It’s projected-standings season! This is where computers spit out some numbers and then people get mad at the computers and the numbers. It’s harmless fun for now, but the computers are making notes. When the singularity happens and they take over, they’ll remember who was mad at them. Be on the right side of history if you know what’s good for you.
Baseball Prospectus released their PECOTA-projected standings on Tuesday, and before you dive in too deep, remember what these projections are. First, they’re not predictions. That’s a very, very important distinction. The projections are the average of 1,000 simulated seasons, and each of those seasons contains different sliding doors and forks in the road. Some of them are dominated by injuries and surprise breakout seasons. Some of them load most of the disappointments onto just a handful of teams, and some of them will offer scenarios where everything goes according t0 plan for most of the teams. Take ’em all, average them out, and you get what you see at the link.
They even include a handy visual aid to help you understand this (charts used with permission from Baseball Prospectus):
Here, I’ll annotate that for you:
There are extremes in these simulations. Some of them are worse (or better) than you can possibly imagine. The bulk of them are in the middle, though, which is how you get to a projection of 81-81 for the San Francisco Giants. It wasn’t 81.1 wins and 79.9 losses. It was 81.0 for both wins and losses, right on the nose, which is kind of perfect. In a thousand simulations, the Giants are the average-ist team that ever averaged.
While the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers are obviously projected to win 100 games or more — hard to do, considering how conservative projection systems are designed to be — Giants fans should be interested in the squishy middle of the National League. Here are the projected standings for every team between the Braves (second-best record in the NL) and Pittsburgh Pirates (third-worst):
3. St. Louis Cardinals, 85.5 wins
4. Arizona Diamondbacks, 85.2
5. Philadelphia Phillies, 84.3
6. New York Mets, 83.6
7. Giants, 81.0
8. Miami Marlins, 80.3
9. Chicago Cubs, 80.2
10. San Diego Padres, 79.7
11. Milwaukee Brewers, 78.8
12. Cincinnati Reds, 78.3
Unless the Washington Nationals, Colorado Rockies or Pirates surprise — or if either the Braves or Dodgers have the most disappointing season in baseball history — four of those teams will make the postseason. One of them will win the NL Central, too, which means that there are three wild-card slots for the nine teams that don’t win the NL Central. A third of these middling teams will get the chance to humiliate the Dodgers and/or Braves, like the Diamondbacks and Phillies did last year.
Every team in baseball has its own internal models, and every team has a proprietary version of these kinds of projections, but they’re probably not going to vary too much. Which means the Giants are looking at a system that also projects a squishy middle for the National League.
There are two ways for a front office to react to projections like these. One of them will make you angry. One of them will make you less angry. See if you can guess which is which.
The cynical reaction
If the Giants don’t make another addition to the roster, they still have a chance. So why throw money at a player or prospects at another team to make a marginal difference?
There will be changes to that squishy middle of the NL over the next couple weeks. The Cubs might re-sign Cody Bellinger. The Brewers could trade Willy Adames, or they could sign Matt Chapman. But there should still be a huge cluster of almost-good teams in the National League.
Some of those almost-good teams will become actually-bad teams during the season. Key contributors will get hurt. Previously valuable players will hurt more than they help. Young players won’t develop as expected.
Some of those almost-good teams will become actually-good teams during the season. They’ll have fewer of the negative developments and more of the positive ones.
And if you’re a front office on a budget, you’re serving two masters. The fans are looking at you to provide entertainment, while ownership is expecting long-term stability, increased franchise valuation and maximized profits. In a cynical reading of these projections, standing pat gives the Giants a chance to do both. With a couple of surprises, they’re playing games that matter in the final week of the season. A season like that would partially invigorate a fanbase that’s struggling to stay awake, and it would also help ownership achieve its financial goals.
It seems like a risk, but the Giants’ internal projections might give them more reasons to be optimistic. PECOTA is projecting Marco Luciano to be one of the worst everyday players in baseball, with a sub-Mendoza batting average and abysmal defensive numbers. The Giants have been proceeding this offseason as if they’re much more optimistic about Luciano as a starting shortstop. If their internal projections invert Luciano’s value, the Giants would feel even more comfortable.
So why lose draft picks for a free agent like Chapman or Blake Snell? Why doom future budgets? There isn’t a single move that can get the Giants into the Braves and Dodger tier, so muck around with the middle of the pack and hope for the best.
The pragmatic reaction
Back before the 2010 offseason, Dave Cameron, now a member of the Seattle Mariners’ front office, wrote about the Tampa Bay Rays signing a reliever for $7 million, which was a lot of money for that team, especially back then. But Cameron explained that not all teams were created equal and that some teams had way more use for an extra win than others. He didn’t invent the concept of a marginal win, but he sure wrote one of the cleanest explanations for me to link to.
(Rafael) Soriano adds a win or two to the roster, which may not sound like much, but the win that he’s bringing is extremely valuable, given the precarious nature of the Rays playoff odds. By adding a premium relief ace, they’ve insured, to an extent, against a disaster. The security that he brings doesn’t offer the same reward for the dollar that you may find by taking a flyer on a young, unproven, power arm, but the Rays don’t need more upside as much as they need less downside.
This example is perfect because of what happened the following season. Soriano had a brilliant season in relief, throwing 62 innings with a 1.73 ERA, and he was worth about two wins above replacement. The Rays won the AL East by a single game over the New York Yankees that season. The extra money to Soriano is now a banner hanging in Tropicana Field somewhere.
The Giants can’t spend or trade their way into a roster that can compete with the Dodgers, but they can still make substantial improvements to help them compete with that squishy middle. The financial difference between a normal team making or missing the postseason can be measured in millions of dollars, with more and more millions coming after every series win.
The spiritual difference between the Giants making or missing the postseason is even more important. It’s tough to take the pulse of the Giants fanbase, but that’s because half of the fans don’t have a pulse. They’re dead. They’ve checked out. The other half has a pulse that’s too quick. It’s unhealthy. They should get that checked out. Another frightfully boring season will affect the Giants far, far more than the average team.
Add it all up, and you can make the salient argument that the Giants have more to gain from extra roster moves than any other team in baseball right now. They have a need for the marginal wins from a sabermetric perspective. They have a need for the transactional wins from a public relations perspective.
Or you can agree with the cynical section and hope everything will be fine. They’ll make do until Robbie Ray and Alex Cobb are back, and they’ll use their rookies and second-year pitchers to keep their heads above water. There won’t be as many risks, and the possible rewards will be only slightly less likely.
I know which version I’m aligning myself with. And I’m pretty sure I know which version you’re aligning with. There’s no sense in the Giants saving money for the 2024-25 offseason or beyond, not when they have a clear chance to use that money effectively right now. The projections are saying that the team isn’t awful. They’re also saying that the team isn’t that good. There’s still a chance to address the roster in free agency. There are still players available in trade.
The Giants will get to add players to the 60-day IL on Feb. 14, which means that Ray and Cobb will free up two 40-man roster spots at that point. We’ll know shortly after if the Giants are interested in being cynical or pragmatic.
(File photo of the Giants celebrating a walk-off win last season: Sergio Estrada / USA Today)