Still, it's been an exciting few days for new general manager A.J. Preller and Padres fans. Besides the three outfielders, Preller acquired catcher Derek Norris and reclamation project Will Middlebrooks to play third base. We don't know what will happen. It could be an insanely genius series of moves or it could be hype that fizzles with a bunch of fly balls to the Petco Park warning track and doubles in the gap as we see the backs of Kemp and Myers chasing after baseballs.
But what did Preller have to lose? The Padres have been boring and bad for years, with just one winning season since 2007 (a flukey 90-win season in 2010) and no postseason trip since 2006. Attendance, over three million in 2004, has hovered around two million in recent seasons.
So Padres fans are buzzing. So is Twitter:
Padres officially most exciting baseball team of the month. up from previous post-2010 high of 30th— Jeff Sullivan (@based_ball) December 19, 2014
It's like The Padres' 12 Days of Christmas. Kemp. Upton. Norris. Partridge coming soon. Quick, is there a player named Partridge?!?— Scott Miller (@ScottMillerBbl) December 19, 2014
There hasn't been a Cole Hamels/Padres rumor yet and I want there to be one so badly.— Marc Normandin (@Marc_Normandin) December 19, 2014
Big upside SD offense. 3 concerns: OF defense could be shaky; lineup is very RHed; SD market is about winning, not just making a splash.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 19, 2014
Sure, this could end up like the 2013 Blue Jays, when they added Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson. They were a trendy World Series pick. Big names! Sexy names! The Blue Jays won one more game than the previous season, finishing 74-88.
So the Padres line-up is currently six RHBs, Yonder Alonso, a random shortstop, and a pitcher. They’re going to see so many sliders.— David Cameron (@DCameronFG) December 19, 2014
It will be interesting to see how the power plays out in Petco. Even Middlebrooks and second baseman Jedd Gyorko have 25-homer potential. The Padres were 28th in the majors in home runs in 2014, ahead of only the Cardinals and Royals. I'll go out a limb and say they won't be that low again.
I certainly can't recall a team making a series of big moves like this in such a short period of time, maybe not even one offseason (the Blue Jays got Reyes, Buehrle and Johnson in one trade with the Marlins). That Preller did it without giving up any of his core pieces from 2014 -- most notably, starters Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross or Ian Kenneedy -- or the club's top three prospects is remarkable. But it also shows how much the Dodgers wanted to clear out Kemp's contract and that elite players with one year until free agency just aren't able to bring in a top pro sects (see the Jeff Samardzija trade). It also shows, however, that Kemp and Upton are overrated; big names, yes, but not superstar players at this point in their careers and took a first-year GM like Preller to make the gamble.
Which doesn't mean the Padres haven't traded any of their prospects. Remember, Preller made his mark with the Rangers as a talent evaluator. Time will tell if he traded away the right guys and kept the ones who can play.
For the $6M annual pension owners are giving Bud Selig, they could have given every minor leaguer in baseball a raise of about $300 a month.— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) December 19, 2014
The National League West had the worst out-of-division record in the majors in 2014 -- its teams were 32 games under .500 -- but the Giants won the World Series. So it was certainly baseball's best worst division. Or something.
Attempting to match the Giants' postseason success, the Dodgers, Padres, Rockies and Diamondbacks all hired new general managers, and three of those clubs have had busy and exciting offseasons. What will it all mean for their postseason hopes? The Dodgers and Giants still rate as division favorites, but the Padres are certainly making things interesting.
A look at each NL West team's path to the playoffs ...
Los Angeles Dodgers
2014: 94-68, plus-101 run differential, lost in NLDS
2015 projection from FanGraphs: 88-74, plus-61
That plus-61 projection is the highest in the majors, although it does not factor in the Jimmy Rollins trade or any contribution from $10 million lottery ticket Brett Anderson.
Sure, there is some fear the Dodgers will have trouble replacing the offensive production of Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez, but the Dodgers' path to the playoffs still looks pretty clear:
Clayton Kershaw does more Clayton Kershaw kinds of things.
Zack Greinke goes 17-8 with a 2.71 ERA again.
Hyun-Jin Ryu continue to be one of the more underrated starters in the game.
Anderson and Brandon McCarthy show that the new Andrew Friedman-led front office is smart and has super-cool analysis and metrics that justify their signings.
Yasiel Puig re-discovers the power stroke that he lost in the second half of 2014. Even then, let's remember that Puig had the fifth-best wOBA in the NL this past season. He still has MVP potential.
Joc Pederson hits 20 home runs, steals 20 bases and anchors a much-improved outfield defense. (Steamer projects him to hit 19 home runs and steal 22 bases, although with a .230/.322/.388 line.)
Bullpens are volatile. This year's pen will be much better.
The team's clubhouse chemistry is improved without Kemp and Ramirez, which maybe can't be quantified but could mean something.
Did we mention that the Rockies and Diamondbacks are in this division?
San Francisco Giants
2014: 88-74, plus-51 run differential, won World Series
2015 projection: 83-79, plus-17
Sneak into the wild-card game, ride Madison Bumgarner, take the World Series all while winning fewer than 90 games overall! Every general manager's perfect plan.
Congrats, Giants fans; a title is a title, no matter how you got there. But keep in mind that 88 wins may not get you into the playoffs in 2015.
How do the Giants stay the course or get better? Obviously, they have a gaping hole at third base and the suggestion that Joe Panik could move there from second is a little silly until you realize that it could actually happen, considering the lack of good third-base options out there.
Anyway, the path to the playoffs has to come through an improved starting rotation (the projection above doesn't include Jake Peavy, who reportedly agreed to a two-year contract on Thursday). To a large extent, the view of the Giants' pitching staff is still colored by the great 2010 rotation and a dominant run through the 2012 postseason. But FanGraphs ranked the Giants' 2014 rotation 28th in the majors, with 8.2 WAR. That's not as surprising as it looks once you consider the Giants were 10th in the NL in rotation ERA while playing in a pitcher's park.
Can they still count on Matt Cain and/or Tim Lincecum? Was Peavy's 2.17 ERA with the Giants the second half of last season a fluke or a product of returning to the National League? What will Tim Hudson have left in the tank during his age-39 season? Does Yusmeiro Petit move into the rotation full time? And does Bumgarner take his regular-season game to a new level?
The best prognosis for the Giants is that Bumgarner does raise his performance, Cain bounces back after elbow surgery, Hudson delivers another solid campaign, Peavy is a dependable No. 4 and Lincecum soaks up innings and isn't ... awful. And if he is, Petit is still around as valuable swingman. Yes, they could still sign James Shields, but it's probably wise if they pass on him and save their money for next year's crop of premium free-agent starters -- David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister -- when Lincecum's $18 million comes off the books.
Aside from that, the offense should once again be one of the best in the league -- if underrated, thanks to AT&T Park's run-supressing environment. Keep in mind that Brandon Belt, Angel Pagan and Panik averaged just 77 games in the majors in 2014. If each can play 130-140 games, the offense will benefit.
Plus ... the Giants were 9-10 against the Padres and Rockies. Beat them a few more times and they can win 90.
San Diego Padres
2014: 77-85, minus-42 run differential
2015 projection: 77-85, minus-36 runs
It's easy to forget the Padres won 77 games -- only 11 wins fewer than the Giants.
And they just picked up Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton without trading any of their key components from 2014. What's the best-case scenario for San Diego? Let's start here: Padres outfielders hit a combined .234/.307/.347 in 2014; only the Mariners and Reds had a worse wOBA from its outfield. Padres outfielders created about 188 runs, or about 63 runs per position. Now they have a completely new outfield (although it's possible Myers will play first base).
OK, Kemp created about 88 runs this past season in 599 plate appearances, a total that includes a poor first half and a great second half. He created about 136 runs in his near-MVP season in 2011. We're being optimistic here, but 136 is probably too optimistic considering everything -- the injuries, the arthritis in both of his hips, moving to Petco -- working against him. But let's say he produces 95 runs, that the second half of last season was the real Matt Kemp, and that he's going to have a little anger in his game in 2015.
Myers wasn't good in 2014, so let's ignore that. As a rookie in 2013, he created about 55 runs in 88 games, or 94 runs in 150 games. Maybe he was over his head that year; he had a very high .360 BABIP that he may not be able to replicate. And he's moving to Petco. But he has talent; maybe the BABIP goes down but the power and walk rate go up. Let's give him 95 runs created as well. This is very rough math here. But you can see the improvement. We're going from 63 runs from the outfield positions to 95.
And now Upton comes over from the Braves. New general manager A.J. Preller has made an unprecedented series of big moves. He's also apparently kept his top three prospects in doing so -- catcher Austin Hedges, outfielder Hunter Renfroe and pitcher Matt Wisler. Upton created -- I didn't do this on purpose -- 95 runs in 154 games in 2014.
So we've added about 95 runs to the outfield. That's about 10 wins of new offense. (The projections above include Kemp and new catcher Derek Norris, but not Myers and Upton until those deals are official.)
Now, defense could be an issue. You don't really want to play Kemp or Myers in center field. Kemp's overall projected WAR is just 1.8. Myers' is 2.4. It's possible these don't turn out to be big upgrades at all. But we'll see. The Padres have power now and they're going to be exciting. Plus, Jedd Gyorko could/should/will bounce back. The Padres could have four 25-homer guys. Their top guy hit 15 in 2014.
Add in full seasons from Andrew Cashner and Odrisamer Despaigne (who combined for about one full season between them) and the rotation looks a little deeper alongside Tyson Ross and Ian Kennedy. The Padres are going to give another shot to Josh Johnson. It didn't work out this past season; maybe it does in 2015. Even 20 starts would be a boost. Brandon Morrow is another lottery ticket. Bullpen? The bullpen had the best ERA in the National League.
And Preller may not be done. Maybe he finds an upgrade at shortstop or third base. The Padres have gone from sleeper -- as in, they've put us to sleep for years -- to playoff sleeper.
2014: 66-96, minus-63 run differential
2015 projection: 78-84, minus-27
The Rockies have had four straight losing seasons, and they've topped out at just 74 wins in that span. In this era of parity, they have become perhaps the most discombobulated franchise in the majors. The Astros have had a worse record, but at least their rebuilding game plan was clear. Even the Phillies have finally admitted defeat and began a restructuring of their roster.
The Rockies? What are they doing? What's the plan? New general manager Jeff Bridich replaced longtime GM Dan O'Dowd in early October but has been quiet this offseason. Well, he signed Daniel Descalso to a two-year contract. As always, the fate of the Rockies seems to revolve around the health of Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and the starting rotation. Tulo and CarGo combined for just 161 games in 2014; Tulowitzki was great when he played but Gonzalez was awful. Only Jorge De La Rosa made more than 22 starts.
But ... Tulo and CarGo played 236 games in 2013 and both were great. And three starters made 30 starts, but the team was still terrible. So it's not really as simple as just keeping those two guys healthy and productive. It is a starting point.
Note that the Rockies aren't horrible in the projection. They're not expected to lose 100 games or anything. Some other ideas to help the Rockies get back to being competitive:
1. They have to hit better on the road. Familiar story here. Nolan Arenado hit just two of his 18 home runs away from Coors Field. Charlie Blackmon hit .241 with a .269 OBP. CarGo hit .160. The Rockies hit .322 at home, .228 on the road. Arenado could be a key here. He now has two years in the majors and has shown excellent contact ability (although he hasn't drawn many walks). He needs to translate that into a higher average, more power and a few more walks.
2. The young pitchers continue to emerge. Jordan Lyles (4.33 ERA in 22 starts) and Tyler Matzek (4.05 ERA in 19 starts) showed promise in 2014. Those are decent ERAs for guys who pitch primarily in Coors Field. Matzek actually had an ERA under 4.00 at home, so he has shown he can survive there.
3. Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray make a second-half splash. Regarded as two of the top pitching prospects in the minors entering 2014, neither had an impact season, so they need to get back on track.
4. Play Corey Dickerson more. He got just 478 PAs in 2014 as the Rockies used him as a platoon player. He hit .312/.364/.567 and wasn't awful versus lefties.
5. Get 30-plus starters from De La Rosa, Lyles, Matzek and Jhoulys Chacin.
The projection above includes 595 PAs from Tulowitzki and 490 from Gonzalez, so it's fairly optimistic about their playing time. This may be the final go for the Tulo/CarGo era. There are also rumors about a potential trade to the Mets -- although ESPNNewYork's Adam Rubin said there's less than 5 percent chance of that happening.
2014: 64-98, minus-127 run differential
2015 projection: 75-87, minus-57
I'm actually surprised that Arizona's projection is 75 wins -- and that doesn't even include Yasmany Tomas. He's unlikely to go all Jose Abreu on us, but maybe he's a 25-homer guy who would go nicely along with sluggers Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo. Everybody says they can't find right-handed power these day, but the Diamondbacks have it.
The weakness appears to be the starting rotation, which Steamer projects as the 27th-best at just a combined 6.7 WAR. But it's a volatile rotation to project. Steamer doesn't factor Rubby de la Rosa, Allen Webster, Robbie Ray or Archie Bradley to pitch more than 30 innings. Maybe one or two will break through. Maybe Patrick Corbin returns in the second half. Maybe Jeremy Hellickson goes to the NL and has a 3.15 ERA instead of his projected 4.15 ERA. The Diamondbacks need some of those things to happen.
Then you go to the power guys. Goldschmidt was an MVP runner-up two years ago. Trumbo had kind of a lost season but could swat 35 homers; he hit 34 in Anaheim two years ago. And maybe Tomas is a beast.
The Diamondbacks also don't really have a catcher right now (sorry, Tuffy Gosewisch), so maybe they make a deal there. The middle infield combo of Chris Owings and Aaron Hill could certainly outperform their projected WAR total of 1.9.
For the most part, it's a young team. Young players can surprise. You never know.
Of those four, it's pretty clear to me which was the best game of the year: Kansas City's 9-8 win over Oakland in the wild-card game, as the Royals rallied from a 7-3 deficit and won 9-8 in 12 innings with two runs in the bottom of the 12th. It had everything you want from a great game: Comebacks, great plays, clutch hits, controversial managerial moves and postseason pressure.
After the game, I wrote that it was arguably the fifth-most exciting postseason game ever played, using a metric called Win Probability Added (via Baseball-Reference.com).
Using WPA skews towards higher-scoring games or big comebacks, especially late in games. Still, we can use the method to determine which team had the most exciting victory in the 2014 regular season. The top five:
5. Boston Red Sox, Sept. 5 versus Blue Jays: 1.116 WPA
The Red Sox scored three times in the bottom of the eighth to tie it up 6-6, but the Jays scored twice in the top of the 10th for an 8-6 lead. Boston then scored three runs off Toronto closer Casey Janssen, with Yoenis Cespedes singling in the winning run.
4. Cleveland Indians, May 21 versus Tigers: 1.127 WPA
A wild back-and-forth game, David Murphy tied it 9-9 with a two-run, one-out homer off Joe Nathan in the ninth. The Tigers scored on Alex Avila's homer in the top of the 13th but the Indians scored twice to win 11-10 -- the winning run scoring on Al Alburquerque's bases-loaded balk with two outs.
3. Arizona Diamondbacks, June 4 versus Rockies: 1.139 WPA
The final score was 16-8 but the Rockies led 8-5 entering the eighth. Arizona then scored six runs in the eighth and five more in the ninth. Paul Goldschmidt's bases-clearing double in the eighth was the go-ahead hit.
2. Minnesota Twins, April 3 versus White Sox: 1.174 WPA
This was Minnesota's first win of the season; it was pretty much downhill from here. Minnesota led 5-1, the White Sox took an 8-5 lead but Minnesota scored twice in the top of the seventh to make it 8-7. Both teams scored a run in the eighth and then the Twins scored twice in the ninth with two outs, Oswaldo Arcia's triple plating the go-ahead run.
1. Colorado Rockies, May 3 versus Mets: 1.366 WPA
Our second Coors Field game. The Mets led 6-0 early on before the Rockies scored eight runs in the fifth. The Mets tied it, the Rockies took a lead, the Mets tied it again and then took a 10-9 lead in the ninth. In the bottom of the ninth, Charlie Culberson hit a pinch-hit two-run homer for the dramatic walk-off.
It wasn't a great season for the Rockies or Culberson (who hit .195 with three home runs), but they'll always have May 3, 2014.
1. You have to give new Padres general manager A.J. Preller credit: He's come into the job swinging for the fences. With a team in such mediocre shape as the Padres, what do you have to lose? First, he gets Matt Kemp (although that deal is awaiting official approval pending Kemp's physical); now he gets Wil Myers. The Padres were last in the majors in runs, hit just .226 and only the Royals and Cardinals hit fewer home runs. So Kemp and Myers will certainly help if they're healthy and combine to hit 50 or so home runs.
The question, however: What is their overall value? Steamer projects Kemp to be worth 2.1 WAR, Myers to be worth 2.4. Those are hardly star numbers, but they would still be an improvement over what the Padres received in 2014, when their entire outfield was valued at 3.9 fWAR (2.6 of that from Seth Smith). Dave Cameron of FanGraphs/Fox posted a piece before the trade detailing some of the issues with Myers: That his good rookie season was the product, in part, of a high BABIP and not big power numbers, and that he wasn't hitting for much power even before his wrist injury in 2014. In other words, there's a good chance that Myers is merely an average hitter who strikes out a little too much and doesn't have the 25- to 30-homer power once projected of him.
Plus, if the Padres plan on running out a regular outfield of Smith in left, Myers in center and Kemp in right ... dear lord, that's going to be ugly.
2. It could lead to a trade for the Padres, who now have a glut of backup outfielders, although when they signed Smith to an extension last summer it came with the promise that he wouldn't be traded. Of course, that was different management regime and Smith's agent didn't actually secure a no-trade clause. The other possibility is to move Smith to first base, a position he's never played in the majors, with Cameron Maybin and Will Venable playing center. Carlos Quentin is also around; he's best suited for DH duties in the American League and considering what players are going for in free agency, his $8 million salary for 2015 (with a $10 million mutual option or $3 million buyout for 2016) isn't prohibitive, even given his usual stint on the disabled list.
3. Clearly, the Rays soured on Myers, whether because of his work habits (Myers has admitted he didn't come into 2014 with the best preparation and frame of mind) or because their metrics suggest he's just not going to be as good as everyone thinks. But they also believe Steven Souza is as good as Myers -- and he may be. He's older than Myers, a late bloomer who crushed the International League in 2014. I like him a lot. Minor league numbers are informative and they suggest he can play. Plus, as Carson Cistulli of FanGraphs points out, Souza is one of just three players that Steamer projects to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases (along with Carlos Gomez and Joc Pederson):
Consider: over the 10-year period between 2004 and -13, 96 players recorded both 20 home runs and also 20 stolen bases in the same season. (Or, that is to say, there were 96 such player-seasons during that interval. Some players were responsible for more than one of them.) The average WAR figure among those player-seasons? 5.0, exactly. The number of those players to record worse than a 2.0 WAR (i.e. an average season)? Just four.
4. While there wasn't room for Souza to start in the Bryce Harper-Denard Span-Jayson Werth outfield, the Nationals do lose what could have been a very valuable bench player. Considering their bench has been a weakness the past two seasons, trading Souza could be an issue given Harper's injuries the past two seasons and Werth's age. The Nationals do have another top outfield prospect in Michael Taylor, who hit .313/.396/.539 at Double-A, but he also struck out 130 times in 98 games there and needs time in Triple-A. Nate McLouth and Kevin Frandsen are around, but both were terrible last season.
5. The Rays did get a nice sleeper prospect in the deal. First baseman Jake Bauers was drafted at 17 and played all of 2014 at age 18 in the Midwest League (one of just two 18-year-olds in the league), more than holding his own with a .296/.376/.414 line when most of his peers were still in high school. Scouts wonder if there's power to develop as he's already physically developed, but he looks like a kid who can swing the bat to me.
6. Keith sort of dismissed Rene Rivera, but he's a Tampa kind of catcher: He excels at pitch framing. He also threw out 36 percent of opposing base stealers. Yes, he's been a backup until earning the first extended playing time of his career in 2014, but he hit .252/.319/.432 in over 300 plate appearances. Maybe that offense was a complete fluke, but Rivera should still be a nice upgrade over Jose Molina, who hit .178 with no home runs (overall, Tampa's catchers had the lowest wOBA in the majors).
In the end, I like the trade for all three teams. Souza is going to be a nice surprise for the Rays, Burch Smith could be a power arm out of the pen and I like Bauers' potential. The Nationals get two good prospects in Trea Turner and Joe Ross. The Padres get, at least, a lineup that fans can start to dream a bit on.
Welcome to everyone's favorite division -- or least favorite, depending on your opinion of the Yankees and Red Sox. In the past five years, four different teams have won the division. The exception is Toronto, and the Blue Jays now have the longest playoff drought in the majors, having last reached the postseason in 1993. You may remember how that season ended.
Everybody says the AL East isn't as strong as it once was. That's true. The Yankees haven't made the playoffs the past two seasons and the Red Sox have suffered two terrible seasons sandwiching a World Series title. But it wasn't the worst division in baseball this past season. The AL East was a collective 12 games over .500 outside the division; only the AL West, at plus-13, was better.
In what appears to be a wide-open race, each team doesn't have to stretch the imagination to find a path to the playoffs.
2014: 96-66, plus-112 run differential, lost ALCS
2015 projection from FanGraphs: 79-83, minus-18 runs
After winning their first division title since 1997 and drawing their most fans since 2005, the Orioles have responded by doing ... nothing. They've lost Nelson Cruz to the Mariners and Nick Markakis to the Braves and the biggest news was the rumor that general manager Dan Duquette was a candidate for the Blue Jays' presidency, only to see owner Peter Angelos politely remind him that he has a contract through the 2018 season.
Replacing the production from Cruz and Markakis will be a challenge, but those two also missed just a combined 10 games; replacing their presence may be the bigger challenge. While Manny Machado and Matt Wieters missed time with season-ending injuries and then Chris Davis got suspended for amphetamines, Cruz, Markakis and Adam Jones were the rocks manager Buck Showalter wrote into his lineup every day.
But they're not irreplaceable. They were worth a combined 6.8 WAR via Baseball-Reference, and Cruz wasn't a good bet to repeat his 40-homer, 4.7-WAR performance anyway. Yes, the outfield looks a little barren to Jones' left and right, with Alejandro De Aza and David Lough the best candidates to start now, with Steve Pearce, hot off his surprising 2014 performance, filling in if he's not the DH. I suspect the O's will make an addition here, whether it's signing Norichika Aoki or trading for Marlon Byrd or maybe even Justin Upton. Colby Rasmus is also an interesting buy-low free agent.
How do the O's return to the playoffs? As you can see, the projection system used at FanGraphs foresees a big decline, but some of that is the way the system views the Orioles' rotation. It's not a strikeout rotation, which outperformed its periperhals in 2014, so the system sees regression. The O's were fifth in the AL in rotation ERA and had the second-best ERA after the All-Star break. They just need to maintain and rely on that great infield defense to help out.
There is the possibility, however, that the rotation does improve. Kevin Gausman should spend the entire season in the rotation for the first time, and he has potential to develop into a No. 1 or 2 starter. Dylan Bundy is healthy, and the top prospect could make an impact at some point. Plus, there is depth here in numbers. Unlike other teams, the Orioles can afford the inevitable injury attrition.
There are four primary reasons the offense can pick up after Cruz and Markakis:
1. Davis rebounds. An MVP candidate in 2013 after hitting 53 home runs, his OPS fell 300 points. The Steamer projection foresees a .242 average with 32 home runs, or about a two-win upgrade from 2014 (although still four wins below his 2013 level). The upside, of course, is even higher.
2. Wieters returns. He was off to the best season of his career when he went down in late May and had Tommy John surgery. He'll give the team more offense at catcher and be able to DH on his off days.
3. Jonathan Schoop improves. Rushed to the majors, he hit .209/.244/.354. His power (16 home runs) was a bright spot, but he has to improve his 122/13 strikeout/walk ratio.
4. Machado plays more games. He appeared in just 82 last year before injuring his knee.
The projections don't like the Orioles. But they didn't like them this past season, and Baltimore won 96 games.
New York Yankees
2014: 84-78, minus-31 run differential
2015 projection: 83-79, plus-17
Odd fact: The Yankees became the first team to get outscored in consecutive seasons and finish over .500 both years.
Prediction: It won't happen three years in a row. Which means the Yankees have to score more runs and/or allow fewer just to stay at 84 wins.
So far, they lost closer David Robertson but signed Andrew Miller, coming off his season of destruction. They re-signed third baseman Chase Headley and pitcher Chris Capuano and acquired shortstop Didi Gregorius from Arizona. Yankees fans will be thrilled to see what a shortstop who can go to his left actually looks like. Oh, and Alex Rodriguez returns to baseball. He's not the reason to predict a path to the playoffs.
Yes, you read that correctly. I'd say Scherzer would make for a pretty nice No. 5 starter. The list of potential suitors for the ace right-hander is limited, given his reported asking price of $200 million, give or take a small mansion. The Yankees say they're not interested. The Yankees always say they aren't interested until they are. They have the money if they want to spend it: Their projected payroll right now is $38 million less than the Dodgers' payroll, and there's no reason they can't spend what the Dodgers are spending, so that leaves plenty of room to sign Scherzer and still have money left over for a nice dinner at NYY Steak.
Anyway: Scherzer, a healthy CC, a healthy Tanaka, a full season from Pineda ... that's a scary rotation.
Beyond that: Full seasons from Headley and Martin Prado and the addition of Gregorius will make the infield much better (don't be surprised if Gregorius even outhits 2014 Derek Jeter); Brian McCann, just 31, is certainly capable of a better season; Carlos Beltran is getting up there in age (37), but Steamer projects better numbers for him; Jacoby Ellsbury's first year in the Bronx was so-so; and Dellin Betances and Miller -- 6-foot-8 and 6-7, respectively -- may be the most intimidating bullpen duo in the majors.
There are obviously injury concerns with Sabathia, Tanaka and Pineda. But we keep trying to kill off the Yankees and they haven't completely capitulated just yet. If that group stays healthy and they bring in Scherzer to lead the way, it could be the Yankees in the East.
Toronto Blue Jays
2014: 83-79, plus-37 run differential
2015 projection: 84-78, plus-29
Nobody can hit these days. The Angels led the majors with 773 runs. In 2009, that would have ranked 12th. In 2004, that would have ranked 18th. So teams are starving for offense.
But the Blue Jays have hitters. Among players with 400 plate appearances, Jose Bautista ranked fifth in the majors in wOBA (weighted on-base average, a metric that captures a players complete hitting performance); Edwin Encarnacion was 12th; Russell Martin 19th; and Josh Donaldson (48th), with the A's last season, now moves to a better hitter's park. Bautista and Martin ranked third and fourth in OBP; Bautista, Encarnacion and Donaldson all ranked in the top 12 in home runs.
No, 2015 isn't 2014, but that projects as the best middle of the order in the majors.
Did I mention Josh Donaldson? He ranks second in Baseball-Reference WAR among position players the past two seasons, behind only Mike Trout. How can you not get all dreamy over that trade if you're the Blue Jays? Donaldson was about four wins above average last season; Blue Jays third basemen were about average, so Donaldson is a four-win upgrade, given similar rates of production.
The Jays lost Melky Cabrera via free agency but made a sneaky good pickup in Michael Saunders, a guy who could have a big season as he leaves the marine layer in the Pacific Northwest. If he stays healthy, don't be surprised if he replaces Cabrera's value -- less average, but a little more power and better defense.
Everyone says the Jays don't have an ace -- not that you need an ace to make the postseason. But maybe they do have one: Marcus Stroman may be only 5-9 but he had a big rookie season, posting a 3.65 ERA in 130.2 innings. His FIP was even better, at 2.84. He has six pitches and throws hard and throws strikes. Don't be surprised if he's a top-10 starter in the AL.
Drew Hutchison had a fine season in his return from Tommy John surgery; he'll do better than 11-13 with a 4.48 ERA. Veterans Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey provide durability and stability. Lefty Daniel Norris, one of the best pitching prospects in the game, jumped from Class A to the majors after striking out 163 in 124.2 innings; he could be this year's Stroman. Aaron Sanchez looks like a shutdown reliever the team needs after allowing just 14 hits in 33 innings after his recall to the majors.
The Jays could use a second baseman, maybe free agent Asdrubal Cabrera, which would mean a lineup something like this:
SS Jose Reyes
C Russell Martin
RF Jose Bautista
1B Edwin Encarnacion
3B Josh Donaldson
LF Michael Saunders
2B Asdrubal Cabrera
DH Dioner Navarro/Justin Smoak
CF Dalton Pompey
That's an offense that can score runs. The 22-year-old drought may be over.
Tampa Bay Rays
2014: 77-85, minus-13 run differential
2015 projection: 83-79, plus-13
Everyone seems down on the Rays. David Price is gone, Matt Joyce was shipped out, Wil Myers just got dealt and manager Joe Maddon opted out of his contract. The Rays can't spend like the big boys and they're coming off their worst season since they were the Devil Rays.
A few reasons to believe in a path to the playoffs:
1. The rotation could still be the best in the league. Alex Cobb -- with a 2.82 ERA the past two seasons -- has an argument as the best starter in the division. The Rays have four starters lining up behind Cobb and coming into their own at the same time: Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore (coming off Tommy John surgery).
2. Evan Longoria will return to being an MVP candidate.
3. They'll hit better with runners in scoring position. They hit .241 with runners in scoring position this past season, including the worst wOBA with the bases loaded in the AL. Both figures were below their overall season totals, so expect some of that bad luck to reverse.
4. Ben Zobrist is still a good player.
5. Nick Franklin may become a good player.
6. They traded Myers but picked up a guy named Steven Souza from the Nationals. After crushing Triple-A pitching, he projects to be just as good as Myers, if not slightly better.
7. Catcher Rene Rivera, acquired from the Padres in the three-way deal that sent them Myers, is one of the best pitch-framers in the business. And he will hit better than the dearly departed Jose Molina.
8. That projection above suggests the Rays will be in the race (it doesn't include Wednesday's trade). Given the potential of the rotation, the Rays can win 90 again, just like they did in each from 2010 to 2013.
Boston Red Sox
2014: 71-91, minus-81 run differential
2015 projection: 87-75, plus-53 runs
Boston's busy offseason has been much discussed. Many believe the Red Sox still need to pick up another starter to anchor the rotation, but FanGraphs already projects them as the best team in the division.
That may be surprising after this past season's last-place finish, but general manager Ben Cherington has done a nice job reconstructing his starting rotation. Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson aren't flashy but should be a durable and reliable trio (especially if Masterson's knee, which bothered him in 2014, is healthy).
1. Mookie Betts, All-Star. Yes, he's that good.
2. Xander Bogaerts, All-Star. His rookie season was a disappointment. He also just turned 22. It all comes together this year.
3. Rusney Castillo does the job in center field with a solid all-around season (that 87-win projection actually includes Castillo being only a replacement-level player).
4. David Ortiz has one more big season.
5. Pablo Sandoval thrives, hitting doubles off the Green Monster.
6. Hanley Ramirez is motivated and healthy and hits and plays left field at least as well as Manny Ramirez did. OK, better than Manny.
7. Dustin Pedroia goes back to hitting .290-.300 with 15-20 home runs.
8. One or two of the young pitching prospects -- Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, Eduardo Rodriguez, Anthony Ranaudo -- makes a big impact, either in the rotation or bullpen.
And then they may add Cole Hamels, or trade for a starter during the season ...
President Barack Obama announced a historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations on Wednesday when he moved to begin normalizing relations between the two countries.
"Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past, so as to reach for a better future for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere and for the world," Obama said in a statement.
Secretary of State John Kerry will re-establish diplomatic relations, the U.S. will open an embassy in Havana, and some travel and trade with Cuba that has been banned since the U.S.-Cuba embargo began under the Kennedy administration in 1961 will be lifted.
This is obviously bigger news outside of our little world of sport, but what does this mean for Cuban baseball players? For starters, hopefully, this will mean the last stories we have to read about players risking their lives with shady and nefarious smugglers to find their way to the U.S. If travel and trade restrictions are eased, theoretically we'll see more players coming over from Cuba.
But by what method? Right now, Cuban players are subject to the same international signing rules as other Latin American players (Canadian and Puerto Rican players are treated the same as U.S. players, subject to the annual June draft). That means players under 23 and with less than five years of professional experience fall under the international signing bonus pool, which is capped and imposes penalties if teams exceed the cap. Players 23 or older -- like Yasmany Thomas, 24, who just signed with the Diamondbacks -- are considered free agents and are not subject to those guidelines, and thus have received much larger bonuses and contracts.
That system could continue; it's also possible that the Cuban government will negotiate a system similar to what MLB has with Japan or Korea, where players are posted -- essentially, the government selling the players to MLB. Or maybe there's a hybrid system of young players falling under the international bonus pool and older players subject to a posting system.
Right now, it's too early to know what will happen. MLB did issue a statement:
Major League Baseball is closely monitoring the White House’s announcement regarding Cuban-American relations. While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our Clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba.
There are other issues that will eventually have to be sorted out: Will U.S. scouts be allowed to travel to Cuba? Will teams eventually open baseball academies in Cuba? How will this affect the Cuban league if all the best players leave the country?
Remember, just because relations will become more normalized, Cuba won't necessarily turn into the Dominican Republic, with major league teams signing 16-year-old kids. But maybe we'll see more players making a safe journey to play baseball at its highest level.
The Giants need a third baseman. Right now, the team's website lists Joaquin Arias as the starting third baseman, and that's not a good depth chart if you're counting on Joaquin Arias to be your starting third baseman. You know this, the Giants know this and I suspect even Joaquin Arias knows this.
So who can the Giants get to play third base? Some possibilities:
1. Asdrubal Cabrera, free agent. Everyone seems to agree that Cabrera's days as a shortstop are behind him, but he reportedly wants to play second base, not third. Also, he hasn't been all that good the past two seasons, posting a .303 on-base percentage. He does bring some pop -- 14 home runs and 30-plus doubles both years, meaning he's averaged more extra-base hits than the departed Pablo Sandoval -- but should be viewed as a down-the-lineup hitter.
2. Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox. The signing of Sandoval means there's no room for Middlebrooks in Boston. This would be a flier on a guy who now has over 800 plate appearances in the majors with an unimpressive .237/.284/.411 career line. He teased as a rookie in 2012 when he slugged over .500, but his poor plate discipline has hammered him the past two seasons. Maybe a change of scenery will help.
3. Trevor Plouffe, Twins. With prospect Miguel Sano eventually reaching Minnesota -- maybe at midseason -- Plouffe could be available. He hit .258/.328/.423 with 14 home runs and 40 doubles last season.
4. Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks. General manager Dave Stewart has said the Diamondbacks intend to try Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas at third base, which could make Lamb available. He struggled in his initial brief MLB trial, but hit .327/.407/.566 in the minors (mostly at Double-A Mobile).
5. Luis Valbuena, Cubs. Valbuena hit .249/.341/.435 with 16 home runs and 33 doubles. Hey, another third baseman with more isolated power than Sandoval. With Kris Bryant about to take over third base, Valbuena turns into a utility guy or trade bait.
6. Zach Walters, Indians. Cleveland has an excess of infielders with Francisco Lindor on the way to take over shortstop. Walters hit 29 home runs in Triple-A for the Nationals in 2013 and hit .310/.369/.619 there in 2014, and then added 10 home runs in 127 at-bats in the majors (although he hit just .181). He's played primarily shortstop in the minors, but should be able to handle third base.
7. Adrian Beltre, Rangers. Beltre has two years remaining on his contract, but the Rangers also have Joey Gallo -- he of the 42 home runs between Class A and Double-A -- knocking on the door. If the Rangers decide they're not contenders in 2015, maybe they deal the future Hall of Famer.
8. Matt Dominguez, Astros. He's an excellent defensive third baseman, but his on-base skills are beyond horrible. The Astros just signed Jed Lowrie, who likely moves to third base once Carlos Correa is ready to take over shortstop in a year.
9. Ryan Flaherty, Orioles. The Orioles likely need to keep him as Manny Machado injury insurance, but Flaherty is another good-glove, low-OBP guy with a little pop who would at least be an upgrade over Arias.
10. Alex Rodriguez. Just kidding.
The easy option here is Cabrera, if the Giants can convince him to play third base. But there a couple of teams potentially looking for a second baseman -- Blue Jays, Nationals, Angels. The Giants also don't have a highly rated farm system or excess value on the major league roster, so acquiring a guy like Beltre is really just a pipe dream.
If I had to bet, Cabrera ends up here.
Anyway, with the Phillies finally entering full rebuilding mode, that increases the chance a wild-card team will come out of the East. A look at each team's path to the playoffs ...
2014: 96-66, +131 run differential, lost in NLDS
2015 projection from FanGraphs: 88-74, +61
The Nationals will be the big favorite in a division without an obvious No. 2 team -- the only team in the division, in fact, projected to finish above .500. Notice, however, that the projection system at FanGraphs doesn't see the Nationals as a 95-win team. Yes, projection systems tend to forecast regression for good teams and improvement for bad teams; even so, the 88-win forecast suggests the Nationals shouldn't be considered locks for the division.
So what's their path to the playoffs? Certainly, it begins with riding what may have been the best rotation in the game in 2014. The Nationals led the National League with 17.6 FanGraphs WAR from their rotation (second in the majors to the Tigers) while posting an MLB-best 3.04 ERA, ranking first in OPS allowed and second to the Dodgers in strikeout-to-walk ratio. FanGraphs projects the rotation at 12.5 WAR in 2015; I'll take the over, especially if the club doesn't trade away Jordan Zimmermann. Of course, if they do trade him, it may be because they've signed Max Scherzer, and Scherzer in the NL could put up some huge numbers.
It's hard to see a rotation with Stephen Strasburg, Zimmermann, the criminally underrated Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark failing to lead the Nationals to 85 wins, unless two of them suffer significant injuries. It's a great rotation of pitchers in their primes, and there's no obvious reason to expect them to regress much in 2015.
After that, you start with Anthony Rendon. In his first full season in the majors, he led the NL in runs scored and finished fifth in the MVP voting. A lot of people are going to pick him as their preseason MVP. But is Rendon even the best young player on the club? Bryce Harper will be entering his age-22 season. His postseason performance may be the sign that he's ready to have that monster, MVP-caliber season.
If Rendon and Harper put up better numbers, I don't see a better lineup in the NL than this one:
CF Denard Span
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Jayson Werth
LF Bryce Harper
1B Ryan Zimmerman
SS Ian Desmond
C Wilson Ramos
2B Danny Espinosa
Espinosa is the weak spot, although he's a plus defender. General manager Mike Rizzo may upgrade the position before the winter is over. The bullpen -- fourth in the majors in ERA -- should be strong again with Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Matt Thornton and Aaron Barrett.
It's hard to find a weakness. Even the bench should be better with outfielder Steven Souza available after tearing up Triple-A. Crazy things can happen, but if I'm picking one sure bet to reach the postseason, I'd go with Washington.
New York Mets
2014: 79-83, +11 run differential
2015 projection: 79-83, -18
This could be fun:
Maybe pitching isn't actually 75 percent of baseball, but that's the kind of rotation that can carry an otherwise mediocre club into the postseason if Harvey is back to 100 percent after missing 2014 following Tommy John surgery, deGrom flourishes after winning Rookie of the Year honors, and Wheeler continues to improve and harness his electric stuff. You even have quality depth in the likes of Dillon Gee and prospects Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. I'm not sure any NL team can match the Mets one through eight in the rotation.
The Mets signed Michael Cuddyer in a controversial move that cost them their first-round pick, and we know they're on the search for a shortstop but may have to settle for in-house candidate Wilmer Flores. The offense was middle-of-the-pack in 2014, but the best bet for improvement won't necessarily be Cuddyer or at shortstop, but better years from David Wright and a breakout season from catcher Travis d'Arnaud.
Wright slumped to a .269/.324/.374 line with just eight home runs in 535 at-bats. His OPS dropped more than 200 points since 2013. As he admitted at the end of the season, a shoulder injury had affected him much more than he let on. So Mets fans can be optimistic that a healthier Wright will return to his All-Star form (moving in the fences will help a bit, as well). D'Arnaud had a solid rookie season and hit .265/.313/.474 in the second half. If he matches that rate of production -- and maybe boosts that OBP a bit -- he's going be an All-Star catcher.
Factor in 30-plus home runs again from Lucas Duda and 40 from Cuddyer and Curtis Granderson, and the Mets' offense could be above-average.
So, killer rotation, solid offense and the best defensive center fielder on the planet in Juan Lagares. There's a lot to like here. The bullpen will need to prove its 3.14 ERA in 2014 wasn't a fluke. The Mets have had six straight losing seasons. This path to the playoffs says that streak ends.
2014: 79-83, -24 run differential
2015 projection: 75-87, -48
After winning at least 89 games each of the past four seasons and making the playoffs three times, the Braves had their worst season since 2008 and will be trying to avoid their first back-to-back losing years since 1989-1990.
How do they do that and get back into the playoffs? Well, consider that the 2014 Braves were still in first place as late as July 20. They were just 1.5 games out of the wild card entering September before collapsing with a 7-18 record in the final month.
They still have a talented young core to build around. Freddie Freeman is one of the best all-around first basemen in the league, and at 25, this may be the year he taps into his power potential and hits 30 home runs instead of 18. Andrelton Simmons is the best defensive shortstop in the game; he hit just .244 last year even though he struck out just 60 times in 576 plate appearances. He's a contact hitter who hit 17 home runs in 2013, so there's still more potential in the bat improving. Craig Kimbrel is still arguably the best closer in the game. Julio Teheran won 14 games with a 2.89 ERA, and Alex Wood emerged with a 2.78 ERA in 171 innings. Oh, and for now, Justin Upton is still here.
That's a lot of frontline talent. To build a winner around it, you don't have to stretch reality very much:
1. Chris Johnson hits more like he did in 2013 than like he did in 2014.
2. They get something out of second base, perhaps rookie Jose Peraza, who hit .339 with 60 steals in the minors, or free-agent acquisition Alberto Callaspo.
3. Shelby Miller provides a solid season behind Teheran and Wood.
4. Mike Minor bounces back. He was worth 3.1 WAR in 2013 when he posted a 3.21 ERA, but he was replacement-level in 2014 with a 4.77 ERA.
5. B.J. Upton has a ... OK, let's not get carried away.
The Braves may have another couple of more moves in them. Maybe they trade Justin Upton for a young starter and move Evan Gattis to left field, with defensive whiz Christian Bethancourt taking over at catcher. Maybe they sign a pitcher. Maybe they just keep Justin Upton and have him and Freeman be one of the best 3-4 combos in the National League.
2014: 77-85, -29 run differential
2015 projection: 79-83, -14
It's been a busy offseason for the Marlins, so let's see how the team looks right now.
2B Dee Gordon
LF Christian Yelich
RF Giancarlo Stanton
3B Casey McGehee
CF Marcell Ozuna
1B Mike Morse
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
SS Adeiny Hechavarria
Bench -- Garrett Jones, Derek Dietrich, Jeff Baker, Jeff Mathis
SP Henderson Alvarez
SP Mat Latos
SP Nathan Eovaldi
SP Jarred Cosart
SP Tom Koehler
The team also has Dan Haren if he doesn't retire, and Jose Fernandez is expected back in June or July. The bullpen features Steve Cishek, A.J. Ramos, Mike Dunn, Sam Dyson and Aaron Crow.
So what do you have? A lineup with the most feared hitter in the National League, two young outfielders in Yelich and Ozuna who were worth a combined 8.0 WAR in 2014 and should improve in 2015, a speedy leadoff hitter in Gordon who helps solve the team's second-base issues and more depth on the bench now. You'd like to see an upgrade at third base, but the Marlins were seventh in the NL in runs last season, and you envision a big improvement.
What makes them even more interesting is the potential in the rotation, however. Alvarez, Eovaldi and Cosart will all be in their age-25 seasons. Alvarez is coming off a 2.65 ERA, while Cosart looked impressive after coming over from the Astros, with a 2.39 ERA in 10 starts and just two home runs allowed in 64 innings. Both have power arms, and while the advanced metrics don't like them because of low strikeout rates, that's because both have unique approaches. Alvarez throws a hard sinker that generates a lot of ground balls, while Cosart throws a cutter that, so far in his career, has induced a lot of weak contact down in the zone. Eovaldi has one of the best fastballs in the league, but he is still working on his secondary pitches.
The Marlins are a young team with a few vets sprinkled in. Young teams tend to improve. They have an MVP candidate in Stanton. They have speed at the top of the lineup. They'll be in full beast mode with Morse bringing added enthusiasm. The division could be weak outside of the Nationals. Jeffrey Loria has a plan, and it just may work.
2014: 73-89, -68 run differential
2015 projection: 70-92, -92
Sorry, I can't fake this one.
The Phillies have already started trading off parts, and it's likely that Cole Hamels and Marlon Byrd will be next. The Phillies already project as the worst team in the majors, and they're the one team where you can't envision a path to the playoffs, even in the most optimistic of scenarios.
For the Rays, they add Jepsen, coming off his best year, and also clear Joyce's estimated $5 million salary from their payroll. Joyce's numbers have fallen each season since he made the All-Star team in 2011 with a big first half and he hit .254/.349/.383 in 2014. Still, he posted a .365 OBP against right-handers and general manager Jerry Dipoto suggested Joyce will be the team's primary designated hitter in 2015. More likely, he makes for a good platoon with young slugger C.J. Cron.
But Joyce also serves as an insurance policy for Josh Hamilton. The team lacked another left-handed hitting outfielder behind Hamilton and Kole Calhoun, so if Hamilton is injured, Joyce can move into a left field platoon with Collin Cowgill.
It's a small deal but it adds to the Angels' depth and should help make up for some of the offense lost with the trade of Howie Kendrick.
For Tampa, the McGee injury is big news as the power lefty has posted a 2.61 ERA over the past three seasons, including a 1.89 mark in 2014 in a career-high 71 innings. He had Tommy John surgery while in the minors so while this surgery was arthroscopic, it has to make the Rays more than a little nervous. Minus Joyce, the Rays probably line up with Kevin Kiermaier, Desmond Jennings and Wil Myers in the outfield, with David DeJesus and Brandon Guyer serving as the backups and DHs.
Following the success of Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu, the Red Sox signed Rusney Castillo last summer for seven years and $72.5 million and the Diamondbacks just signed Yasmany Tomas to a six-year, $68.5 million contract. The Braves made a smaller investment in outfielder Dian Toscano, at four years and $7.5 million, and the Angels just signed an infielder named Roberto Baldoquin for $8 million. While Castillo has speed and defense elements his game, Tomas projects as a bat-first corner outfielder or third baseman (where the D-backs will initially give him a shot to play).
The potential problem here, as Eno points out, is that neither Castillo nor Tomas projects to be in the same class of hitter as Abreu, Puig or Cespedes:
Clay Davenport has publicly available translations of Cuban statistics. By looking at players who have come from Cuba before, and looking at their numbers in both countries, his system hopes to create a Major League Baseball equivalent for Cuban statistics. He adds in age information to create a peak projection to account for further growth among the youngest players.
Players with sub-.300 OBPs are essentially unplayable, no matter their defensive skills or power production. Granted, projections for Cuban players are imperfect and based on a small sample size of 30 or so players who have come over here. But the numbers suggest Castillo and Tomas could turn into busts.
Could that bust change the market? Will the market shift completely the other way if there is a high-profile, big-money bust? A few team officials thought that could happen, and soon. You could say that the same has happened to the Japanese position-player market after a few high-profile misses.
It's easy to see why teams have spent the money so far. Even with about a half-billion spent on initial contracts to Cuban players since 2000, the return has been better than the free-agent market. While a win above replacement costs about six to seven million among Major League Baseball's free agents, Cuban players on rookie contracts have produced a win for every $2.8 million dollars in this century.
The next big Cuban import is 19-year-old infielder Yoan Moncada, who projects as a power-hitting second or third baseman. While MLB has declared him a free agent, he has yet to receive the licensing required from OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) that allows him to sign. It's possible that won't come until after the July 2, 2015 international signing date (and thus pushing his bonus to the 2015-2016 international bonus period).
Moncada would be projected as a top-five pick in the draft, maybe the No. 1 overall pick. He may be eligible to sign before we learn more about Castillo and Tomas, so their performance may not end up influencing the enthusiasm to sign him.
The great thing about baseball is we know more than ever but so much remains unknown. We can't predict with any certainty how good Castillo or Tomas will be; maybe the translations will prove correct, maybe they'll be vastly incorrect and the Red Sox and Diamondbacks will have two big stars in their lineups. I'll be watching with great interest.
Does the division still belong to Detroit? Or is this the year the Tigers finally get caught? Here's the path to the playoffs for the AL Central teams:
2014: 90-72, plus-52 run differential, lost in ALDS
2015 projection from FanGraphs: 86-76, plus-48
The Tigers have won four straight division titles, so it's not that difficult to envision a fifth straight division title, even if the club ends up losing Max Scherzer in free agency. Just stay the course.
Even without Scherzer and the traded Rick Porcello, the rotation features David Price, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene, a sneaky good pickup from the Yankees. Price essentially replaces Scherzer, but the key will be getting a bounce-back season from Verlander, who went 15-12 albeit with a 4.54 ERA. Remember, Verlander had core-muscle repair surgery during the 2013-14 offseason, so it's possible he was never 100 percent during the season. An offseason of rest and normal conditioning exercises could help him return to the Verlander of the past.
The Tigers traded Porcello for Yoenis Cespedes, giving the club maybe the strongest middle of the lineup in the league with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez and Cespedes, a foursome that could each hit 25-plus home runs. Even if Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez regress some, you can expect Cabrera to have a better season after he played through a painful ankle and foot injury. He had surgery after the season to remove bone spurs and had two screws inserted in his right foot to help repair a stress fracture. Even with those injuries, he hit .313 with 25 home runs and a league-leading 52 doubles. A healthier Cabrera could return to hitting .330 with 40 home runs.
The Tigers acquired Anthony Gose from Toronto, and while his bat is questionable, he'll give the team a defensive upgrade in center field over the Austin Jackson/Rajai Davis combo. Replacing Torii Hunter in the outfield with Cespedes will also help; Cespedes rated plus-12 defensive runs saved in left field last season while Hunter rated minus-17 in right field. It's not a direct position change, as J.D. Martinez will shift over to right field, but the defensive improvement in a Cespedes/Gose/Martinez outfield could easily be worth four wins or so. Making Davis the backup outfielder also helps strengthen the bench. Then you have the return of slick-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias. We're not using to thinking of "defense" and "Tigers" going together, but the Tigers will have their best defensive team in years.
Yes, the bullpen. The offseason isn't over yet. I expect GM Dave Dombrowski to make a move or two here. Plus, the Tigers won 90 games with last year's bullpen. Even a small upgrade there should add a few wins.
Kansas City Royals
2014: 89-73, plus-27 run differential, lost World Series
2015 projection: 81-81, minus-3
Ninety feet short. Ninety feet. It was a dream season for the Royals, who finished the regular season just a game back of the Tigers, won a classic wild-card game and then steamrolled the Angels and Orioles in the postseason before running into Madison Bumgarner in the World Series.
Can they do it again? Sure. Yes, James Shields is a likely departure, but let's be honest here: They're not losing Bob Gibson. Shields was a workhorse and certainly a positive mentor to some of the young guys in the rotation, but he was worth 3.3 WAR last year; that can be replaced. You still have Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy to anchor the rotation. Ventura posted a 3.20 ERA as a rookie, and Duffy quietly posted a 2.53 ERA in his 25 starts. That could be a dynamite 1-2 combo as both see their workloads increase. I'd like to see the Royals add another starter behind Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie to fill out the top five.
But the rotation wasn't the strength of the team anyway. The bullpen returns the dominant Greg Holland-Wade Davis-Kelvin Herrera trio and will get Luke Hochevar back. Hochevar missed all of 2014 but posted a 1.92 ERA in 2013. Yes, maybe the Royals will have four sub-2.00 ERA relievers in 2015. Or five, if rookie Brandon Finnegan remains in the bullpen. With a bullpen like that, the Royals don't need a great rotation.
Plus, the defense will remain intact, and we saw in October how well the Royals play defense.
That leaves the offense, and there are reasons to be optimistic about improvement here. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez all had bad seasons at the plate, but all played the season at 25 or younger. Even in a conservative estimate, you can see all three creating at least 15 more runs; 45 more runs is about four or five extra wins. The team has signed Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios as free agents. Neither had a good 2014, but Rios struggled with thumb and ankle injuries. Both are just a year removed from solid seasons, however, and could turn out to be offensive upgrades over Billy Butler and Norichika Aoki.
And don't underestimate the confidence of a young team. The Royals have smelled October and tasted the World Series. They'll want to get there again.
2014: 85-77, plus-16 run differential
2015 projection: 85-77, plus-36
Here's a number that will impress: The Indians had the best second-half rotation ERA in the American League. Cy Young winner Corey Kluber got all the recognition, but he wasn't the only starter who came into his own. Kluber, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer is potentially as exciting as any other rotation in the league. That foursome started 94 games in 2014; imagine what it can do with 125 starts. Even No. 5 starter T.J. House posted a solid 3.35 ERA/3.69 FIP in his 18 starts.
Maybe the rotation lacks the Tigers' big names, but it could be the best in the division.
Three other reasons to see a path to the playoffs:
1. Brandon Moss. Acquired from the A's, the All-Star hit 25 home runs, although he was slowed the final two months by a hip injury that required offseason surgery. If healthy, he could produce even better numbers than he did with the A's. (Leaving Oakland and the other parks in the AL West for Progressive Field should help his power numbers.)
2. Jason Kipnis will have a better season. The second baseman created 101 runs in 2013, just 53 in 2014 (in 100 fewer plate appearances), as he played through an oblique injury.
3. Better defense at shortstop. Whether it's Jose Ramirez or top prospect Francisco Lindor, the Indians will have better range than Asdrubal Cabrera provided. One reason the pitching improved the final two months was the departure of Cabrera. (In fact, the Indians rated last in the majors with minus-75 defensive runs saved, so even slight improvement across the field will help.)
Oh, yeah, you also have the guy who finished third in the AL MVP voting in Michael Brantley, the best manager in the division in Terry Francona and an underrated bullpen that had the fourth-best ERA in the AL.
Chicago White Sox
2014: 73-89, minus-98 run differential
2015 projection: 78-84, minus-28
No team has made more big moves this offseason than the White Sox: They traded for Jeff Samardzija without losing any significant pieces from the major league roster and signed outfielder Melky Cabrera, first baseman/DH Adam LaRoche and relievers David Robertson and Zach Duke.
The beauty of those acquisitions is that the White Sox aren't just replacing mediocre production with slightly better production, but below-replacement-level production in some cases. Look at the players/positions:
• Left field: White Sox left fielders hit an ugly .225/.297/.344 and fielded an ugly minus-10 defensive runs saved (second-worst in the majors).
• Rotation: Andre Rienzo, Scott Carroll and Felipe Paulino made a combined 34 starts, went 8-17 and were worth minus-2.3 WAR.
• The bullpen had the second-worst ERA in the AL, better than only the Astros. Robertson has been one of the league's best relievers for years, and Duke changed his arm angle last year and had a dominant season with the Brewers (74 K's in 58 1/3 innings). They immediately become the eighth- and ninth-inning guys.
Of course, the White Sox already have an MVP candidate in Jose Abreu and Cy Young candidate in Chris Sale. They do have a hole at second base right now, but Carlos Sanchez (.293/.349/.412 at Triple-A) should at least be an upgrade over what they got there last year if he gets the job. I'd like to see them find another starting pitcher to line up behind Sale, Samardzija and the underrated Jose Quintana, but GM Rick Hahn may still have a little money to play with.
Ninety wins may be difficult, but few teams can match the front-line talent the White Sox have. If the secondary players improve, the White Sox can raise their first division flag since 2008.
2014: 70-92, minus-62 run differential
2015 projection: 76-86, minus-47
OK, maybe we have to be a little creative when it comes to the Twins. But remember, we're in the age of parity. It may take only 85 or 86 wins to win the Central. So finding an extra 15 or 16 wins is doable if everything breaks right and a lot goes wrong with the other four teams.
A few ways how:
• Joe Mauer has a better season.
• Danny Santana is for real.
• Kennys Vargas develops into a .275, 25-homer DH.
• Brian Dozier gets even better and turns into an MVP candidate.
• The defense improves. The Twins ranked 29th in the majors in defensive runs saved, including minus-50 runs in the outfield. Although the Torii Hunter signing doesn't help here.
• Ervin Santana has a good season. Ricky Nolasco is better. Phil Hughes is great again. Put it this way: The Twins had a 5.07 rotation ERA, worst in the majors. That was more than a run worse than the AL average. They used 12 different starters, and Hughes was the only starter who posted an ERA under 4.47. So, um, yeah, expect a better rotation in 2015.
• Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton arrive a little earlier than anticipated.
Look, the offense should be good again. The Twins were fifth in the AL in runs scored and second in OBP last year. And they've cleared out a lot of the offensive deadweight. They scored 42 fewer runs than the Tigers and didn't have anybody who had career years like Victor and J.D. Martinez. It wouldn't be that much of a stretch to think the Twins could lead the league in runs. If they're in the race in July, they could add a couple of veteran starters for the stretch run.
Yes, you can get all the basic stats you need and many more at sites like Baseball-Reference.com, but sometimes it's much easier to flip through a book than to type in "Adeiny Hechavarria" or "Jarrod Saltalamacchia." Plus, the book includes much more than a player's basic year-by-year stats. It's loaded with fun stuff like Bill James' starting pitching rankings for each month (Clayton Kershaw started the season at No. 1 and remained there all season), average velocity through the years for pitchers, individual and team baserunning data, pitchers' repertoires, manager tendencies, leaderboards, left/right data, 2015 projections, Bill James specialties like Win Shares and his Hall of Fame monitor, and much more.
Here are 10 random things I learned from flipping through the book:
1. The Kansas City Royals were only the 10th-best baserunning team in the majors.
BIS uses extra bases taken (such as first to third on a single), outs made while advancing, times doubled off, double plays grounded into and stolen base gain to arrive at an overall "net gain" of bases. The Nationals were No. 1 at +113 while the Royals were +52. Kansas City did rank No. 1 in stolen base gain at +81, but were -29 on the bases otherwise, thanks in large part to Billy Butler. At -31 bases, he ranked tied with Alex Avila as the worst baserunner in the majors. (Butler went first to third on a single once all season.) The best? Ben Revere of the Phillies had a net gain of +54, followed by Leonys Martin of the Rangers at +42.
2. Two starting pitchers didn't allow a single stolen base: Hisashi Iwakuma and Doug Fister.
Baserunners were 0-for-8 stealing Iwakuma and just 0-for-1 against Fister. Scott Feldman of the Astros allowed the most stolen bases with 35. He allowed 30 the year before when he was with the Cubs and Orioles, so it wasn't just an Astros catchers couldn't throw out runners type of deal.
3. There were 33 home run robberies in 2014.
Jay Bruce and J.D. Martinez each had two. Johnny Cueto and Bartolo Colon both benefited from two robberies. And poor Rene Rivera was the only hitter to lose two would-be home runs.
4. Brock Holt led the American League with a .349 average in "close and late" situations.
And Munenori Kawasaki was second at .346.
5. Josh Tomlin had the AL's best start of the year.
Against Seattle on June 28, the Cleveland right-hander allowed one hit with 11 K's and no walks for a Game Score of 96. Clayton Kershaw's 15-strikeout no-hitter scored 102 (the second-best nine-inning Game Score ever, behind Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout one-hitter).
6. Nathan Eovaldi led the NL in hits allowed .. and percentage of pitches in the strike zone.
7. Nolan Arenado hit 18 home runs -- 16 at home.
That's certainly one of the biggest home/road splits I've ever seen.
8. The Nationals went 15-4 against the Mets.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers did the same against the Diamondbacks, for the most wins one team had over another.
9. Giancarlo Stanton is projected to hit 40 home runs.
Jose Abreu is projected to lead the AL with 38 ... along with George Springer.
10. Terry Francona led the majors in intentional walks that backfired.
BIS kept track of all intentional walks and labeled them as good and not good, with the "not goods" further broken down into "bombs" -- when multiple runs scored after the IW. Francona led the majors with 51 intentional walks, 22 not goods and 13 bombs. Compare that to Ned Yost, who issued just 14 intentional walks.
Anyway, that's the kind of fun stuff you can find in the book. Check it out.
You'd have to be a hard-core baseball romantic -- or a product of the pre-Marvin Miller era -- to think Bryce Harper's new two-year, $7.5 million agreement with the Washington Nationals will make a smidge of difference when he hits free agency in 2018. There'll be no room for sentiment when agent Scott Boras holds court with reporters and hails Harper as an "iconic player" with "pristine power" and an Aaron Rodgers-caliber magnetism and work ethic. Or maybe Andrew Luck will be Boras' comparison du jour three or four years from now.
The only two words that never make it into Boras' lexicon are "hometown" and "discount." If Harper lives up to his billing as a 35-to-40-homer, middle-of-the order slugger, Boras will be looking to break a record on the open market.
So don't expect any feel-good, carryover impact from Monday's agreement when it comes to Harper's long-term future in Washington. But in the here and now, the Nationals, Boras and Harper did the prudent thing by coming to terms on a new deal and avoiding a grievance hearing Tuesday in New York. They skirted a fight they didn't need and a distraction no one relished.
Sometimes big problems spring from seemingly small details. When Harper signed a major league deal out of the draft in 2010, it did not include a clause that would allow him to opt out of his predetermined annual pay and go to salary arbitration. Was the resultant dispute between Harper and the Nationals the product of an oversight committed in haste or a misunderstanding between agent and team? Does it really matter? The relatively small salary hit that Harper would have incurred by not going to arbitration in 2015 could have had a compounding effect over time and affected his pay in subsequent years in a more substantial way.
The disagreement threatened to become a sideshow when Harper failed to appear at the team's NatsFest event Saturday and clearly ticked off general manager Mike Rizzo. Amid news reports of Jayson Werth clocking somewhere between 90 and 100 mph while driving his Porsche, the last thing the Nationals needed was Harper looking like a spoiled brat while issuing a statement that he couldn't make it because of "matters out of my control."
With Harper's new contract in place, that giant pothole has been paved over and the two sides can return to their regularly scheduled programming. Harper can focus on his offseason workout program and his upcoming wedding in January, and Rizzo is free to address Washington's second base void and figure out where the team stands with Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann as they enter their free-agent "walk" years. The Nationals have work to do if they plan to graduate from a team that wows everyone from April through September to a club that's capable of more than cameo appearances in October.
The big question, if you're a Nationals fan, is which Bryce Harper will take the field in 2015? Is it the former teenage prodigy who elicited Mickey Mantle comparisons or the banged-up version who spends too much time running into things and then tweeting medical updates from his hospital bed?
Harper remains a polarizing figure among fans who think he's overrated and scouts who roll their eyes when he antagonizes umpires with his body language. He's always going to have a target on his back, in part because of the whole "Chosen One" narrative that began during his sophomore year of high school in Nevada.
The numbers say that Harper was very good in his first two major league seasons with the Nationals, even as he suffered in comparison with fellow phenom Mike Trout. Last season, Harper hit a so-so .273 with a .767 OPS and 13 homers in 100 regular-season games and seemed bereft of the old swagger. Manager Matt Williams benched him for failing to run out a ground ball in April, and Harper struggled to regain his confidence and his thump after undergoing knee and thumb surgery in a span of five months.
But it's time for a little perspective here. Harper just turned 22 in October, and when the National League Division Series ended, his fellow Nationals were on the top step of the dugout hoping he could hit the ball out and save them from a dispiriting first-round loss to San Francisco. With the possible exception of Anthony Rendon, no Washington player seemed more capable of doing something special under pressure than Harper did.
One of Harper's most ardent fans is none other than Mike Rizzo, who has consistently defended him throughout his growing pains. I received a glimpse of that steadfast support while writing an account of Harper's trying 2014 season in August. While interviewing Rizzo for the story, I took note that Harper’s first two years in Washington were significantly better than most people realized.
Rizzo quickly demurred.
"I would call them historic seasons," he said.
Harper's early ups and downs notwithstanding, Rizzo and the Nationals remain convinced that he's capable of doing some memorable things in baseball. They'd rather have him make his mark as a hitter than as a labor relations pioneer.