the Tigers play in one of the easiest, though the addition of the Astros to the A.L. Central balances the scale somewhat. Still, the Tigers are clearly a better bet to win their division than the A's are to win theirs -- and therefore much more likely to make the playoffs and win the World Series. This shouldn't affect how we objectively view the teams.

Based on Baseball Prospectus's adjusted standings page, the 94-68 A's should have won between 87 and 92 games last year. The Tigers, at 88-74, nailed their Pythagorean mark; BP says Detroit should have won between 87 and 90 games. What the adjusted standings tell us is that one could expect the A's to naturally regress next season, while the Tigers' record was a fair reflection of its component statistics. The A's and Tigers were both ~89-90 win teams at heart last season, thus the question becomes: Which team did more to improve for 2013?

The A's were involved in two offseason trades, acquiring John Jaso from the Mariners and Jed Lowrie from the Astros. The only major-leaguer Oakland relinquished in those deals was Chris Carter, the hulking slugger whose 16 home runs in 67 games only provided +0.8 WAR because he played a miserable first base -- when he was even allowed to put on a glove. Carter might thrive in Houston, but he's no great loss to the A's. Granting Joe's premise that Jaso provides a two-win upgrade from A's catchers last year, that's a significant upgrade. Lowrie was a +2.5 WAR player in his age-28 2012, but that was the first time he had played even 90 games in a season. The A's have stated they plan to use Lowrie in a utility role, so It is not harsh to pencil him in for a +2.0 WAR season next year. 

The A's also signed Hiroyuki Nakajima to be their starting shortstop in 2013. Nakajima was a star in Japan, but it's fair to say that Japanese infielders seem to rarely work out. Nakajima will look to outplay Stephen Drew, who left Oakland to sign with Boston. Drew's been injured for significant portions of the last two seasons, so he's far from guaranteed to outplay Nakajima next year.

Of the Athletics' returning players on offense, it's unlikely that Brandon Moss, he of the .251/.317/.442 career mark, repeats his age-28 .291/.358/.596 season in 2013. Similarly, Coco Crisp will play this season at 33 years of age; he's more likely to regress than improve.  For the A's to maintain their 90-win pace from last season, they'll need both Yoenis Céspedes and Josh Reddick to prove that their combined 55 home runs and down-ballot MVP showings were not flukes. Reddick will be 26 this year, and Céspedes will be "27", so both could be entering sustained peaks. Still, Céspedes and Reddick combined for only 85 non-intentional walks in 1,213 PAs. That's not a Jason Giambi or Johnny Damon walk rate. Color me skeptical that the Oakland outfield duo will exceed last year's combined +7.9 Fangraphs WAR. 

On the pitching side, the A's lost Brandon McCarthy to free agency, but hope to get Brett Anderson back from having pitched 230 innings -- over the last three seasons. Anderson is a borderline star when on the mound, but his next season throwing 180 innings will be his first. After 35 innings in 2012, I doubt the A's are counting on Anderson to provide more than 120 innings this year. The rest of Oakland's rotation -- Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, and Dan Straily -- will be helped by throwing half their games in the Colosseum, but two-through-five that's a weak starting staff. 

The A's, as is their sabermetric wont, annually cobble together outstanding bullpens from other teams' discard piles. I'll concede that whatever anonymous relief corps Oakland conjures up will outperform the Tigers' pen. 

Oakland's improved at catcher and improved their infield depth while they hope that last year's outfield breakouts are for real. They're treading water on the pitching side. Today, I'll pencil the A's in for 90 wins. Are the Tigers that good?

(It's already past my bedtime, I'm at 900 words, and I've not even written up the Tigers yet. Apologies if this rapidly devolves into incoherence.)

The 2013 Tigers will benefit from a full year of Anibal Sanchez in the rotation and Omar Infante at second base. Neither is an MVP candidate, but each represents an easy one-win upgrade over last year's performers in those spots. Detroit also sees Victor Martinez, returning from injury, replace free-agent Delmon Young at designated hitter. That alone could provide three or four wins over the team's 2012 performance. The Tigers also signed 37-year-old Torii Hunter to play right field. Hunter's not going to hit .313 again, but he won't have to in order to provide more than Brennan Boesch (.240/.286/.372) and Quintin Berry (.258/.330/.354) did last year. Figure that's another 2-win improvement. 

On the regression side of the ledger, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Austin Jackson all performed at MVP levels last year. Two of these three are future Hall of Famers whose 2012 stats are not out of place next to their career numbers. (Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta also performed in line with expectations and should do so again.) Jackson, still just 26 years old, is no lock to provide another +5 WAR season, but I'd rather have Jackson's 2013 than that of Céspedes or Reddick.  

Behind Verlander and Sanchez, the rest of the Tigers' rotation includes Max Scherzer, who was basically unhittable in last year's second half, Rick Porcello, who Jason Parks predicts to break out in 2013, and Doug Fister, who proved in 2012 that his Seattle numbers were sustainable in Detroit. This is an exceptionally strong starting staff. 

With Rafael Soriano off the market to Washington, it appears the Tigers will go into 2013 with a rookie closer backed up by a nondescript veteran bullpen. I'm falling asleep so I'm not going to offer my opinion on Detroit's seventh through 13th pitchers, but with the variability of relief pitchers, I'm unwilling to predict greatness or failure. Jettisoning Jose Valverde's Capital-C Closer mentality is likely to add, not subtract, wins from the team. 

The Tigers took an 89-win team and improved by adding Hunter, Infante and Sanchez, getting Martinez back, and showing the door to Young and Valverde. On paper, that looks like five or six wins to the good. 

I'll stipulate that the A's demonstrated surprising skill by holding off Texas and Anaheim for the 2012 A.L. West crown. But it is respectfully submitted that last year's A's overachieved and did not adequately replace the wins they'll lose to regression. The Tigers, who won the Central nearly by default, and who were last seen getting swept by the Giants in the World Series, improved by trade and free agent signing, but also by health and (subtly) free agent departure. 

Having given this a pretty close look, I'm pretty sure that the Tigers are a better team than the Athletics heading into 2013.