1) The Pirates will win the NL Central and it won’t be close
There is an argument to be made that the Pirates are the best team in baseball. The Nationals and Dodgers are getting all the preseason love, but the Pirates just keep on keeping on. Andrew McCutchen continues to get overlooked and overshadowed because his name isn’t Mike Trout. And Ray Searage continues to take reclamation projects like Francisco Liriano, AJ Burnett, Vance Worley and more and turn them into diamonds. Also, this is the year Gerrit Cole breaks out and becomes the ace he was projected to be. The Jung-Ho Kang signing went way farther under the radar than it should have. We are talking about someone who hit 40 home runs last year in the Korean leagues. One person hit 40 home runs last year in the majors: Nelson Cruz. Power is down all across the big leagues, and I know, all caveats in here about how Korean league baseballs are different and the league lends itself to more home runs, but even you take away half of Kang’s home runs and project him out to 20 next year in the big leagues, do you know how many shortstops managed that last year? 3. Ian Desmond, Jhonny Peralta and Troy Tulowitzki. Only 5 had 15 homers, adding in Jimmy Rollins and Alexei Ramirez. Don’t sleep on Kang and don’t sleep on the Pirates.
At the risk of angering the best fans in baseball, I don’t like the Cardinals this year. Every year they are the easy pick. They have good young talent and do well no matter what, they are the easy hedge when making predictions. They have had years of success and should be commended for it, but for the first time in many years I don’t think they’ll do well. Ya, they’ll still make the playoffs, but I don’t like them to win the division. The team has glaring weaknesses and is counting on bounce backs or return from injury for a lot of its regulars. Adam Wainwright has now thrown over 1500 innings in his successful career and injury scares are popping up every day. The ace of the future Michael Wacha is coming off his own shoulder troubles that could resurface at any time. The MVP of the team Yadier Molina finally started showing his age last year and even if he comes back healthy, he will likely never play 140 games in a season again. Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthall have yet to show they can control their lights out stuff, and newcomer Jason Heyward has never quite put it all together. All that being said, I could totally see this prediction being wrong and the Cardinals being great as usual, but it’s just feeling like this is the year that things begin to fall apart for them.
2) The Mets will win more games than the Yankees this year
Of the two New York teams, the Mets are going to win more games in 2015. Not only do reports from spring training show that ace Matt Harvey is back to his old ways, but the team features reigning rookie of the year Jacob DeGromm as it’s one-two punch. We haven’t seen both of those pitchers at full strength at the same time until now. The Mets have an underrated offense, featuring some nice power from the likes of Curtis Granderson and Lucas Duda, along with some good veterans and high-upside young arms in Jon Niese, Jenrry Mejia and Rafael Montero. All of this is not to mention that they play in the worst division in baseball (more on that below). This is the year it comes together for the Mets.
Is it possible to feel bad for the Yankees? All of the Derek Jeter pomp and circumstance was a good distraction from a team that ranked 13th in the AL in runs scored despite large free agent signings from the winter before. There are obvious reasons to worry when it comes to relying on aging veterans, but the Yankees actually improved in smart ways this year. Replacing Derek Jeter’s “defense” with Didi Gregorious’s DEFENSE. I also suspect Nate Eovaldi might get the Brandon McCarthy syndrome, develop his offspeed pitches and breakout in the Bronx. But all that being said, this team is going to depend on Masa Tanaka’s elbow. He is going to be playing all year with a partially torn UCL, and all it will take will be one setback before he’ll be forced to have Tommy John surgery. The Yankees will not embarrass themselves, but consecutive seasons without reaching the playoffs could lead to blowback and restructuring in the front office near the end of the year.
3) The Nationals are all in and they will win 100 games this year (and then lose in the playoffs)
The last time a team won 100 games was the Phillies in 2011. That drought will be broken this year thanks to the Nationals being the most “win-now” of the “win-now” ball clubs. Fresh off the signing of Max Scherzer to what will go down as one of the worst contracts of all time, the Nationals now feature a rotation of 6 pitchers that could crack the top 3 on any team in baseball. That the Nationals decided to buy a free agent starter despite already featuring the best rotation in baseball, instead of locking up homegrown talent like Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmerman shows that the team is frustrated after strong showings the past three years, but lack of playoff success and that the owner is desperate to buy a championship in the worst way. This team is solid top to bottom, and it plays in a division with the two worst teams in baseball: the Braves who have already conceded the season and set their sites on the 2016 one featuring their new ballpark, and the Phillies, who are no more than a punch line at this point.
But the issue is, the playoffs are unpredictable. Bullpens can matter more than rotations, and a fluky hit or call here or there can ruin your chances. And unfortunately, managing matters more in the playoffs. We saw last year that Matt Williams can affect a game when he pulled Zimmerman early, leading to a blown save, an 18-inning loss, and an early exit from the playoffs. The Nats will be fun to watch this year, right up until their early exit from the playoffs.
4) This is the year of the Cuban duds
There has been a string of Cuban phenoms making their debut the past few years, featuring concensus rookie of the year Jose Abreu, MVP in the making Yasiel Puig and La Potencia Yoenis Cespedes. This year featured the high profile signings of Rusney Castillo to a $72.5 million deal with the Red Sox, Yasmany Tomas to a $68.5 million deal with the D’Backs, and Yoan Moncada to a record $31.5 million signing bonus (total cost of $63 million after penalties), and Hector Olivera to a $62.5 million deal with the Dodgers despite worries of a torn UCL.
The problem is, the best players from Cuba have already arrived, and even though teams are hoping to capitalize and get their own Puig or Abreu, the recent signings come with real question marks and holes in their games. Castillo is already showing injury issues, Moncada will need at least a year if not more in the minors to catch up to major league pitching (especially with a year off from baseball), and while Tomas has real power, his defense and hit tool are suspect. I expect 3 out of 4 of these new signings to not work out. (Post spring training update: all four players are starting the year in the minors, so we will have to wait and see.)
5) The Cubs will finish below .500 again
Everyone has been hyping the Cubs all offseason thanks to the additions of Jon Lester and Joe Maddon along with the monstrous Spring Training numbers of rookie phenom Kris Bryant. However, the Cubs have already delayed Bryant’s call up to the majors for a few weeks to keep his service clock from starting and earn themselves an extra year of his services before free agency. But Bryant or no Bryant, this club has real issues and is relying heavily on rookies and unproven players to all break out together. Unfortunately, that’s not how baseball works, and while I do expect a lot of the Cubs young talent to begin to emerge this year, they are still one year away from relevancy.
6) The Astros will put up huge offensive numbers
The Astros will lead the league in home runs and will be top 5 in runs scored. However, they will still end up below .500. I like a lot of what the Astros have been doing, grabbing cast offs and bringing up good young players. They have monstrous power with Chris Carter, George Springer and the addition of Evan Gattis, but they also are playing in the toughest division in baseball. You will start to see the first real signs of life from a team that has been dormant for years, but they are still one year away from really making a run in the AL West.
7) The Tigers won’t make the playoffs
The Tigers spent another offseason getting older and worse. They traded away more of their depth and extended more veterans who are past their primes. The AL Central has 4 relevant teams this year, and the Tigers could be the worst of those 4. With Cleveland and Kansas City emerging as dominant teams and Chicago drastically improving over the offseason, the Tigers needed to do a lot to keep up. However, while a full year of David Price will help the team immensely, their reliance on past-their prime players will bite them along with the injury bug this year causing them to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
8) Billy Beane will be right…again
Beane raised a lot of eyebrows this offseason – and rightly so – as he traded away a lot of controlled young talented players for other controlled younger potentially less-talented players. However, the A’s will still be good. They have loads of good young pitching, hitters who will make contributions in many facets of the game, and the willingness to make the extra additions to put his club over the hump should things look bleak midseason.
But my favorite of his moves this offseason, and this one is selfish, was the acquisition of Marcus Semien to play shortstop in the trade that sent Jeff Samardzija to Chicago. I had the pleasure of playing with Marcus since I was 5 years old in the El Cerrito Youth Baseball League and then again in High School at St. Mary’s College High School in Berkeley. Then I got to watch Marcus play at Cal a few years later and have been following his quick rise through the minors. Marcus is a solid player, he does everything well even if he doesn’t do any one thing spectacularly. Marcus is a great player and a great person and I think he’ll be the A’s shortstop of the foreseeable future and I can’t wait to cheer him and the A’s on as they race for the AL West crown this year.
9) Kris Bryant won’t win Rookie of the Year
I know that everyone has already crowned Bryant the ROY after his 9 home run romp through Spring Training, but Bryant will have issues this year and will not win the award. First off, he will be getting a late start. It isn’t his fault, since Chicago is delaying his service clock, but regardless, it will hurt his chances as his overall numbers will be down for the year. He also has shown a propensity to strike out in the minors, posting high strikeout rates at both AA and AAA last year. That isn’t the kind of thing that is likely to change at the major league level, and it could bring his batting average way down even as he hits lots of home runs. A good reference for that would be his teammate Javier Baez and fellow phenom George Springer in 2014.
The other problem for Bryant will be Joc Pederson. Pederson will have his own issues with the strikeout in the bigs, but like Bryant he tore up the minor leagues last year and looks to be ready to take the next step. And after a hot spring, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly finally looks ready to make him the every day center fielder. His defense will drastically help the club improve on what they received from Kemp, Puig, Ethier and Van Slyke in center last year, while his power – speed combo will light up the fantasy scorecards and get him on the radar of the national writers. That plus hitting every day in a great lineup will win Pederson the rookie of the year award in 2015 and keep Bryant relegated to 2nd place.