Saturday, April 4, 2015

2015 Baseball Preview

The 2015 baseball season gets underway on Sunday, which means I'd better get the obligatory prediction post out of the way. Please keep in mind when reading this post that I picked the Padres to win the NL West last year, and that my Cy Young choices may in fact be cursed - not only have I never picked a winner correctly, but my guesses tend to have horrible years. (Last year, Clay Buchholz had an ERA over 5, and Michael Wacha barely cleared 100 innings.)

AL East: The Orioles won 96 games last year and cruised to the division title. Most of the roster (including virtually the entire anonymous-but-effective pitching staff) returns; the main exception is AL home run leader Nelson Cruz. Nick Markakis has also departed, and the Orioles are mostly filling those two holes by hoping for more playing time out of guys they already had - which is a touch risky given that some of those players (most notably Steve Pearce) may have been playing moderately over their heads last year. The O's should be good, but probably not as good as last year - so let's see if there's anyone around to dethrone them.

The Yankees could have exemplary pitching if everyone stays healthy - which, given that the top three members of their rotation all missed significant time last year, is another way of saying that they probably won't have exemplary pitching. The age of their lineup makes them a walking "2007 pennant winners" joke. They need a lot of breaks, and they need very few of them to come from the age-weakened bones of their players.

The Rays have Evan Longoria, who apparently isn't ever going to win the MVP I kept predicting for about a half decade. They have a pretty deep rotation whose depth was crushed by injuries last year, which isn't a great sign. And they have a bunch of guys in the lineup who won't kill them, but probably won't kill their opponents either.

The Red Sox could be dangerous. Their lineup has two well-regarded youngsters in Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, plus two big free agent acquisitions in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, plus the ageless David Ortiz and the maybe-not-as-ageless-as-might-have-been-hoped Dustin Pedroia. They're also without their hoped-for starting catcher all year after Tommy John surgery, and their pitching staff... well, potential Opening Day starter Clay Buchholz had a 5.34 ERA last season. And the volatility of their two big offseason signings - particularly Sandoval, who has spent the entire offseason trashing the organization he left, which has won three of the last five world titles - also gives me significant pause.

I'm not sure what to make of the Blue Jays, which means they fit in nicely with the rest of the division... they have potential stars in several places (Jose Bautista in right, Josh Donaldson at third, Jose Reyes at short, Edwin Encarnacion at DH), and what looks to be a pretty solid pitching staff. They also have Justin Smoak listed as their starting first baseman, and virtual unknowns at second and in center, and are a generally curious mix of youth and age without having many players in their primes.

This division has picked up a reputation of being winnable by any of its teams. I'm not sure that's much more true here than it is in any other division, but there seem to be at least three solid contenders here. Of those three, I'll take the Blue Jays, for no particularly strong reason other than that they haven't won recently at all.

AL Central: The Tigers won the division last year, and then watched former Cy Young winner Max Scherzer leave as a free agent while doubling down on Victor Martinez with an extension coming off of a career year at age 35. Their best-in-the-game rotation is a thing of the past, with the highly questionable Alfredo Simon slated for the #4 spot even when the alarmingly-worsening Justin Verlander is healthy. And the outfield is heavily reliant on JD Martinez and Yoenis Cespedes. So despite Miguel Cabrera, David Price, and Anibal Sanchez, there are some vulnerabilities here.

The Twins have a fairly-interesting, half-young double play combination in Danny Santana and Brian Dozier, and they have Phil Hughes, who spent last year finally pitching like the top prospect the Yankees waited most of a decade for. They also have a relative wasteland of an outfield, and a first baseman who can still take a walk but slugged .371 last year, and four starters who are not Phil Hughes.

The Royals are the defending AL pennant winners, which is very nice for them. If Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer play all year like they did in last year's postseason, they might even have some semblance of an offense. But the pitching staff will feel the loss of James Shields, and there are still a lot of guys who can't hit, and it's hard to avoid feeling like this team is going to backslide pretty far.

The White Sox look more promising. They may have both the best hitter and the best pitcher in the AL - at least, they've got a likely top-5 guy in each category (Jose Abreu and Chris Sale). The rest of the rotation also looks very good, and there are other bright spots in the lineup as well. The team isn't without holes - second base is a prominent one - but they're dangerous.

Cleveland is a popular option here as well, and with good reason; they've also got a terrific hitter-pitcher combo in Michael Brantley and defending Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. The rest of the rotation has a good deal of potential, and the lineup has some quality bounceback candidates, most notably Jason Kipnis and Brandon Moss.

Much like the AL East, there are three teams with good chances here, and with little to pick between them. I'm going to hope that Sale's foot fracture allows him to return on schedule, and pick the White Sox.

AL West: The Angels had the AL's best record last year, and have the best player in baseball, and that's a very nice combination. They also have a very deep lineup, and led the league in runs last season despite playing in a pitcher's park. But despite the presence of the extraordinary Mike Trout, the lineup isn't especially young for the most part, and they lost part of it this offseason by trading the solid Howie Kendrick across town. Their pitching is quite a bit weaker, and heavily dependent on guys like Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker who don't have a long history of success, but Trout and the offense should be able to win plenty of games on their own if the moundsmen don't completely embarrass themselves.

The Astros... actually look decent, for the first time in a while. They've got decent guys peppered all over the diamond, highlighted by batting champ Jose Altuve and promising young hitter George Springer. Their pitching staff is also not mortifying... really, they could challenge for a winning record this year.

That will be made easier by the fact that Billy Beane looked at a team that had made the playoffs three years in a row and decided it was time to blow things up. The A's still have pieces - Ben Zobrist, Brett Lawrie, and a reasonably impressive stable of pitching - but a significant chunk of their hitting left the building this offseason without much coming back in its place, and I suspect that even Beane will take a while to put this one back together.

Speaking of teardowns, this division also includes the Rangers, whose players were almost all physically demolished last season. You'd think that a team that had dreadful injury luck all of last year would be a promising rebound option, but ace Yu Darvish and former top prospect Jurickson Profar are both already slated to miss the entire 2015 season. Despite the continued excellence of Adrian Beltre, I have a hard time finding much optimism here.

Hope is in considerably better supply in Seattle. The Mariners missed the playoffs by a game last year, and are built around a formidable quartet of stars in Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Kyle Seager. They added Austin Jackson at midseason last year, and this offseason, picked up Nelson Cruz and Seth Smith. Throw in the promising James Paxton and Tajuan Walker on the mound, plus a pretty loaded bullpen, and you've got a team that can threaten pretty seriously, despite a few weak spots in the lineup.

Everyone sees this coming down to the Angels and Mariners - and so do I. Just for the sake of turning over the winner in every division, I'll take Seattle.

Wild cards: Angels and... Astros.

NL East: Nationals.

Oh, you want an explanation? The Nationals look like the best team in baseball. They have solid position players everywhere - and I mean everywhere, all eight positions when healthy. They have two hitters - Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper - who could believably win the MVP, and no less than four starters - Scherzer, Zimmermann, Strasburg, and Fister - who could believably win the Cy Young. Their #6 starer, Tanner Roark, would be in most teams' top 3.

No baseball team has won 100 games since 2009, largely because nobody tries to win 100 any more. The incentives just aren't there when all that winning 100 gets you is a 50% chance to lose to an 87-win Wild Card team in the first round of the bloated postseason. But the Nats are going for it anyway, and I suspect they'll get there.

The rest of the division... the Braves have Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, and a lot of pitchers who might be good if they're healthy; apart from that, they mostly demolished their team this offseason. The Phillies did not demolish their team (although they did trade Jimmy Rollins), even though they should have done it at least a year ago, and maybe two. They're now left with a roster that might not make the Yankees look young, but at least gives them some competition in anciency.

The Mets and Marlins are in better shape - both have rosters with good young talent in a particular place (the Mets in the rotation, the Marlins in the outfield) plus a few other quality parts (David Wright, Jose Fernandez). In another division, they'd be sleepers to take the crown. In this one, not so much.

NL Central: It should be noted that the Cardinals do not win this division every year, even though it feels like they do. They have, however, come in either first or second in 12 of the last 15 seasons, posting one losing record in that span and finishing more than 10 games back once as well (those were two different seasons).

St. Louis may be a bit more vulnerable this year; their rotation looks a bit thinner than usual behind Adam Wainwright. But the offense and defense should both be bolstered by the acquisition of Jason Heyward, who has never quite seemed to put it all together but is always a threat to do it, especially when the Cards get their hands on him.

This team will need to be as loaded as ever, because everyone in the division is a threat. The Brewers have a lot of hitters who play like stars sometimes (Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, Aramis Ramirez, Jean Segura); if enough of them pull it off this year, they'll be able to give some pretty good support to a pitching staff that's better than you'd expect from the phrase "Opening Day starter Kyle Lohse." The Reds have plenty of star potential as well, albeit most of it further removed; Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce could all really use rebound years to back up Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier, and the excellent Johnny Cueto.

The Pirates have officially exited the portion of the rebuilding phase during which success can be considered surprising. They have arguably the NL's best position player in the middle of what could be the NL's best outfield, and a capable infield and pitching staff. They will, however, feel the loss of Russell Martin to free agency; Francisco Cervelli can't compete with Martin behind the plate or at it.

That leaves the Cubs, who are the darlings of various and sundry predictors this year. This is not completely without reason; the youth movement is bearing noteworthy fruit in the excellent play of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Jorge Soler, with more help coming down the pipeline. They also had a productive offseason, adding such notables as Jon Lester, Miguel Montero, and Dexter Fowler, each of whom addresses a roster shortcoming. There are a few likely weak spots in the lineup, and the rotation needs a few 75th-percentile outcomes behind Lester, but this team has the potential to impress.

Despite the competition - and to me, this is the division that any of the teams could win - this is still St. Louis's race to lose, and I don't think they will this time around.

NL West: Despite the presence of the World Series champs upstate, it was the Dodgers who won this division last year, and the foundational pieces of that victory are still largely in place - particularly in the persons of Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig. Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp are gone, but Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick have joined the fold, and top prospect Joc Pederson is set to take over in center. If things break right here, and wrong in Washington, the Dodgers could take home field.

Even if things don't go ideally, there's still not an overdose of competition for the division title. Arizona and Colorado both have a build-around star (Paul Goldschmidt and Troy Tulowitzki, respectively), but not much built around them. The Giants have two of those guys (Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey), plus a few other components, but less than you might expect from the defending champs. Plus, it's an odd year, so they're doomed.

And then you have the Padres, who I just do not understand at all. They could easily have gone into 2015 with a starting outfield of Carlos Quentin, Cameron Maybin, and Will Venable; it wouldn't have been a great outfield, but it'd be serviceable. Instead, they traded for Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and Matt Kemp - but they still have all three of the other guys on their roster as well. The pitching staff actually looks like it could be pretty good, and Derek Norris is a quality young catcher, but the outfield defense and the infield hitting both seem grim enough to easily keep them from challenging the Dodgers. So LA takes the division, and all three NL titlists repeat from last year.

Wild Cards: Pirates and Cubs.

AL MVP: Mike Trout (deserving the award), Jose Abreu (actually winning it).
AL Cy Young: Sure, I could be sensible and pick Felix Hernandez or Chris Sale, but what fun would that be? Let's say Trevor Bauer finally puts it together this year.
NL MVP: Giancarlo Stanton
NL Cy Young: Adam Wainwright has come in second or third in the voting a total of four times. Feels like his turn.

Playoffs (because regular season picks aren't goofy enough):
ALDS: Mariners over Astros, White Sox over Blue Jays
ALCS: Mariners over White Sox
NLDS: Nats over Cubs, Dodgers over Cardinals
NLCS: Nats over Dodgers
WS: Nats over Mariners in the first all-expansion Series ever

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