Welcome to MLB 2015! Here’s a quick outlook for each team. I’ll tackle them in order by my predicted order, starting with the National League today.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Really going out on a limb with this one. After signing the belle of the ball free agent Max Scherzer this offseason, the Nationals became the prohibitive favorite to win the pennant in the NL and likely the World Series. I tend to like to go to the beat of my own drummer, but this one is a no-brainer. With Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister, the Nats have the best rotation in baseball…and it’s not close. They’re so good Tanner Roark is headed for the pen despite posting a sub-3.00 ERA as a fulltime started last year…talk about luxury. With emerging star Anthony Rendon (3B) and the perennial waiting game for the Bryce Harper (OF) breakout, they offense isn’t bad either. They do have some injury issues early with Rendon, Jayson Werth (OF), and Denard Span (CF) starting the season on the DL, but this team is a powerhouse. This is probably the only easy money in baseball this year…
I liked a lot of the moves the Marlins made this offseason. They added Mat Latos and Dan Haren to an already good young rotation and replaced ¾ of their infield with Michael Morse (1B), Dee Gordon (2B), and Martin Prado (3B). And of course the Marlins calling card is arguably best young outfield in the game with powerful Giancarlo Stanton, athletic Christian Yelich, and multitalented Marcell Ozuna. The move I like best is the signing of Michael Morse to play exclusively 1B. He has an OPS of 937 at 1B and a hair under 800 in the OF. And hopefully he can actually stay healthy playing 1B. And let’s not forget that Jose Fernandez is still set to return by the All-Star break. The Marlins will push for a wild card.
NEW YORK METS
Despite the Wilpon’s lack of spending since the Bernie Madoff scandal, the Mets have developed a good young rotation internally and have patched together a decent offense as well with lower profile free agents. The loss of SP Zack Wheeler to Tommy John this Spring definitely didn’t help their cause, but with Matt Harvey’s return from TJ, the emergence of Rookie of the Year Jacob DeGrom last year, and the steadiness of veterans Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon, the rotation is very competitive. The offense is mostly dependent on a comeback season from 3B David Wright and 1B Lucas Duda repeating his breakout from last season, but C Travis d’Arnaud is a breakout candidate for this year, and I personally like SS Wilmer Flores and believe he can actually handle the position. Finally, this team has some young pitching talent on the cusp of the Majors if they do have any more rotation injuries. Rafael Montero is challenging for the #5 spot in the rotation, Noah Syndergaard is arguably the #1 pitching prospect in the NL, and lefty Steven Matz is a fast riser in the system.
This has been a confusing offseason for Atlanta. Let’s trade Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis, and then sign Nick Markakis? Cut Wandy Rodriguez after a good spring and then trade for Trevor Cahill? I mean, if you want to tear it down, I get it. It seemed like a toxic clubhouse from what I’ve heard and read, and Heyward and Upton were headed to free agency after 2015. But why make those other moves? The Braves desperately want to have the program back together by 2017 when they open their new stadium, which likely drove the Markakis signing, but these were still curious moves. The pitching is decent, but they just aren’t going to score at all. I feel really bad for Freddie Freeman. As he enters his prime, he has NOTHING around him. He’s going to see about a dozen pitches to hit all season. NOTE: this was written before the Kimbrel deal with the Padres. That appears to be a trade that could really work for the Braves, even in 2015.
Pat Gillick, the main architect of the championship teams from 2007-11, is back as team president, but the man who shit it all down the drain, Ruben Amaro, Jr. is still GM. They’ve begun the long overdue rebuilding effort, but I just can’t believe they’re letting Amaro run it. That has to change. Cole Hamels will be moved at some point this season, and I actually don’t mind that they are waiting for the right deal. They NEED it to be the right deal. Utley appears to want to finish his career with the Phillies, so he won’t be moved, and Ryan Howard’s horrible contract can’t be moved. There are rumors that they might just release Howard. I personally don’t think getting playing time for Cody Asche, Maikel Franco, or Darin Ruf is meaningful enough to throw away $60M. Anyway, this team is going to be awful.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
ST LOUIS CARDINALS
The Cardinals are simply the gold standard of organizations. They draft well, develop players well, get the most out of the players who make the Majors, and consistently win. They’re going to win a lot again this year. They traded from a surplus of pitching sending Shelby Miller to the Braves for Jason Heyward in the offseason, and I have a feeling they’re going to try to lock him up long-term. They talked John Lackey into accepting his $550K salary for 2015. They still have as balanced a team as you can put together. They will again win this division and make a strong run for the pennant.
The rest of the division is really close, almost a coin flip. It’s really about personal preference…and being a Pirates fan, my preference is the Pirates. It’s not that biased; the Pirates are a good team. They have an OF to rival the Marlins with Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco. Re-signing Francisco Liriano to lead the rotation was an excellent move, and A.J. Burnett is back for a final season. The bullpen is good and deep with Melancon, Watson, and newly acquired Arquimedes Caminero. Finally, the offense is actually better than you probably paid attention to last year despite losing Russell Martin via free agency. They were a top 5 team in the league in the 2nd half last year in advanced statistics such as weighted on-base average and wRC+. The Pirates will challenge for a wild card again for the third straight year.
My Reds fan friends are bitterly disappointed in the offseason, and I get it, but this is still a talented team. Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips have to be healthy and Todd Frazier will need to maintain his gains for this ranking to happen, but these are all decent possibilities. Homer Bailey needs to make it back as soon as possible as well. That said, the acquisition of Marlon Byrd filled what has been a major hole in the lineup in LF, and I think Anthony DeSclafani can certainly replicate when Mat Latos did last year. His ceiling isn’t on the same level, but Latos still hasn’t recovered his velocity. In my mind, a return of Jay Bruce and further development for Billy Hamilton could see them outperform this prediction.
Cub fans are chomping at the bit, and I do believe they will be a contender as early as 2016. For 2015, they’ll get out of the cellar in the division and start to learn how to win. Jon Lester has a history with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer from their days in Boston, so he was a perfect addition. And of course the biggest move was likely adding Joe Madden as skipper. He brings progressive philosophy and an ultimate player’s manager reputation with a young versatile team. This is also a perfect match. I truly believe phenom Kris Bryant will come up after three weeks and immediately become a star, and Jorge Soler is the next great Cuban to take the league by storm. Jake Arrieta was a no-hitter waiting to happen last year with the caveat that the ton of sliders he throws will catch up at some point. Jason Hammel pitched well for the Cubs last year and seemed comfortable with the Cubs. Finally, the back end of their bullpen is electric with Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Neil Ramirez. I still think they’re going to need a little more from the young players than they’ll get this year to truly contend, but they are going to start the turn around this year.
I’m picking the Brew Crew last in the division, but I still think this is a 0.500 team. It’s just a really tough division. They traded their top starter Yovani Gallardo, but they also added a much better option at 1B in Adam Lind. Everything else is pretty much intact for a team that went 82-80 last year. The keys to the Brewers offensively will be Ryan Braun’s thumb and a return to form for Jean Segura. All reports are good so far. Pitching-wise, they need former top prospect Jimmy Nelson to step and provide something close to what Gallardo gave them. All of this is possible.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
The biggest offseason acquisition for the Dodgers was hiring new team president Andrew Friedman away from Tampa Bay. Adding cutting edge analytics to all the money is a fascinating combination that I will be following closely for the future. For 2015, they still have that fantastic 1/2 combo of Kershaw and Zack Greinke, added the leadership of Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick, and still have the precocious Yasiel Puig leading the offense. In fact, Puig moving back to RF is probably the second biggest move of the offseason. Moving Matt Kemp put Puig back in RF, where he has a nearly 100 point better OPS, and it opened up CF for prospect Joc Pederson, who went 30/30 in AAA last year. They don’t have quite as much high end talent this year, but they have better talent all the way through the 25 man roster. I think this team is better built for the playoffs, and that’s only likely to get better as Friedman implements his system.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
I honestly had the Giants in this spot until the Padres traded for Kimbrel Sunday. The Pads have easily been the busiest team this offseason as new GM A.J. Preller wasted no time gutting the farm system for Major league assets. They added James Shields via free agency and then Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Derek Norris, and Craig Kimbrel in trades. That sure looks great on paper, and I do believe they will be much improved, but there are questions. They could still have the worst offensive infield in the Majors and we have no idea what their outfield defense is going to look like as they don’t have a natural fit for CF. And adding Melvin Upton, Jr. (formerly B.J.) to Justin didn’t work real well for the Braves. That said, Bud Black’s ability to manage a pitching staff deserves a lot of credit, so I’m going with them second despite my doubts.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
The Giants have won three of the last five World Series, but they were not very good in the years in between. They lost Pablo Sandoval to free agency this item around, but they resigned other free agents Jake Peavy and Ryan Vogelsong like past seasons. Hunter Pence is going to miss at least the first month, and Angel Pagan’s back is already ouchy. Matt Cain hasn’t made the triumphant return that the Giants were hoping for, at least not in the spring. In the face of all of these question marks, I’m putting them tentatively in third mainly because Arizona and Colorado are just that bad.
I believe Tony LaRussa is going to get this organization back together from the disastrous Kevin Towers tenure, but it isn’t going to happen this year…despite his statement that he would be “heartbroken” if they don’t finish above 0.500. They do have some talented arms, and I’m definitely a fan of trading Trevor Cahill to give top prospect Archie Bradley a chance right out of the spring. Paul Goldschmidt is supposed to be back 100% from the broken wrist, but the rest of the lineup is a bit of a problem. If Mark Trumbo can stay healthy and get back to his 30 HR power and A.J. Pollock is the guy he was last year, maybe this team outperforms where I think they are right now. Although, Trumbo is as empty as power has been since Dave Kingman, and Pollock had a very high BABIP. I do like Jake Lamb, but he’s not enough to pair with Goldie. They need some others to join the party. The D-Backs are headed in the right direction, but it’s not happening in 2015.
Having relatives in Denver and being a big Tulo fan, I really want the Rockies to be good. And offensively, with health they could be really good. It’s not all doom and gloom on the pitching side, at least from a future perspective as they have some real pitching talent at or close to the majors in Jon Gray, Eddie Butler, and Tyler Matzek. Just with healthy track records and the lack of depth in the rotation, I can’t do anything but pick them to be last in this division. On the positive, Corey Dickerson and Charlie Blackmon established themselves as great offensive compliments to Tulo and CarGo, and Nolan Arenado poised to be a great offensive/defensive combo at 3B. There is a glimmer of hope…very faint glimmer…