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Projecting the '08 Yankees

Baseball Prospectus' projection system looks at the prospects key players
02/08/2008 12:23 PM ET
By Jonah Keri / Special to YESNetwork.com

Jorge Posada enjoyed a career year in 2007.(AP)
For baseball fans, there's no darker period than the 3 ½ months between the final pitch of the World Series and the day players start reporting to Spring Training. With pitchers and catchers due in next week, the long wait is nearly over. Die-hards looking for an even quicker fix recently got a shot in the arm with the release of Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections.

The PECOTAs are one of many projection systems marketed by various baseball analysts and Web sites. Mainstream sports sites such as ESPN, CBS Sportsline and Yahoo! market their own projections; so do fantasy-specific sites such as Rotowire. Several individual sabermetricians also trot out their own systems every year: Sean Smith produces CHONE, Dan Szymborski gives us ZIPS, while Tom Tango offers the Marcel projections, a simple system using weighted three-year results (that's Marcel, as in Marcel the monkey).

All these projection systems give seamheads a sneak peek into some of the possible outcomes that might come into play in the upcoming season. By analyzing recent seasons' data, accounting for regression to the mean after unusually great or terrible seasons, then adding variables such as age, park effects and injury history, these systems aim to tell you how your favorite players will fare next season — and by extension, how your favorite team will stack up against the rest of the league.

With that in mind, let's take a look at what PECOTA has to say about key members of the 2008 Yankees. The PECOTA system differs from many other forecasting tools. For one thing, it uses biographical information such as height and weight to inform its forecasts. It also spits out a range of probable outcomes, ranging from a player's output if he performs at the 90th percentile of expectations (a monster year) to the 10th percentile (see how fast he heads to the bench). It also uses comparable players from major league history to trace likely outcomes for current players' careers. This gives the projections a little more spice: Will Jason Lane amount to something, given that his top comparable is Jermaine Dye? Does Jose Molina have upside, since his top comp is Javy Lopez?

Let's set the backups aside for now and home in on seven key members of this year's team, to get a feel for what we might expect for the '08 Bombers:

(Double-slash stats are Batting average/On-base percentage/Slugging percentage)

Jorge Posada
2007 Stats: .338/.426/.543
2008 Projection: .287/.380/.479

Before you get riled up over that big projected drop, consider this: If Posada meets that projection, PECOTA says he'll be the most productive catcher in the league, beating out the likes of Victor Martinez and Joe Mauer. For a 36-year-old catcher coming off a huge career year, that's pretty impressive.

Joba Chamberlain
2007 Stats: 24 IP, 34 K, 6 BB, 0.38 ERA
2008 Projection: 145.2 IP, 162 K, 55 BB, 3.39 ERA

Before you get riled up over this projected drop, consider this: A 3.39 ERA would place Chamberlain 7th among all MLB starting pitchers. For a 22-year-old in his first full big-league season, that's pretty impressive too. PECOTA, like every other projection system, tends to be conservative at times. In this case, it's forecasting 15 starts and 50 relief appearances, a nod to the possibility that the Yankees might break him in slowly. Still, the system clearly sees something special in a pitcher whose No. 4 comp is Roger Clemens.

Jason Giambi
2007 Stats: .236/.356/.433
2008 Projection: .235/.363/.453

PECOTA agrees with the general consensus that Giambi's days of being an elite hitter are gone. The system projects a repeat of last year's plate appearance total (around 300), with plenty of walks and homers — and pretty much nothing else. Look for Morgan Ensberg to get plenty of time at first base this season, with a possible trade or free-agent signing in the works for 2009 and beyond.

Alex Rodriguez
2007 Stats: .314/.422/.645
2008 Projection: .294/.401/.550

Again, simple regression to the mean expected here. Considering the challenge of being a right-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium, Alex Rodriguez's 2007 season seems nearly impossible to match, even for Alex Rodriguez. Match this forecast and A-Rod would be the best hitter in the AL, sayeth the machine.

Chien-Ming Wang
2007 Stats: 199.1 IP, 104 K, 59 BB, 3.70 ERA
2008 Projection: 178.1 IP, 95 K, 59 BB, 4.37 ERA

PECOTA generally likes groundball pitchers, in that they usually do a better job of keeping the ball in the park then their flyball-chucking peers. But a strikeout rate of less than five every nine innings doesn't sit well with pretty much all the projection systems out there — giving up that many balls in play means you need to rely heavily on your defense to help you out. Any time luck and defense start to enter into the equation, you can get outcome swings, like this one, to an ERA well over 4.

Melky Cabrera
2007 Stats: .273/.327/.391 2008 Projection: .283/.342/.404

Players who earn an everyday job in the majors in their early 20s often go on to long, successful careers. That's what PECOTA sees for Cabrera, with a nice little bump for 2008, and progressively more optimistic projections further out. The Melkman's top three comps? Carlos Beltran, Coco Crisp...and Pete Rose.

Phil Hughes
2007 Stats: 72.2 IP, 58 K, 29 BB, 4.46 ERA
2008 Projection: 152 IP, 129 K, 65 BB, 4.42 ERA

PECOTA quite isn't as optimistic about the Yankees' other potential future ace as most prospect hounds seem to be, at least not yet. Still, that's a pretty solid forecast for a 22-year-old pitcher entering his first season as a full-time starter, coming off an injury-filled season to boot. Having Hughes, Chamberlain, Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Ian Kennedy and farmhands such as Austin Jackson and Alan Horne in the system should allow the Yankees to be well-armed for the next few years, as the new blood wrests playing time away from the old guard.

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So what does all this mean for the team's chances this season? PECOTA sees the Yankees trotting out another great offense, with Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy (4.22 projected ERA) taking on bigger roles in an above-average starting rotation. The biggest question mark, as it was for much of last season, is the bullpen. Chamberlain became an unhittable set-up man for Mariano Rivera down the stretch, and the Yanks will need to find another reliable eighth-inning arm this season. The system doesn't think it will be LaTroy Hawkins, not with a 4.76 ERA, anemic strikeout rate and 73 baserunners projected for his 48.1 innings pitched.

Looking for a supersleeper this season? Try Edwar Ramirez. PECOTA still thinks the lanky righty will walk his fair share (31 in 60.1 IP). But the system loves his strikeout tendencies, pegging him for 76 whiffs and a 3.61 ERA in '08. A former indy leaguer ascending to the set-up role on a playoff contender? For this rapidly-changing Yankees team, anything's possible.

Jonah Keri is a writer for ESPN.com and the New York Sun. You can contact him at jonahkeri@gmail.com.
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