This Saturday, I'm previewing the National League West.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers -- 2014 Record: 94-68; Projected Record: 96-66
The Dodgers are easily the best team in the National League West. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is true. The Dodgers are stacked all around the diamond, and this offseason they made perhaps the best move of the offseason, hiring (not signing) Andrew Friedman, the former Rays' general manager, to be their President of the Baseball Operations. They also hired Farhan Zaidi, the Athletics' assistant general manager, to be their general manager. These hires of the top sabermetric minds throughout the baseball world, plus the Dodgers' deep pockets, will put them in the best of the best in baseball.
The Dodgers' 2014 season ended with just one postseason win against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. Clayton Kershaw, the National League Cy Young unanimously, looked to have run out of gas. the team just faltered by the end, even upon the heels of a 94-win season. The Dodgers' best offensive performers last season were Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez, who left for Boston. The team was among the better offensive teams in baseball, scoring the sixth-most runs. Their best pitching performer was easily Kershaw. Their pitching staff was also among the best in baseball, posting the sixth-lowest ERA in the Majors. The Dodgers' early exit out of the playoffs did not reflect the type of season they had.
In 2015, the Dodgers look to repeat their success. Replacing Ramirez is Jimmy Rollins, acquired in a trade with Philadelphia. At second base, they will be upgrading Dee Gordon with Howie Kendrick, whom hit for a .744 OPS over 674 plate appearances last season, as compared to Gordon's, who posted a .704 OPS. In order to allow Joc Pederson to get the starting spot out in center field, they dealt Matt Kemp to the Padres. They got an upgrade at catcher, replacing Yasmani Grandal over A.J. Ellis. The Dodgers' starting rotation is relatively still the same, as Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu return, with the new front office bringing in bounce-back candidate Brett Anderson and the reliable Brandon McCarthy. The Dodgers are ready to finally make a deep run into the postseason, and contend with the Nationals to represent the National League in the World Series.
2. San Diego Padres -- 2014 Record: 77-85; Projected Record: 86-76
The Padres and their have a lot to be cheering for this season. First, their front office, led by new GM A.J. Preller, had quite an uncharacteristic offseason to say the least, making huge moves en route to the Padres being considered the "winners" of the offseason. Despite all the success in the offseason, including the largest free-agent contract signed in team history, are the Padres willing and to break the trend that shows that the teams that perform well in the winter months don't perform well during the season? I'm skeptical. Even still, Padres fans have an exciting team to root for, perhaps being the most "exciting" team since 1998, when San Diego went 98-64 and won the National League.
Last season was easily an unforgettable one. The Padres went 77-85, finishing third in the NL West. They fired their GM Josh Byrnes, and perhaps made their best move by hiring Preller on August 6. The team has a completely different look now than it did then, but one bright spot from the 2014 Padres was starting pitcher Andrew Cashner, who in 19 starts posted a 2.55 ERA and 1.127 WHIP. The 28-year-old Cashner was a former 1st round pick by the Cubs in 2008, but was considered a bust until he posted a 3.09 ERA in 175 innings with the Padres in 2013. Cashner will be back in 2015, and hopefully be able to stay on the field for the entire year, as he missed some time due to shoulder inflammation.
This offseason, the Padres went out and spent. Whether that was a good thing for them is beyond me, but all I know is that they signed James Shields; acquired a whole new outfield in Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Justin Upton; acquired a catcher in Derek Norris; and a third baseman in Will Middlebrooks. This retooling is something that baseball aficionados are not unfamiliar with. The 2012 Marlins tried to do something like this, as did the 2013 Blue Jays. Will the 2015 Padres be any different?
3. San Francisco Giants -- 2014 Record: 88-74; Projected Record: 84-78
It's an odd year. The Giants won't be a playoff team this year. Thus far through Spring Training, they have not looked good, already losing outfielder Hunter Pence for some time due to a broken forearm. The Giants win the World Series in the even years and "retool" in the odd years, winning the series in 2010, 2012, and 2014. If there is any year to retool, this is it. The Giants have a really solid all-around team and are very fundamentally sound. They always seem to have a good starting rotation, clutch bullpen, and solid offense and defense. The Giants also have one of the best managers in the game with Bruce Bochy. Something tells me, however, that this isn't the Giants year.
The 2014 Giants won the World Series. They were a Wild Card team and snuck into the playoffs, knocking off the Pirates, Nationals, Cardinals, and Royals en route to the championship. What went right for the Giants in 2014? Every single player in their lineup posted a OPS+ (Adjusted OPS due to Park Factors) over 100, or above-average. Of course, they were led by catcher Buster Posey, who hit .311/.364/.490 with 22 homers and 89 runs batted in, further establishing himself as one of the best in the game. Madison Bumgarner carried the staff and won World Series MVP and looks to keep his title as ace of the team. The rest of the rotation, including Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson, Ryan Vogelsong, Matt Cain, and Tim Lincecum all return. Will they be able to perform at the levels they did last year? Hudson, at 38, registered a 3.57 ERA in 31 starts. Peavy was acquired at the deadline and posted a 2.17 ERA down the stretch. I am not sure they can continue their successes.
This offseason, the Giants worked on retaining most of their team, and not adding many pieces, even considering some notable losses. One big loss was the loss of third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who signed with the Boston Red Sox. Other was that of Mike Morse, who left for Miami. They did sign outfielder Nori Aoki and third basemen Casey McGehee to replace those guys. Overall, the Giants have a good team, but after some key losses during the offseason, they will not be a playoff team. They'll be decent, probably above-average, but not good enough to stack up against the better Wild Card teams in the National League.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks -- 2014 Record: 64-98; Projected Record: 70-92
The Diamondbacks were another NL West to replace their general manager, firing Kevin Towers for Dave Stewart. They also fired manager Kirk Gibson and hired interim manager Alan Trammell. They hired manager Chip Hale this offseason in a pretty good move. Regardless, the Diamondbacks aren't going to contend in 2015 and may not contend in the next couple of years. They have a young stud in first basemen Paul Goldschmidt, but other than that, they don't have a team that can contend this season and probably not next season.
The Diamondbacks' 2014 season was that of a disaster. Goldschmidt and outfielder Mark Trumbo missed time due to injuries, as none of their pitching staff posted a ERA sub-3.40, with just one pitcher (Josh Collmenter) having an ERA sub-4. The Diamondbacks traded their top pitcher last season, Wade Miley, to the Red Sox this offseason, so their staff takes even a bigger hit. Two others pitchers--Bronson Arroyo and Patrick Corbin--missed the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. This upcoming season looks like a "get back in shape" season for the Diamondbacks, seeing if any of their injury-plagued players can rebound in 2015. My gut says that they will, but not until the team is buried in the NL West. The Diamondbacks won 94 games in 2011 and have not been the same since. This upcoming season does not look like they will be back to that.
The Diamondbacks took a gamble on Yasmany Tomas this offseason, signing him to a big contract. Tomas possesses a ton of raw power, but it is very unknown if it can translate to big league parks and pitching. In Cuba, he was a prolific slugger, but as an outfielder. The Diamondbacks are trying to convert him to a third basemen, which could even hurt his development even more. Another issue that the Diamondbacks may run into is out at catcher, where Tuffy Gosewisch is currently starting. The team has blatantly refused to go look for another catcher, so that could be a huge weak spot. Options could include Dioner Navarro of the Blue Jays or Wellington Castillo of the Cubs.
5. Colorado Rockies -- 2014 Record: 66-96; Projected Record: 63-99
There isn't much to like about this season's Colorado Rockies. They always have to seem good offense, but that cannot seem to stay on the field, and well below average pitching. The Rockies, if their pitching could just produce more, could be a dangerous team behind the core of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. But when those guys aren't on the field due to injury, and the pitching staff continues to give up home runs, the team finds itself in the bottom of the National League West, and always seems to be stuck there. I'm not convinced 2015 will be any different.
Last season, the Rockies saw their offense average over 4.5 runs per game, but their pitching staff giving up over 5 runs per game. That isn't a stat to be proud of. The Rockies' best starting pitcher--ERA-wise--was Tyler Matzek, who went 6-11 with a 4.05 ERA. Blame it on the altitude in Coors Field all you want, but that is bad any way you slice it. The Rockies' best performer last season was easily shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who hit .340/.432/.603 (!!!) in just 375 plate appearances due to injury. Tulowitzki always has trouble staying on the field. That's something he'll need to do better this upcoming season if the Rockies want to be more successful.
In order to bolster their pitching staff, the Rockies went out and signed former Phillies right-hander Kyle Kendrick. The move does not look good on paper--Kendrick is a fly-ball pitcher and could give up a ton of home runs in Coors. Other than that, their rotation looks relatively the same, except for the fact that top prospect Jon Gray could come up to the big leagues at some point this season, perhaps even by Opening Day. He is listed as the team's fifth starter on their official depth chart. He'll be a guy to watch out for this season, especially to see how he performs. He was the Rockies' first round pick in 2013, and was ranked as baseball's 24th-best prospect as by Baseball America.
The National League Central is an interesting division because all five teams could win the division in the correct circumstances. My team to watch for this season is the Cubs, who are inching closer and closer to becoming prolonged contenders. This season could be theirs to start heading to the playoffs. With their great mix of veterans and prospects, are they division winners?
1. St. Louis Cardinals: 2014 Record: 90-72; Projected Record: 92-70
To answer the above question: no. The Cubs aren't quite there yet. The Cardinals, on the other hand, are. St. Louis has perhaps the deepest roster in the Major Leagues. having both a solid lineup and a solid pitching staff. The Cardinals' front office has built this team into a constant winner, making the playoffs 11 times since 2000, winning two World Series championships. The Cardinals should easily finish with 90 or more wins this season and take the National League Central division.
The 2014 Cardinals worked behind the fantastic pitching of Adam Wainwright, who went 20-9 with a 2.38 ERA in 227 innings, finishing third in the National League Cy Young award voting. He strained his abdomen this Spring Training, but he should be ready to go by Opening Day. On the offensive, the Cardinals got above-average play (from an OPS+ perspective) from six of their nine starters, including a .272/.370/.441 line from 34-year-old Matt Holliday.
They worked to improve their team this offseason with the acquisition of Jason Heyward, who has spent his entire career up to this point with the Atlanta Braves. Other than that, their team remains the same, with backstop Yadier Molina leading the charge as their cornerstone. Their staff, including Wainwright, remains one of the best, with Lance Lynn, John Lackey, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez rounding it out. Their bullpen will be without Pat Neshek, who signed with Houston this season. He and his 1.87 ERA will be missed, but improvements from Seth Maness and others should do a good job in his absence.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates -- 2014 Record: 88-74; Projected Record: 89-73
The Pirates and the Cubs will come neck and neck for the second spot in the division, but the Pirates experience playing in the pennant race, plus their overall team chemistry, give them the upper hand in my book. The Pirates have an underrated rotation and bullpen that will get them far enough, but behind Andrew McCutchen in center field, their offense should do enough to support them through the tough games and keep them on top. Pittsburgh has made the playoffs each of the past two years, and while a third consecutive year may be tough, it is definitely not out of the question for this talented, young, and experienced team all at the same time.
Last season, the Pirates saw a six win drop off from the prior year, but that does not mean that the team took a longterm step backward by any means. This club just saw better play from their division rivals, as 2014 was the first time since 2010 that any other team in the NL Central (besides Pittsburgh) finished with less than 90 losses. The Pirates stellar acquisition last season was Edinson Volquez, who pitched to a 3.04 ERA, despite his peripherals suggesting otherwise. His decent season saw himself saw him getting a one-year, $10 million deal with the Kansas City Royals with an option.
The main addition to this Pirates team comes in the form of Korean import Jung-ho Kang , who signed a four-year, $11 million deal with Pittsburgh with an option for a fifth year. Kang's power potential has already impressed me thus far in Spring Training, being able to show power both pull-side and the opposite way. Kang's bat speed looks sharp; he looks like he may break out as a good big league player this year. It all depends on if he can handle the shortstop position defensively, and if he can, he'll become the Pirates' shortstop in the long run.
3. Chicago Cubs -- 2014 Record: 73-89; Projected Record: 88-74
I wrote this about the Cubs' 2014 season in my NL Central Preview last year: "When I say the Cubs will be better next year, I really mean that. They have got my favorite farm system, and it will not be long before they rebound and rise to the top of the NL Central. However, it looks like it will be another bleak season for Cubs fans. They did make some nice small moves this off season, which could be key to their success, but I just cannot see the playoffs happening for the Cubs this season." The Cubs had been coming off a 66 win season, and while I believed they would jump to 70 wins, they just bested my prediction, with 73 wins. This may not be the year for the Cubs, but as they inch closer to contention, this year will be a fun one for the fans still waiting for a World Series since 1908.
More important than the actual games last season were the long-awaited Major League debuts of Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Arismendy Alcantara. The Cubs also saw the development of Kris Bryant, who deserved a big league call-up alongside Baez, Soler, and Alcantara, but was kept down due to service time reasons. Bryant swatted 43 home runs last season, and after being drafted just two years ago in 2013, he will definitely be making his big league debut this season, and for Cubs fans hopefully sooner rather than later. These four guys are the core for future Cubs teams and they will bring this team back to the playoffs in 2016 or 2017. The Cubs could even contend this season, but a lot has to go right involving their young and inexperienced prospects. That's why it may be a bit unreasonable to see them in the postseason this year.
Knowing that the Cubs are so close to contention that they can almost taste it, the front office went out and got themselves a big fish in starting pitcher Jon Lester, easily the best free agent on the market last offseason not named Max Scherzer. He, with Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel (whom they brought back), Kyle Hendricks, and Travis Wood lead that rotation. The Cubs also went out and acquired outfielder Dexter Folwer from Houston and catcher Miguel Montero from Arizona. These guys, along with proven younger vets Anthony Rizzo and Starling Castro, will lead the prospects in blooming as soon as possible. That will come soon, though that isn't soon enough for diehard Cubs fans.
4. Milwaukee Brewers -- 2014 Record: 82-80; Projected Record: 80-82
The Brewers are probably the biggest wild card in the National League Central. They had a good season last season, but I'm not sure if their hot start was due to pure performance or if it was a fluke. The club looks like it could be good this season, but it's hard to see them being better than the Cardinals, Pirates, or Cubs this season. Milwaukee has an interesting rotation and decent lineup, so they could possibly make some noise, but I do not think the Brewers could see themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
After perhaps the hottest start in team history, including a 20-8 record through their first 28 games, the Brewers fell far off the table throughout the year, not posting a above-.500 winning percentage twice after their hot March and April (doing so in just June). After posting a +19 run differential through March/April, they went on to post a -26 run differential the rest of the way. The Brewers got the best of their offensive production from catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who hit for an .832 OPS (132 OPS+) in 655 plate appearances and outfielder Carlos Gomez, who hit for a .833 OPS (130 OPS+). Their best pitcher (via ERA+) was Yovani Gallardo, who went 8-11 with a 3.51 ERA in 192 1/3 innings. He has since been shipped to the Texas Rangers, which could be a huge void for the Brewers in 2015.
The Brewers went out and signed Adam Lind this offseason to play first base. The 31-year-old Lind made 43 starts at first last season with the Blue Jays, hitting .321/.381/.479 in a limited 318 plate appearances. Lind made 75 of 78 of his starts against right-handed starters, where he served as a platoon. If the Brewers can utilize him correctly, Lind will be a great addition to the team. On a different note, the main key to success to the Brewers' 2015 season is their rotation, and without Gallardo, it does not look likely that that will occur. It will be tough for them to succeed.
5. Cincinnati Reds -- 2014 Record: 76-86; Projected Record: 72-90
The Cincinnati Reds are probably the weakest team in the National League Central division in multiple categories. The one that jumps out at me is that how they are way far behind in analytics, with them being considered a "skeptic" of analytics, according to ESPN's The Great Analytics Rankings. The Reds are far behind as compared to their division counterparts, with three of their NL Central teams being considered "all-in" in analytics and the fourth (being the Brewers) being considered to have "one foot in." The Reds are the furthest behind and it's starting to show as their team begins to fall of the table.
The Reds' 2014 season was nothing to write home about, finishing fourth in the division and not being able to make any noise. Remember this was a team that had been to the playoffs three of four years from 2010 to 2013. Last season, injuries to Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Ryan Ludwick, along with Mat Latos and Homer Bailey being injured as well. The Reds need to stay durable in order to win again this season, but I highly doubt that happens, considering that these guys are getting up there in age, and performance continues to decline. It's possible that everyone rebounds, but in all reality, this looks like the decline of the Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds traded Latos to the Marlins this offseason. NL Cy Young award winner Johnny Cueto could go next, as the Reds may want to dump him as this is their last year of team control. The Reds might just want to enter a "retooling" phase, where they do not go in a full-on rebuild, but try to win 80 games a year and continue to develop their farm system. This year's team isn't one that will win any division, Wild Card, or playoff spots, so their front office, headed by GM Walt Jocketty, may need to make some tough decisions this Trade Deadline or offseason in terms of trades. The Reds just don't have what it takes to be a non-stop contender anymore.
This Saturday, I will be previewing the National League East division. I have already previewed the AL East, Central, and West divisions, and you can find them below this post on my blog. This year's NL East includes the Nationals, Mets, Braves, Marlins, and Phillies, five teams in completely different stages from one another, from World Series contenders to young, budding not quite contenders to deep in the dark stages of rebuilding. Who are each of those teams?
1. Washington Nationals -- 2014 Record: 96-66; Projected Record: 102-60
The Nationals are the World Series contender in this bunch. Washington was regarded as the team to beat last season, and although they were, GM Mike Rizzo went out and bought himself Max Scherzer, making them even more the team to beat. Bryce Harper had an interesting take on the Scherzer signing, asking, "Where's my ring?" after finding out his club signed the ace righty.
The Nationals have only been a team since 2005 and made their second playoff appearance in 2014. Quickly, however, their season was over. The San Francisco Giants came in and beat the Nationals in two straight, including the longest postseason game in MLB history, a six-hour, 23-minute, 18 inning Game 2. The Nationals came back to win Game 3, but were eliminated in a 3-2 loss in Game 4 in San Francisco. After being the best team in baseball in 162 games, Washington was eliminated in just four.
Mike Rizzo went out and got himself Max Scherzer this offseason, signing him to a seven-season, $210 million deal, with half of the guarantee in deferred money, meaning that Scherzer will make $15 million over 14 seasons, even after becoming a free agent. Rizzo did lose the likes of Asdrubal Cabrera out at second base and Adam LaRoche out at first. The Nationals will shift Anthony Rendon to third and Ryan Zimmerman to first (so he'll be less injury prone) and acquired Yunel Escobar from the A's for Tyler Clippard. The Nationals are stacked all over the diamond and there is absolutely no reason to believe why they won't go deep into the playoffs with a rotation of Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez, with Tanner Roark moving to the bullpen.
2. Miami Marlins -- 2014 Record: 77-85; Projected Record: 88-74
When the Marlins made outfielder Giancarlo Stanton the richest player to ever play the sport, they promised to him that they are no longer rebuilding and are ready to take the next step toward contention. Stanton's huge $325 million deal was a big step towards that goal, but they solidified their intentions with the rest of their offseason. The Marlins have a solid and young team that could be a surprise in 2015, similarly to how the Royals had a solid and relatively young team that was a surprise in 2014. The Marlins improved by 15 wins from 2013 to 2014 and should have a similar improvement in 2015.
The Marlins main production last season came from their outfield corps, one that is among the best in baseball. Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna play alongside the monster in Stanton, and they hit for not too shabby .764 and .772 OPSs, respectively. At just a respective 22- and 23-years-old, Yelich and Ozuna are getting ready to take a big step into the limelight alongside Stanton in 2015.
This offseason, the front office went out and got the likes of Mike Morse, Dee Gordon, Mat Latos, Dan Haren, Ichiro Suzuki, and Martin Prado to add to their young core. They will also be getting Jose Fernandez back at some point during the course of the season, which is a real upgrade to their rotation that is already a great one with Henderson Alvarez, Jarred Cosart, Haren, and Latos. The Marlins will likely not be able to compete with the Nationals, who should run away with the division pretty easily, but this is a team that just finished 11 games out of a Wild Card last season. This type of improvement from them should make them serious playoff contenders in 2015, perhaps allowing them to sneak in for the first time since they won the World Series in 2003.
3. New York Mets -- 2014 Record: 79-83; Projected Record: 82-80
The Mets' improvement should not be as drastic as the Marlins, as they are still likely a year or two behind them in terms of development of their top prospects. While Miami has Yelich, Ozuna, and their shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria already in the big leagues, the Mets' best young players still reside in the minor leagues. The 2015 season should be one where they bring some of those young players into the Major Leagues for the first time and see some serious development. The Mets best years are still ahead of them, as we could see New York's National League team the playoffs as soon as 2016.
The 2014 Mets were a team that saw their best offensive performer be Lucas Duda, who posted a 137 OPS+ in 596 plate appearances. Other than that, the Mets offense was quite mediocre from an OPS+ standpoint. Jacob deGrom was the big story of the Mets last season. The 26-year-old starter went 9-6 with a 2.69 ERA, en route to the National League Rookie of the Year award. He was one of the few bright spots from the team in 2014.
This season, the Mets will get the addition of Michael Cuddyer to their outfield, who is a former batting champion while with the Rockies. He won't be the only big storyline for their team, as Matt Harvey, who sat out all of last season with Tommy John surgery, will return to the team and their rotation. Then, they've got Noah Syndergaard, still one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, with the opportunity to be in a Met uniform at some time this year. The Mets are improving and are getting themselves toward contention. This year represents a big year for growth for the team.
4. Atlanta Braves -- 2014 Record: 79-83; Projected Record: 69-93
The Braves 2015 roster is so different that closer Craig Kimbrel made up t-shirts that had "hello my name is..." on them. Three of their starting nine and two members of their rotation last season are no longer with the team, either through trade or pursuing different opportunities via free agency. The Braves are rebuilding and are on the way down. They have a new stadium set to be completed in 2017, so that is the year they are shooting for to be contenders again.
The Braves finished tied for second in the National League East last season, even though they posted their worst record since 2008, when they finished with 72 wins. The Braves had built themselves into a constant winner. Last season, it was evident from the start that the team wasn't going to contend, with Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy both biting the Tommy John bug in Spring Training. Instead of getting them both back this year, Medlen nor Beachy were tendered contracts. Medlen is now a member of the Kansas City Royals, and Beachy is now a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Braves did a lot this offseason to continue their rebuilding project. They traded Justin Upton to the Padres, Jason Heyward to the Cardinals, while not re-signing Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang, who are now with the Twins and Phillies, respectively. The Braves rotation looks like this: Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Shelby Miller (acquired in Heyward trade), Mike Minor, and Eric Stults. The Braves did add outfielders Eric Young Jr. and Nick Markakis to their club as free agent signings, but even still it's between them and the Phillies in the race for last place.
5. Philadelphia Phillies -- 2014 Record: 73-89; Projected Record: 62-100
The Phillies have not lost 100 games since 1961 and before that 1945. Philadelphia is in for a historic season from their baseball team and not in a good way. I picked the Phillies to finish second in the division last season, even though all the other experts felt differently, and now I have learned not to believe the talk that "they can sneak in and win a Wild Card." The only good, truthful quotes out of Philadelphia this offseason were when team president Pat Gillick said that the team won't contend until 2017 and GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said that the Phillies were better without first baseman Ryan Howard than they are with him. Philadelphia is ready to rebuild and there is no hiding that.
Over the past two years, the Phillies have finished with 73 wins and 73 wins. Last season, the Phillies tried to piece together some aging free agents in order to make one last run at contention. They signed Marlon Byrd to a two-year pact, A.J. Burnett to a one-year deal with an option, and Roberto Hernandez to a one-year deal. They saw their veterans buckle down once again, which was the furthest thing from unexpected. The Phillies dealt Hernandez at the Trade Deadline and prepared for an offseason of moves.
This offseason, Phillies fans were aghast when they saw their team deal Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers for prospects. Then, the team moved Marlon Byrd to Cincinnati. Now, the Phillies could deal Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels at some point this season, which would bring in a massive haul. Jonathan Papelbon could also be trade bait, however, they have to find a team willing to take his salary. The team has a young bullpen, but other than that Phillies fans have to be looking for development from top prospects Aaron Nola and Maikel Franco in 2015, hoping that contention comes sooner rather than later.
Baseball season is so close I can almost taste it. We're a mere three Saturdays from real baseball that actually counts, and I am getting so excited I can't contain it. This Saturday, I am writing the American League West preview, after already previewing the AL East and Central divisions.
The AL Central includes the Angels, who finished with baseball's best record last season; the Athletics, who's "Moneyball" strategy never seems to keep them out of the playoffs; the Mariners, who are much improved and could really make a run this season; the Astros, who are still a few years away from contending; and the Rangers, who battled a lot of injuries last season and was the worst team in the American League.
1. Seattle Mariners -- 2014 Record: 87-75; Projected Record: 95-67
The Mariners may be my favorite to win the American League this season, after an offseason that netted them Nelson Cruz, whom they attempted to pursue last offseason, and Seth Smith, who was coming off a strong season with the San Diego Padres. The Mariners may have been the biggest snub out of the 2014 playoffs, but this season they are going to punch their ticket to October soundly, winning the American League West with ease. The Mariners are the most well-rounded team in this division; they have youth, experience, pitching, hitting, and defense. Every other team lacks at least one of those qualities.
Last season, the Mariners saw themselves rest heavily on the play of new addition Robinson Cano, and he delivered. Even though he saw his power numbers dip ever so slightly, hitting only 14 home runs, Cano hit for an .836 OPS, and led the team with a .314 batting average. Cano is joined by Nelson Cruz in the 2015 lineup. Cruz led the American League in home runs with 40 taters. It is possible he benefitted from the bandbox in Camden Yards he played in for 82 games. Even still, he will add an immediate boost to the Mariners as the season begins.
The Mariners rotation, led by Felix Hernandez, may not be the best outside of Hernandez, but includes some very good arms in Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, new addition J.A. Happ, and Taijuan Walker. The five starters makes the Mariners rotation a force to be reckoned with. They posted the second-best ERA in the Major Leagues last season and there is absolutely no reason as to why they shouldn't be able to repeat their successes this year. Mariners fans will have a lot to be cheering for in 2015.
2. Los Angeles Angels -- 2014 Record: 98-64; Projected Record: 90-72
Part of me believes that the Angels will finish back right where they left off the prior year, but the other part of me feels as if they are due to take a step back. The Angels have the best player in baseball in outfielder Mike Trout and one of the more underrated rotations with Matt Shoemaker and Garrett Richards emerging into studs last season. They also got top pitching prospect Andrew Heaney from the Marlins by way of the Dodgers to pitch in their rotation, losing second baseman Howie Kendrick in the process. A lot could go right for the Angels this season.
At the same time, this Angels team includes Josh Hamilton, who will be out awhile with his latest drug relapse; Albert Pujols, who is getting up there in age and may not be able to produce the same numbers he did last year; and Josh Rutledge, a 26-year-old light-hitting infielder who may not be able to produce at second base the way Kendrick did. This makes me question the validity of the 2014 Angels. They won a lot of games, yes, but they did that with good play from aging veterans like Pujols, and the emergence of young stars like Richards and Shoemaker. If everything repeats itself, the Angels will win 95 or more games, but if the young guns take a step back and the veterans begin to fall apart, it looks iffy they will win 90. My prediction of 90-72 is right in the middle, expecting a little bit of both.
The 2015 Angels' fate truly rests in the hands of their rotation, which was so good last season. Jered Weaver won 18 games, Garrett Richards pitched to a 2.61 ERA, and Matt Shoemaker had a 124/24 strikeout to walk ratio. The Angels can expect production from Trout, Pujols (to an extent), and new addition Matt Joyce, who has a career .783 OPS. It is the wild cards that will make or break this team.
3. Oakland Athletics -- 2014 Record: 88-74; Projected Record: 86-76
I don't know how Billy Beane does it, but he's a fantastic general manager. This Athletics team really looks like it could contend; they have a good, young rotation, while retooling their lineup by removing some veterans and bringing in some younger guys. The Athletics look like a science experiment, using analytics so effectively that they have been able to go to the playoffs each of the past three seasons and eight times since 2000. Can they go back to the playoffs again in 2015? It's quite possible.
The Athletics really benefitted from the great play from third baseman and cornerstone Josh Donaldson last season, as he hit .255/.342/.456 with an OPS+ of 126. This offseason, Beane dealt Donaldson to the Blue Jays. The Athletics also benefitted from good play out of Brandon Moss, who hit 25 home runs in 580 plate appearances (4.31 HR%). This offseason, Beane dealt Moss to the Indians. Derek Norris also produced well last year, hitting for a 118 OPS+ in 442 plate appearances, as he and John Jaso made a nice catching platoon. This offseason, Beane dealt Norris to the Padres. See a theme?
The Athletics retooled their team greatly. Brett Lawrie, Ben Zobrist, Ike Davis, Billy Butler, and Tyler Clippard are amongst the new faces in Oakland. The Athletics did make one big free agent signing in Butler, but overall re-worked their team via trade. Zobrist is my favorite of their additions, as he will play second base in 2015. Zobrist has a .793 OPS over the past four years, including a 124 OPS+. He's one of the quietest, most consistent players in the big leagues. Lawrie, when healthy, will serve as a bit of a downgrade from Donaldson, but really isn't that much worse, showing good power and on-base abilities. Since he's off the turf in Toronto, he will likely be healthier this year. How does Beane do it?
4. Texas Rangers -- 2014 Record: 67-95; Projected Record: 78-84
The Rangers were riddled with injuries in 2014, which obviously caused them and their play to suffer. Finishing last in the American League West, a division that includes the usually-lowly Astros, is a big accomplishment, and one that they do not want to remember. With fewer injuries expected in 2015, the Rangers may play closer to what their talent suggests. This team is just a year removed from a 91-win season in 2013, but some key pieces of that team are no longer there or are no longer productive. The Rangers could be a surprise in 2015, but it's hard to see where exactly how their pitching staff will produce.
In their 2014 rotation, only Yu Darvish posted an ERA+ over 100. Some good news for them, however, is that the only pitcher from last season in the top-5 of their rotation depth chart this year is Colby Lewis. Derek Holland returns from an injury that held him just to 37 innings last season. Martin Perez looks to return from Tommy John surgery. The rotation is a question because it's hard to see all these guys come back from injury right to form. This offseason, the Rangers added Yovani Gallardo and Ross Detwiler to their rotation, in trades with Milwaukee and Washington, respectively. Neither of these guys will be the top starter on their team, but they represent good depth that can produce at an average to above-average level.
On a different note, other questions I have about this team are about the production levels in left field, second base, and catcher. In left, the Rangers plan to start Ryan Rua, a 24-year-old and former 17th-round pick. He has hit for a good average in the minors, but can he adjust to big league pitching and hit at a high level? At second base, the Rangers lost Jurickson Profar to an injury already, but Rougned Odor hit just for a 96 OPS+ last season. And at catcher, they plan on starting Robinson Chirinos, who is a 30-year-old with less than 162 games of big league experience. A lot of questions surround this Rangers team.
5. Houston Astros -- 2014 Record: 70-92; Projected Record: 73-89
The Astros' front office and their analytic views are putting this team through many years of no success in order to be successful in two or three years. This offseason, Jeff Luhnow and his staff decided to spend some money, acquiring about $62 million in contracts, via both free agent signings and trades. The team's overall payroll is projected to be $69.7 million (via Baseball Reference) for this season. The Astros may be closer to contention and this season represents a crucial one for the development of younger players, to determine how close they are to contending.
The Astros secured a small victory last season; they lost less than 100 games for the first time since 2010, when their GM was Ed Wade. They saw Jose Altuve break on to the scene as a superstar, winning the American League batting title with a .341 batting average, while also leading the league in stolen bases with 56. Houston fans saw the debuts of top prospects George Springer and Jon Singleton, while seeing Springer smash 20 home runs in just 345 plate appearances (5.79 HR%). The development of those two players in 2015 will be key in the amount of games this team will win.
This offseason, Luhnow went out and signed Colby Rasmus, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, and Jed Lowrie and acquired Evan Gattis. None of those free agents (or one trade) were particularly flashy, but they make the Astros all the more strong. With some play that exceeds expectations from their rotation in 2015, Houston may just be able to win more than 73 games, perhaps even finishing fourth or third in the AL West. With some great improvement from their younger pieces, such as Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Brett Oberholtzer, and Dan Straily, the Astros could open some eyes. One thing is for sure. That is that they are on the upward trend into the future.
The first week of Spring Training is past, and that means it is time for another Cover Those Bases division preview. Today, I will be previewing the AL Central division, a competitive division all around, featuring the reining American League champion Royals. Can they repeat their successes in 2015?
1. Kansas City Royals -- 2014 Record: 89-73; Projected Record: 91-71
To answer the above question, yes the Royals may just be able to repeat their successes from last year, and quite possibly with a similar record. Sure, they're James Shields and Billy Butler-less, but all around this roster, on both the offensive and defensive, there is talent, and young talent too. The Royals now have the experience of playing in a pennant race and are ready to go back.
Last season, the Royals had perhaps the best story in the game. After not making the playoffs since winning the 1985 World Series, Kansas City put together a team that won 89 games and went into the Wild Card round. After coming back down four runs against the A's, the Royals went on to win eight postseason games in a row, including sweeps of the Angels and Orioles in the ALDS and ALCS, respectively. In the offseason, Kansas City lost "Big Game" James Shields to the Padres and Billy Butler to the Athletics. But that does not mean that they won't improve in 2015.
The Royals replaced Butler with the signing of Kendrys Morales to a two-year deal. Morales comes just one season removed from hitting 23 homers en route to a 123 OPS+ in 2013. After having a down year last year, the Royals have to hope he can rebound. Kansas City also added the likes of Edinson Volquez and Alex Rios this offseason. Volquez is a bit of a gamble, he posted a 3.04 ERA and a 4.15 FIP last season, but provides good depth to a very young and talented staff. Rios, like Morales, is a few seasons removed from a good output, but he still has upside on a one-year pact. The Royals may have had a quiet, but possibly deadly offseason to put them in great position in 2015.
2. Cleveland Indians -- 2014 Record: 85-77; Projected Record: 90-72
I am so high on the Indians roster this season. Cleveland has perhaps the most underrated staff in all of the Major Leagues, and after taking a "break" from the postseason last year, it's finally time for the Indians to begin to punch their ticket to October more regularly. Cleveland features reining Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber, big league vet Gavin Floyd, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Danny Salazar. That rotation, while it may not be the best, or include the most star power, is up there with many of the rotations in baseball.
The Indians had a strong year last year, but were snubbed out of the playoffs, as nine of the 15 teams in the American League finished with over 80 wins. In the end, the Indians only finished three games back of the Athletics out of the the second Wild Card, but almost never counts. Cleveland did not shake up their roster majorly this offseason, but they did acquire former Athletics first baseman Brandon Moss. Moss is a strong addition to this team; over the past three seasons, he has an .844 OPS in an average 460 plate appearances. He'll slide in at right field.
The one worry I have about this Indians team is their offensive production. Their fate rests heavily on left fielder Michael Brantley, who hit .327/.385/.506/.890 last season, earning a trip to the All-Star Game. If he, along with Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Yan Gomes, produce to where many believe they will, the Indians will be one of the most under-the-radar clubs in the American League, to the point where they could win a playoff spot out of nowhere.
3. Detroit Tigers -- 2014 Record: 90-72; Projected Record: 86-76
The Tigers are regressing. Since winning 95 games in 2011, they have won 88, 93, and 90 games since. This is the year where they begin to really step back. It's hard to know how much Detroit steps back, but they are beginning to throw big money contracts at aging veterans, much like how the Phillies did so with Ryan Howard and company. With Victor Martinez's early Spring Training injury, it makes me believe that this is the year that the Tigers really fall out of the dominant category in the Major Leagues and are no longer a contender.
The Tigers lost Max Scherzer to the Nationals this offseason. The ace of their staff, Scherzer now leaves a rotation that isn't what it used to be, with Justin Verlander falling off the table and Anibal Sanchez injured. David Price is the main "sure thing" in the Tigers rotation that also includes average big league veteran Alfredo Simon and second-year player Shane Greene, who came via the Yankees.
Offensively, the Tigers do have Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Ian Kinsler, but at ages 31, 36, and 32, respectively, it makes me wonder how healthy and productive they will be in this upcoming season. Already last year, Cabrera showed a "relative" decline following his two MVP seasons. Plus, the Tigers' bullpen, which was already one of the worst in the bigs last season, did little to improve itself for this season. When you look at this team as a whole, they do not look like absolute contenders in 2015.
4. Chicago White Sox: 2014 Record: 73-89; Projected Record: 81-81
The White Sox are a team that probably isn't quite there to be a rock solid contender, but may be emerging out of a rebuilding type of stage. I'm mixed on where they ultimately will stand at the end of the season. One part of me feels that they could be amongst the best in not only this division, but perhaps the entire league. They had a very solid offseason and rely on a good mix of young talent and veteran leadership. However, on the other hand, some parts of me feel that some of their younger players (e.g. Avisail Garcia, Jose Abreu, and Adam Eaton) will live up to the high expectations they have or the improvement many are suggesting.
The White Sox really rested in the hands of Cuban import Jose Abreu last season and he delivered quite nicely, winning the American League Rookie of the Year award with his powerful swing that netted him 36 homers and a 169 OPS+, along with a not too shabby .317 average either. Abreu, however, had a very high .356 BaBIP last year, and until he proves he can sustain that, I will be a little wary of the .317 batting average. Abreu's 2015 performance is something I'll be watching carefully and will be excited to see.
On a different note, the White Sox added to their lineup with the signing of Adam LaRoche, added to their rotation with the signing of Jeff Samardzija, and added to their bullpen with the signing of David Robertson. These three deals put the White Sox right there with the Padres and other teams that did well this past Hot Stove. If everything clicks, I'd put the White Sox' ceiling at 93 wins and their floor at 75 wins. They will definitely be improved this season and be ready to contend in the years to come.
5. Minnesota Twins -- 2014 Record: 70-92; Projected Record: 68-94
The Twins are an interesting team this season for a few different reasons. The first being Phil Hughes, the starter that had a career 4.53 ERA and a 2.68 K/BB ratio coming into last season. Hughes posted the best single-season K/BB ratio ever last season, as he averaged 11.6250 strikeouts per every walk, which easily bested Brett Saberhagen's 11.0000 mark set back in 1994. Hughes remains an interesting topic purely due to whether he can repeat his success from last season. The other interesting things about the 2015 Twins is the development of some of their top prospects, such as Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and others.
The Twins had a 70-92 record last season and it isn't hard to see them repeating their successes. With that said, however, every other team (maybe except the Tigers) in their division got a little better this offseason, whether it'd be by free agent signings or trades (White Sox), or by experience (Indians, Royals). The Twins pretty much stayed the same from their 2014 campaign.
The Twins brought in two free agents, though it may not really help them achieve more wins in 2015. First was Torii Hunter, who came back to finish his career off with Minnesota, a team that he spent 11 seasons with from 1997 to 2007. Hunter will be 40 in July and posted the worst offseason output last season (in OPS+) since 2008. Ervin Santana was their other free agent signing. Santana was pretty good last season with the Braves, but may do little to really make a big impact to improve their squad. Despite a high-3 ERA, he did have a very solid 3.39 FIP last season, which could mean he is ready to rebound in 2015. The Twins as a group are an interesting bunch, but they are not ready to put it all together in 2015.