Baseball is back, sort of. Despite half of the country being buried under record snowfall, the 2015 Major League Baseball season kicks off in about four weeks. That gives us more than enough time to examine each team in both leagues, and to see where they’re going to finish come September. It was a relatively quiet off season. Pace of game rules are dominating the headlines, so much so that I was already annoyed less than a week into spring training. David Ortiz pissed and moaned about it during the first day of camp, which caused me to lose the office pool (I had his outburst waiting until Day #3). Don Mattingly is still the Dodgers’ skipper; this is what happens when Magic Johnson runs a baseball team, folks. Even Alex Rodriguez is back on the diamond! The best part? We get to see the Yankees pay the 40-year-old A-Rod $64 million over the next THREE seasons to hit .230 with 15 homers as a DH, until he gets caught juicing again sometime this summer (be patient, it will happen). This week I’ll be previewing the American League, with the National League coming next week. Play Ball!
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
1st Place- Baltimore Orioles
Simply put, the Orioles lost some significant contributors from last year’s 96-win division champs (Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, Andrew Miller), but they have three guys returning healthy this spring that they didn’t have late last season: Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis. That alone should keep the Orioles’ lineup among the elite ranks in the American League, with Delmon Young and Steve Pearce likely rotating the DH duties. Their outfield depth is thin with the departure of Markakis, but the O’s infield (Wieters, Davis, Schoop, Hardy, Machado) and starting staff from last year (Tillman, Chen, Norris, Gonzalez) remain intact. Alejandro De Aza was acquired last year from the Chi Sox and manager Buck Showalter will likely bat him leadoff and plug him in left field, with perennial All-Star Adam Jones in center and a likely platoon of Travis Snyder and David Lough in right. The bullpen is basically all back, and the O’s have young guns Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy waiting in the wings. Bundy came up to the show in 2012 for a cup of coffee before undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing most of last season. The O’s have some live arms in the pen and Bundy may be a good fit for middle relief with Darren O’Day and Brad Brach handling the 7th and 8th, and lefty Zach Britton closing. The wild card for the Orioles is right hander, Ubaldo Jimenez, who can’t be any worse this year than he was last season. No, seriously, he can’t. He finished 6-9 with a 4.81 ERA which is abysmal in its own right, but he walked 77 batters in only 125.1 innings pitched. The Orioles are pretty good, but will they be good enough to win their first AL pennant since 1983? We shall see.
2nd Place- Boston Red Sox
All I’ve been hearing for two months is that the Red Sox don’t have an ace, which is true. But, did anyone watch last year’s postseason? Who was the ace of the Kansas City Royals in 2014? James Shields? His postseason numbers (1-2, 6.10 ERA in five starts) don’t back that up. Boston made major upgrades to their batting order this winter, and boast maybe the most potent lineup in the American League: Betts/Castillo (who will likely start the season in AAA), Pedroia, Ortiz, Napoli, Sandoval, Ramirez, Victorino, Bogaerts, and 25-year-old Christian Vasquez catching. That’s a deep lineup. And their rotation isn’t nearly as bad as people are making it out to be. They flipped Yoenis Cespedes to Detroit for starter Rick Porcello (15-13, 3.43 ERA in 2014), picked up lefty Wade Miley, a 16-game winner just two years earlier, and brought back Justin Masterson as a fourth or fifth starter. That’s not Koufax and Drysdale, but they have the potential to be good. The wild card for the Red Sox this year is right hander, Clay Buchholz. When he has his head screwed on straight, he has nasty stuff (see the first half of 2013), but it’s starting to look like he has neither the mental makeup nor the physical attributes to be a legitimate ace. The bottom line is that their pitching is not lights out, but their lineup should be good enough to keep them in contention. And don’t sleep on the Sox at the deadline. With a stock pile of solid prospects in tow, Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee could wind up in Fenway after all. We could also see a rarity in pro sports: back to back Worst to First, Worst to First finishes. Only in Boston…
3rd Place- Toronto Blue Jays
What they lack in arms, they make up for in lumber. The Blue Jays will have no problem banging the ball around the yard. Toronto acquired Josh Donaldson from Oakland over the winter to bat him fifth in the lineup behind Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, with Jose Reyes leading off. The Jays then signed veteran catcher Russell Martin, who had a solid season last year for Pittsburgh (.290/11/67). But…..Toronto can’t and won’t be serious contenders for the AL East Crown because they don’t have enough pitching. R.A. Dickey (28-26 in two seasons with the Jays), Mark Buehrle (was 10-1 last year on June 1st, finished the season 13-10), Drew Hutchinson (still young, but had a 4.48 ERA last season) don’t strike fear into anyone, and their bullpen anchor last season, Casey Jannsen, left in free agency. Who is their closer going to be? The wild card for the Blue Jays will be reliever, Aaron Sanchez, who posted a 1.09 ERA last year in 24 relief appearances. He is the most likely solution at the back of their pen. The Blue Jays will hit, but they’ll be left with more questions than answers in 2015.
4th Place- New York Yankees
How do the Yankees move on from Derek Jeter? Is Masahiro Tanaka healthy? Will C.C. Sabathia be able regain his form? Will Alex Rodriguez EVER go away? It’s not going be pretty for the next year or two in Yankee Land. The Yankees have current albatross contracts (A-Rod: $22 million in 2015, $21 million in 2016, and $21 million in 2017….and Teixeira: over $23 million for 2015 and 2016), and future albatross contracts (Jacoby Ellsbury: at least $126 million over the next six years, with a $21 million option for 2021….good luck with that). Unfortunately for the Yanks, there are no do-overs there. The lineup has talent but is aging fast. On opening day, the only regular in the starting lineup who will be under 30 years of age will be Jeter’s replacement, shortstop Didi Gregorious. The wild card for the Yankees is right hander, Masahiro Tanaka. Without the guarantee of potent lineup that we are accustomed to seeing in the Bronx, a lot will rest on his shoulders to be the ace of a sink or swim starting rotation. Sabathia is showing his age, and David Phelps and Adam Warren are question marks. The Yankees do have a good bullpen, led by Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, but a good bullpen is useless if your starters struggle to get through five innings. The Yanks will take it in the teeth from the New York media and fans but Brian Cashman and team management are doing the right thing. They need to get the horrible contracts off the books and replenish the farm system that has been mostly barren since the height of the Yankee dynasty in the 1990s. The Yankees are progressing, albeit slowly…
5th Place- Tampa Bay Rays
It’s been a rough eight months for the Rays and their fans….all 43 of them. They traded their ace David Price, they traded their young outfielder Wil Myers. Their manager Joe Maddon, perhaps the best manager in the game, left St. Pete for the Chicago Cubs, and they lost general manager Andrew Friedman to the Dodgers- the man who took over the laughing stock Devil Dogs and made them into a contender. Ouchhh. And let’s not kid ourselves; Evan Longoria will be long gone by the trading deadline. The rotation even without Price is adequate with Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smiley and Matt Moore, but this team is not going to score enough runs to stay afloat in this division. Their bullpen is also not as good as it was just a few years ago. The Rays had a bullpen ERA of 3.71 in 2014, and they are a team that will likely be experimenting with a closer by committee. The wild card for the Rays is right hander, Alex Cobb. Last year Cobb went 10-9 in 27 starts and was the only Tampa Bay starter to post an ERA under 3.00. His role is even more glaring now with Price gone and a weak lineup behind him. This year, a fast start will not mask reality. This team is making a mad dash right to the cellar.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
1st Place- Detroit Tigers
The Tigers are not the same team after the defection of Max Scherzer last month, but their starting rotation (Verlander, Price, Sanchez, and Alfredo Simon- acquired from Cincinnati) still remains a solid group. The lineup will be very good with Anthony Gose (CF, traded over from Toronto) and Ian Kinsler (2B) at the top, with as formidable a 3-4-5 as any team in baseball in Victor Martinez (DH), Miguel Cabrera (1B), and Yoenis Cespedes (LF). The bottom half of the order still features J.D. Martinez in right field, who had a breakout season in 2014 (.315/23/76) and will absolutely make up for the departed Torii Hunter in terms of offensive production, but the Tigers lost an A+ defensive player and a quality leader and teammate. The Tigers led the American League last year with a .277 batting average and were second in runs at 757, but this team has a lot of holes. While the rotation is still very good, Verlander is coming off of his worst season since 2008 (15-12, 4.54 ERA, 206.0 IP-which, believe it or not, is not a lot for him), and losing Scherzer (18-5, 3.15 ERA, 220.1 IP) is a major step back. The bullpen? Ohhhhh boy. They’re back. Joe Nathan (4.81 ERA, seven blown saves) is still penciled in as their closer for 2015. The set up guys- Joakim Soria, Al Alburquerque, Ian Krol, Joba Chamberlain- are all still in the same place that they were after getting abused by Baltimore in the playoffs last year. It is INCOMPREHENSIBLE to me that Detroit did not make ONE significant deal to improve their glaring achilles heel. The Philadelphia Phillies are practically BEGGING to get rid of Jonathan Papelbon at this point. Unacceptable. The wild card for the Tigers is anyone in that bullpen who can get through an inning unscathed on a consistent basis.…I’m being serious. The Tigers got worse over the winter and their bullpen remains a mess, but they’ll slug their way to enough victories to claim the so-so AL Central again.
2nd Place- Cleveland Indians
People will probably think that I’m exaggerating here, but the Cleveland Indians are a really good baseball team…an under-the-radar good team. The Tigers didn’t exactly run away with the Central a year ago, and Kansas City had a white-hot run to the pennant. Neither of those teams got better over the last sixth months, while Cleveland has kept their core together. Last year they won 85 games and finished in third place. What’s stopping them from wrestling the AL Central crown from Detroit this season? Michael Bourn had a down year in 2014 (.257/3/28, 10 steals, .314 OBP%) but remains in center field leading off, followed by a 3-4-5 of Michael Brantley in left, Carlos Santana (.231/27/85) at first base, and newly-acquired Brandon Moss in right field. The names don’t jump off the score card at you but Moss hit 25 homers and knocked in 81 runs for Oakland last season. Brantley is coming off a big year, becoming the first Indian in history with at least 20 homers, 40 doubles, 40 steals, and 200 hits in the same season. Yan Gomes (.278/21/74) is behind the plate, with veteran Nick Swisher DHing. Jason Kipnis had a rough 2014 (.240/6/41) but will play second, with Lonnie Chisenhall (.280/13/59) at third. The staff is led by reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber (18-9, 2.44 ERA), and is joined by Danny Salazar, T.J. House and Trevor Bauer….not household names, but they had a cumulative ERA of under 3.00 in the second half last year. The pen had the fourth-lowest ERA in the league last season and has all parties back, including Cody Allen who had 24 saves and a 2.07 ERA in 76 appearances. The wild card for the Tribe is right handed pitcher Carlos Carrasco, who went 8-7 with a 2.55 ERA in 14 starts last season. Another reliable starter will be mandatory for Cleveland to have serious thoughts about winning the Central and beyond. Not a relevant baseball note here, but believe it or not the Indians finished last in the American League last year in attendance with just over 1.4 million fans for the season. Was there a better, louder, more rabid crowd than the fans in Cleveland in the 1990s? The Jake was sold out every night. Maybe this season brings that atmosphere back. I still think they’ll finish second, but a Wild Card berth is a serious possibility. Terry Francona always gets the most out of his players, and the Indians are my dark horse in the American League.
3rd Place- Kansas City Royals
The Royals will take a step back this year after their Cinderella season of 2014, but we all knew that. Even before they took the field in the seventh game of the World Series we knew that they had been playing over the heads for six weeks. Now watch them pitch lights out, have their bats explode and win 100 games to shut me up. I don’t see the Royals catching lightning in a bottle two years in a row. They lost long-time Royal Billy Butler in free agency but made some good moves to replace the production, signing veteran outfielder Alex Rios and DH Kendrys Morales (nobody is moving Eric Hosmer off of first base). Other than those additions it’s essentially the same exact team that took the field last October. Expect Kansas City to do what they do best: get on base, move runners over, and use their speed. The starting rotation lost James Shields to San Diego, and as a result their staff appears thin and mediocre. Yordano Ventura (14-10, 3.20 ERA, 183.0 IP) and his 150 MPH heater is likely their new Number One, but guys like Jason Vargas (11-10, 3.71 ERA, 187.0 IP), Jeremy Guthrie (13-11, 4.13 ERA, 202.2 IP), and Danny Duffy (9-12, 2.53 ERA, 149.1) don’t seem like a championship-caliber staff. The good news for the Royals is that their bullpen is unchanged….so that means that if the starters can get into the 7th inning with a lead….game over. Kelvin Herrera: 1.41 ERA, 59 Ks, 70.0 IP, 70 appearances. Wade Davis: 1.00 ERA, 109 Ks, 72.0 IP, 71 appearances. Closer Greg Holland: 1.44 ERA, 90 Ks, 62.1 IP, 65 appearances. That’s as close to perfect as a bullpen can get. The wild card for the Royals is right hander Yordano Ventura. If the Royals are getting back to the post season, he needs to take the next step and become a bona-fide stud. His fastball needs no additional work, he throws gas….but he struggled with the command last season on his curve and his changeup. Fix those minor mechanical issues and he should blow through lineups with regularity. The Royals are still in good shape and are still a good team with a very bright future, but they’ll have a small World Series hangover in 2015.
4th Place- Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox actually have pretty good talent, but every team can’t win the division. They have some pitching, but not enough to truly contend. And they have a very, very suspect lineup. The big bat for the Chi Sox is their Cuban import Jose Abreu, who was very impressive in his Rookie of the Year 2014 season (.317/36/107). This prompted Chicago to go out and bring in veterans Melky Cabrera (.301/16/73) and Adam LaRoche (.259/26/92) to sandwich Abreu in the middle of the order, but elsewhere, the production is spotty. Right fielder Avisail Garcia is 23-years-old and has some potential but Chicago will need him to grow up fast to become a force in the bottom half of that lineup. The White Sox have a good staff, with Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija, Jose Quintana, and John Danks, but the bullpen could be an issue. They made a big signing in the off season, bringing in David Robertson who is a proven big league closer (39 saves for NYY last year). He should help reduce the 21 saves that Sox relievers blew last season, but they lack reliable set up guys. The wild card for the White Sox is left hander Jon Danks. Last season his mediocre 11-11 record was an improvement over his previous three seasons (15 wins combined), but if he can regain his 2010 form (15-11, 3.72 ERA, 213.0 IP), the White Sox could surprise all of us. I don’t think 2015 will be the Chicago’s year, but they have some pieces that cannot go unnoticed. They could be a team to pay attention to in 2016.
5th Place- Minnesota Twins
I’m not going to sugar coat this….the Twinkies are not going to be good for a long time. Unless new Twins manager Paul Molitor can still hit, Minnesota will endure their fourth last-place finish in the last five seasons. The lineup really isn’t terrible, they finished 5th in the American League last season scoring 715 runs. The power numbers were modest (128 home runs) but their team on base percentage (.324) wasn’t bad. Joe Mauer has made the transition from starting catcher to first base, and had (for him) a down season in 2014 (.277/4/55), but the Twins got good infield production from second baseman Brian Dozier (23 homers, 71 RBIs) and third baseman Trevor Plouffe (14 home runs, 80 RBIs). Left fielder Oswaldo Arcia (.231/20/57) showed flashes last year, and at 23 years-old should be ready to play everyday. The starting rotation had the highest ERA in the league in 2014 (5.06), and while Glen Perkins is a rock in the back end of their bullpen (34 saves last season), they had trouble getting to the 9th inning with a lead. The wild card for the Twins is right hander, Ervin Santana, who was signed to a four year, $54 million contract over the winter. Last season Phil Hughes established himself as the leader of this staff and had a pretty good season (16-10, 3.52 ERA, 209.2 IP), and Minnesota desperately needs another arm to produce at the top of that rotation. Santana was 14-10 for Atlanta last season with a sub-4.00 ERA, so the Twins and their fans hope he can come somewhere close to that again. Maybe the Twins will go all NBA on us and tank for a draft pick. Remember, there’s no lottery in the MLB! Not yet, anyway…
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
1st Place- Los Angeles Angels
Even with Josh Hamilton doing more blow than Tony Montana and Henry Hill combined, the Angels are still going to be the team to beat in the AL West. The lineup for the Halos is basically the same as the one that finished with an AL-high 98 wins last season. Right fielder Kole Calhoun will be leading off, and with a 3-4-5 of Mike Trout (reigning MVP), Albert Pujols (on the back nine, but still very productive last season: .272/28/105), and Hamilton (again, a sober version), the Angels will not be devoid of offensive production. Despite moving on from Howie Kendrick, third baseman David Freese, short stop Erick Aybar and catcher Chris Iannetta still make up a decent bottom of the order. The bullpen is above average, with Kevin Jespen, Mike Morin and Cesar Ramos (lefty) for middle relief, and on the back end Joe Smith (1.81 ERA in 74.2 IP last year) and closer Hutson Street (17 saves in 28 appearances, 1.71 ERA) will be tough to contend with late. The Angels have a good starting staff, not great. Mainstay Jered Weaver (18-9, 3.59 ERA) was the only Halo to exceed 200 innings pitched, and C.J. Wilson has not been the same guy that he was in Texas. The wild card for the Angels is their young right hander, Garrett Richards. Last year before he went down, he was undoubtedly the best pitcher on LA’s staff (13-4, 2.61 ERA, 168.2 IP). If he can rebound and establish himself as a strong number two behind Weaver, the Angels will fly into October. For all of the flack Mike Scioscia catches year in and year out, the Halos are always in the hunt. And they will be again.
2nd Place- Seattle Mariners
You know what? Give the Mariners credit for having the marbles to compete. I’m serious. Extending King Felix through 2020, signing Robinson Cano in his prime, trading for Austin Jackson to fill a gaping hole in center field….their fans can’t say that the Seattle ownership and front office isn’t hard at work to field a winning baseball team. That being said, signing Nelson Cruz, a 35-year-old DH who tailed off badly in the second half last season, for four years and $57 million probably wasn’t a wise decision. Seattle has the best starting pitching in the AL West. I don’t need to waste my breath on Felix Hernandez, but consider this: last year he posted a 2.14 ERA and had the lowest WHIP (0.92) for an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez 14 years earlier. He also went seven or more innings while allowing two or fewer earned runs in 16 consecutive starts. What else must this man do to win the Cy Young!? The rest of their staff isn’t as dominant but is very steady. Hisashi Iwakuma posted a career high 15 wins last season despite making only 28 starts, left hander James Paxton recorded a 3.04 ERA in 13 starts last season, and J.A. Happ (11 wins last season) was acquired from the Blue Jays to round out the rotation. Seattle’s challenge will be scoring runs with an underwhelming lineup in a not-so-hitter-friendly park. The wild card for the Mariners is left fielder, Dustin Ackley. The 26-year-old is entering his fifth MLB season, and last year posted career highs for home runs (14) and RBIs (65). With so many question marks in their batting order, the M’s need one of their young guys to step up to take the pressure off of third baseman Kyle Seager and Cano. Ackley might be that guy. Last season the Mariners missed the postseason by one game. Pitching wins, and Seattle has enough to remain within striking distance of the AL West title.
3rd Place- Oakland Athletics
Can the A’s rebound after suffering one of the biggest meltdowns in recent memory? The answer is no. The 2014 A’s went into last season’s All-Star break as the best team in baseball (59-36), and finished the season in free fall (29-38) before coughing up a late 4-run lead in Kansas City to lose the AL Wild Card. The A’s lineup, despite the addition of Billy Butler, will suffer a severe power outage with the departures of Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson. The starting rotation will be led by Sonny Gray (14-10, 3.08 ERA in 2014) but the loss of Jon Lester to free agency and Jeff Samardzija to an offseason trade, compounded with the reality that Scott Kazmir is not likely to repeat last year’s performance (15-9, 3.55 ERA in 32 starts), makes prospects both grim and slim for Oakland. The wild card for the Athletics is right fielder, Josh Reddick. After a career year in 2012 (.305/32/85), he has had two disappointing seasons in a row and has just a .245 average with 24 home runs during that span. If Oakland is going to have even a mediocre season, he will need to get off to a fast start and stay hot in the middle of an order which failed to produce in the second half last year. Poor Billy Beane put the house on red, and it came up black. And without the financial resources that other clubs enjoy, his only recourse is to draft well and make crafty trades. Even Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill can’t make this team contend.
4th Place- Houston Astros
The Astros really aren’t as bad as we think they are. Sure, they’re bad, but they’re not hopeless. Finishing with over 100 losses three straight seasons will always result in high draft picks, which, in turn, should result in drafting and developing the best blue chip prospects. Houston isn’t reinventing the wheel with that strategy, but their young players are finally bearing fruit. Second baseman Jose Altuve headlines this group. He’s already a two-time All-Star at just 24 years of age, and last season led the American League in hits (225), batting average (.341), and steals (56). He also became the first player since 1933 to have 130 hits and 40 stolen bases before the All-Star break. George Springer last year played in only 78 games, but was productive in the middle of the order with 20 homers and 51 RBIs. Chris Carter will be the DH, batting cleanup. His home run totals have gone up (29 in 2013 to 37 in 2014) and his strikeouts have gone down (212 in 2013 to 182 in 2014) in his two years in Houston. Jed Lowrie was signed in the offseason to hold down short, and Matt Dominguez (16 homers, 57 RBIs last season) will likely be their starting third baseman. The rotation is average at best, but left hander Dallas Keuchel (12-9, 2.93 ERA, 200 IP) and right hander Collin McHugh (11-9, 2.73 ERA, 154.2 IP) had very good seasons with little run support. Scott Feldman projects to be the team’s third starter. Last season he went 8-12 but had a respectable 3.74 ERA in 29 starts. Their bullpen has to improve. Last season their pen had an ERA over 4.50 and blew 26 saves. In the offseason they signed Luke Gregerson (2.12 ERA in 72.1 innings in 2014 w/ Oakland) and Pat Neshek (1.87 ERA in 67.1 innings in 2014 w/ St. Louis) to plug the holes. The wild card for the Astros is first baseman, Jon Singleton. The 23-year-old batted only .168 in 95 games last season, and Houston is relying on him to provide much-needed pop in the middle of the Astros order. Last season the Astros were 40-56 at the break, but finished the second half with a record of 30-36, and their 70 wins were 19 wins more than the 2013 squad. The team is heading in the right direction. Will they contend in 2015? No chance. But in 2017 or 2018? I think so.
5th Place- Texas Rangers
Let’s start with the good for the Texas Rangers, because there definitely isn’t much of that to go around. They have a few bats. The top of their lineup includes right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, shortstop Elvis Andrus, the ageless Adrian Beltre at third base, and a (hopefully) healthy Prince Fielder at first. The rest of their lineup is pretty thin and uncertain. Ian Kinsler is gone (traded to Detroit for Fielder), Michael Young is gone, Nelson Cruz is gone, and Josh Hamilton is gone (in more ways than one). It’s hard to believe that a team that won back to back AL pennants could be this bad, this soon. But they lack depth in their starting rotation, their bullpen, and their outfield. Yu Darvish is their ace but is coming off of an injury-plagued season during which he started only 22 games (10-7, 3.06 ERA in 144.1 IP). He began throwing in December and whether or not he can regain his form remains to be seen. Other than maybe Derek Holland (16 wins in 2011, only 5 starts in 2014), the rotation is a collection of ponies. Last season Colby Lewis and Nick Tepesch had a combined record of 15-25 and a cumulative ERA of 4.77. The bullpen has Neftali Feliz (2014: 13 saves in 30 appearances, 1.99 ERA), who will likely be their closer, but question marks in the set up roles. The wild card for the Rangers (by default) is left hander, Ross Detwiler, who was acquired in a trade from Washington in December. If he can give the Rangers anything close to what he gave the Nats in 2012 (10-8 in 27 starts, 3.40 ERA, 164.1 IP), AND Darvish and Holland have bounce back, injury-free seasons, Texas could surprise some people. Don’t expect it to happen; the two worst teams in the AL West will reside in the Lone Star State.