In which "darlings" is defined as "84 wins or so" and "not horrible."
Everyone's all agog over the Blue Jays this offseason. They burgled some dignity from the Marlins, traded away top prospects for a Cy Young winner, took a chance on a disgraced would-be MVP, and now they're the "it" team in the division. The Yankees better watch out for them Jays. The Rays better watch out, too. There's a new, feathered sheriff in town, and all that.
Except let's take a spin around the PECOTA projections in the AL East:
Red Sox, 84-78
Blue Jays, 83-79
The Red Sox, huh? The Red Sox. Well. A few notes before moving on:
- No, PECOTA isn't a soothsayer. It can, has, and will be spectacularly wrong, just like every projection system. But it's still a system that's grounded in logic. It suggests that a reasonable person could make an argument -- a sane argument -- for the Red Sox in the AL East.
- take the projection for the Jays as a slight -- it's extremely hard to pick up 15 to 20 wins in a single offseason.
- Which is why we're talking about the Red Sox right now.
PECOTA usually doesn't like anyone. It hates Mike Trout, it hates the Orioles, and it hates your favorite players and teams. When you hit your ball into PECOTA's backyard, forget it, man. It's gone. If you climb over the fence to get it, you just know PECOTA will be waiting for you on the porch with a shotgun. It's a foul, disagreeable grump of a projection system.
(Or maybe it's just a system that doesn't like venturing too far into the extremes of any prediction. Will investigate later.)
But it kinda sorta likes the Red Sox. Without checking, I'll assume the algorithm has a "Bobby Valentine Y/N" case statement built in somewhere, but it has to be more than that. Here's an attempt to recreate PECOTA's relative optimism for the Red Sox:
The Red Sox were really an 88-loss team last year by run differential
Maybe that's actually the Valentine condition we were joking about up there. But five losses is kind of a big gap between predicted and actual. The Orioles probably aren't going to use the same necromancy to steal away the close wins at quite the same rate as last year, and the Red Sox should have a much improved bullpen.
The Red Sox were basically the Astros in the second-half of the season
And the players responsible were, for the most part, sacked. Without checking, what do you think the Red Sox' record was at the trading deadline? They lost 93 games, after all, so with more than half the season over, they must have been in a pretty bad spot. Instead, they were 53-51. They weren't exactly contending yet, but they weren't a debacle.
After the Adrian Gonzalez trade, though, the Red Sox pushed the screw-it button. When the A's beat them 20-2 on the last day of August, the Red Sox had Scott Podsednik leading off, Mike Aviles DHing, and James Loney within 50 feet of the ballpark. Aaron Cook was the starter. When the Red Sox lost 10-2 to the Yankees on the third-to-last day of the season, Mauro Gomez hitting cleanup was just about the most defensible lineup choice of the day. The Red Sox lost 12 of their last 13, and went 16-42 after the trading deadline.
The players responsible were part of the throw-it-to-the-wall, see-what-sticks strategy of the post-trade Red Sox. Dice-K? Sure, see if he has anything left. Jose Iglesias? Heck, see if he can hit his weight. Pedro Ciriaco DHing? Heck, I'll try anything once!
The players the Red Sox are counting on in 2013 are just a little more elegantly pieced together.
The players they're trying to replace weren't so hot last year
Cody Ross was worth just under two wins last year. Josh Beckett was lousy, and Adrian Gonzalez was on the average side for a first baseman. The Daniel Bard experiment shan't be repeated. And, really, those were the only spots to fill. Apart from the free agents like Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, and David Ross, the rest of the roster should be improved with players coming back from injury (Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, John Lackey, Andrew Bailey).
It's not like they're trying to replace the 2011 Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett, after all.
The Red Sox have a pretty decent lineup, don't you know
It's not great. But it's without glaring, Loney-shaped holes. When you see the projected standings, your first instinct is that PECOTA is really high on a player or six that you wouldn't expect. Except that's not quite the case. Will Middlebrooks is projected to have some power but an OBP below .300. Ryan Dempster is supposed to be okay, nothing more. Clay Buchholz is supposed to rebound just a tick, which wouldn't make him more than average. David Ortiz and Johnny Gomes are supposed to take a big step back. Stephen Drew is projected for 320 plate appearances, which seems about right.
So it's not like PECOTA suspiciously loves a handful of random Sox. In isolation, there isn't a single unreasonably optimistic projection. Collectively, though, there's a good deal of competence on the 25-man roster.
All of the okay-not-great projections add up. The Red Sox probably won't win the East. They'll have a tough time making the playoffs. But if you were thinking about them with a chortle and a sneer, mentally assigning them to the 90-loss abyss of last season, that's probably not right. They might not be great, but they should be better than a lot of people think. They've even warmed PECOTA's cold, black heart, if just a little bit.
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