SweetSpot: Washington Nationals
Remember 2012, when a Nationals-Braves series was a baseball jamboree to be highlighted in yellow weeks in advance? When the teams combined for 192 wins? When each went to the playoffs? The future was bright then, and full of stars. You’d see Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons and Craig Kimbrel suit up for Atlanta, or see Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann for the Nationals.
The bright future past gave way to a somewhat mediocre 2013. Zimmermann and Gonzalez experienced slight regression while Strasburg and Harper were merely excellent rather than otherworldly -- with Harper missing 40-plus games to boot -- leading to a disappointing 86 Nats wins, four games back of even the second wild-card slot. The Braves did everything right and ran away with the division by 10 games, but it wasn't the same, at least for nonpartisans, as a fully competitive, hard-fought division.
Then, before 2014 really got going, the baseball gods found some excuse to punish the Braves, sending Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen to Tommy John surgery while afflicting Mike Minor with shoulder tendinitis. Suddenly, with a back end of their rotation made up of Alex Wood, David Hale, and Aaron Harang, the team was going to have to overcome the free-agency loss of Brian McCann through the sheer force of will of Justin Upton and Heyward. Good as they are, neither guy is Barry Bonds, capable of bearing alone the burden of elevating mediocrity to respectability.
So the hoped-for two-team division race was down, realistically, to just the Nats ... except for those pesky baseball gods, who apparently want to see the Marlins make the playoffs with 82 wins and therefore decided to strike down the Nationals’ big winter trade acquisition, Doug Fister, and snakebit catcher Wilson Ramos, each of whom has star-level talent and mediocre backups (Tanner Roark/Taylor Jordan and Jose Lobaton, respectively).
Worse yet, Saturday's pregame announcements featured the news that Denard Span had to head to the disabled list with a concussion suffered in a weird collision with Dan Uggla. Concussions being what they are, Span could be back in a week or a month or not at all. This leaves Nate McLouth in the Nationals’ outfield, which is something other than a disaster, McLouth having experienced an unpredictable renaissance over the last two years, hitting .252/.324/.393. That line plays fine in this low-offense era, but the likely two-position defensive drop, from Span to Harper in center and from Harper to McLouth in left, won't make many Nationals hurlers happy. Strasburg and Gonzalez don't have much to worry about, both being strikeout pitchers with solid-to-good ground-ball rates, but pitchers less apt to miss bats may find themselves frustrated by doubles in the gap that Span would have run down.
All of this, bad as it is, could be overcome, except that suddenly, as of the fifth inning of Saturday's loss to the Braves, Washington finds itself without Zimmerman for the next four to six weeks after the third baseman broke his thumb diving back into second base on a pickoff. (He was out, adding insult to literal injury.) The Nats' depth was sorely tested last year, with “tested” serving as a euphemism for the fact that the non-regulars were completely awful. Danny Espinosa, a handy example because he will have to cover second base in Zimmerman's absence while Anthony Rendon shifts back over to his original position at third, somehow hit .158/.193/.272 in 2013. Sure, Espinosa probably isn’t that bad, as he broke his wrist early in 2013 after managing a low-contact, high-power .242/.319/.408 line from 2011 to 2012. Combine that with good defense and Espinosa was once and might still be a nice above-average player. The possibility remains, however, that he is exactly as bad as he looked last season.
If the 2011-12 Espinosa is who the Nationals get in their lineup now, and if Zimmerman returns in the time expected, and if Fister recovers in good order from his lat strain, and if Ramos can come back at full strength after hamate bone surgery, and if Span makes a complete recovery from his concussion, and, as long as we're here, if Harper's wall-smashing approach to the sport doesn't result in his missing any time, then the Nationals should be fine. Indeed, given the maladies faced by their competition, Washington should still be the favorite in the NL East even if only half of that list works out.
But that's a lot of ifs, ones that this team isn't built to deal with, ones that, should the Nats wend their way through the darkness and despair of an injury-riddled season, could before we know it lead to the Dinger Machine in Miami lighting up the October skies after a series-winning 480-foot walk-off homer by newly minted playoff hero Giancarlo Stanton. The prudent fan will begin preparing mentally and emotionally for this possibility posthaste.
Jason Wojciechowski blogs for Beaneball, the SweetSpot network's affiliate dedicated to covering the Oakland Athletics.
According to John Fisher of ESPN Stats & Info, Goldschmidt's six previous home runs off Lincecum had come on inside pitches; this one came on an outside fastball and Goldschmidt drilled it down the line for a first-inning, three-run shot. It was the first opposite-field home run Lincecum had ever allowed to a right-handed batter at AT&T.
Is Goldschmidt's dominance just a statistical quirk, one of those things that will happen when you play a game long enough? Or is Lincecum tipping his pitches in some way that Goldsdchmidt has picked up on? Not that Goldschmidt would give anything away, but he seems to be leaning to statistical quirk, telling MLB.com, "Obviously I've had success right now, but that can change in a hurry. There's plenty of guys that maybe you start off hot and then all of a sudden you don't get a hit. That's how baseball is -- or vice versa, maybe there's a guy you don't hit very well and then for some reason you get a few hits off him. We're talking a small sample size here."
You have to love a player who quotes small sample size.
Anyway, the home run jump-started the D-backs to a much-needed 7-3 win, with Josh Collmenter pitching the final four innings in relief of Bronson Arroyo.
Thoughts on other games ...
- Should the Tigers be worried about new closer Joe Nathan? He got the "win" in a 7-6 victory over the Dodgers, but that was only after he allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth to blow a 6-3 lead. Nathan has allowed six hits, four walks and five runs in 3.2 innings and has blown two saves chances (although the Tigers ended up winning both games). His fastball velocity has averaged just 90.6 mph -- granted, we're only talking about 35 pitches here -- down from 92.2 mph last season, which itself was down from 93.9 in 2012. Nathan had said on the radio earlier in the day that he'd been pitching through a dead arm; after the game, he said he felt better, just that his command was a little off. Maybe so, but when you're 39, any slump becomes more worrisome.
- I think Masahiro Tanaka still has No. 1-starter upside. He gave up a two-out, three-run homer to Jonathan Schoop in the second inning, but was otherwise very effective, striking out 10 in seven innings. He induced 22 swings-and-misses, the second-most on the season (Felix Hernandez had 24 on Opening Day). Both his splitter and slider look like wipeout pitches, although Schoop blasted a hanging slider for a 407-foot home run. He sits in the low 90s with his fastball (he's maxed out at 94.7 mph) and pounds the outside corner to left-handed batters with that pitch (inside corner to righties). Obviously, he can't afford to give up a home run every start but he's going to be considered the Yankees ace by the end of the season.
- With David Robertson on the DL, the back of the bullpen is scrambling, however, and the Orioles scored twice off Shawn Kelley in the ninth for the 5-4 win (a bottom-of-the-ninth rally against Tommy Hunter fell short). Hunter is hardly a lockdown closer himself, so when you factor in Nathan and Jim Johnson in Oakland, a lot of good teams are having issues in the ninth.
- Also watched a lot of Garrett Richards' strong outing for the Angels in a 2-0 win over the Mariners. He's always had the great arm and he basically fired high fastballs all night -- he averaged 96.1 mph on his heater -- and the Mariners couldn't touch him, with just one hit in seven innings. I don't even recall any hard outs. I'm not going to suggest he's turned the corner -- on this night he was hitting his spots better than usual -- but the Angels desperately need him to turn into a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. Albert Pujols also homered for the second straight game, a two-run shot off a hanging changeup from Mariners rookie Roenis Elias.
- After Jordan Zimmermann's first start, I wrote that all he has to do to potentially win a Cy Young Award is cut down on the blow-up outings he has a few times a year. Well, he had one of those on Wednesday, as the Marlins knocked him out in the second inning after he had allowed seven hits and five runs. The Nationals fought back, however, as Bryce Harper hit his first home run, a three-run shot, and then Jayson Werth won it with a grand slam off Carlos Marmol in the eighth, smashing an 0-1 fastball to left-center. Craig Stammen had the clutch long relief outing, tossing 3.1 scoreless innings. Tough one for the Marlins to take.
- Finally, Andrelton Simmons with one of those plays only he can make. And Billy Hamilton tagging up on what was essentially a pop-up.
In the case of Jose Fernandez, the stuff is always premium, with a fastball that touches the upper 90s when he pumps it up, a slider that makes right-handed batters weep in torment and a sharp curveball that he’s not afraid to throw on any count. He’ll even drop in an occasional changeup, just to turn batters' brains to mush worrying about a fourth pitch.
But his pitch to Seth Smith shows why Fernandez is a pitcher who relies on more than just stuff. The 21-year-old knows how to pitch. He usually throws a four-seam fastball, but against Smith he threw a first-pitch, 89 mph sinker that Smith pounded into the ground for a 4-6-3 double play.
That was pretty much it for the Padres. Fernandez regrouped, found his command and threw seven pitches in the fourth, 10 in the fifth and 14 in the sixth, allowing him to pitch into the seventh inning. He left with two outs in the seventh, after striking out Alexi Amarista (who reached when the curveball got away from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia). Fernandez’s final line in the Marlins’ 4-0 victory looked like another dominating gem: 6.2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 SO. But this is one of those games in which an ace overcame a shaky beginning.
Through two starts now, Fernandez has allowed one run and eight hits in 12.2 innings with 17 strikeouts. Going back to last season, he’s allowed more two runs just twice in 20 starts, and those two times he allowed three runs.
Fernandez, who weighed as much as 260 pounds in high school (perhaps a reason he fell to the 14th pick in 2011), spent the offseason biking as much as 600 miles per week on his $9,000 Specialized S-Works Venge bike. Listed at 240 pounds as a rookie, Fernandez is now a svelte but still powerful 220 pounds. He’s poised, confident, in terrific shape and developing the mind of an ace to go with his all-world right arm. Two starts in and he looks like a guy who will be the best pitcher in baseball in 2014.
* * * *
Stephen Strasburg is still trying to find the consistency that Fernandez seems to have found. He struck out 10 batters in six innings on Opening Day but still gave up four runs, as three of the five hits he allowed to the Mets came in the first inning, including a three-run homer.
Freddie Freeman walked, Strasburg gave up two soft liners and a ground single to load the bases. He started Dan Uggla with a curveball in the dirt and then came back with another curve that Uggla grounded sharply into left field for a two-run single. Bryce Harper’s throwing error allowed the runners to move up to second and third for Ryan Doumit.
Strasburg is a strikeout pitcher and needed one here, with the Nationals down 4-2. Against the switch-hitting Doumit, he fired six fastballs in a row -- ball, called strike, foul, ball, ball, foul. It was a curious pitch selection, especially after he got the count to 1-2, because against left-handed batters in 2013, Strasburg’s fastball wasn’t a great strikeout pitch. In 223 plate appearances against lefties ending in fastballs, he struck out just 23 batters (and walked 28). Of 416 swings on his fastball by lefties, just 56 were missed. So Doumit hung in there. Strasburg did finally come in with a 3-2 curveball, but Doumit looked like he was sitting on it and lined it over a drawn-in infield for an RBI single. The sixth run came on a sac fly after Strasburg had been yanked.
In comparing Fernandez to Strasburg, the big difference comes with runners on base. Last year, Strasburg allowed a .184 average with the bases empty compared to .245 with men on. Fernandez was .176 with the bases empty and .191 with runners on.
Saturday night's games showcased that difference. Fernandez got out of his jam and settled down; Strasburg didn't. If the two entered the season regarded essentially as equals as Cy Young contenders, it's Fernandez's poise and pitchability that right now makes him the better ace.
* * * *
Felix Hernandez once had a fastball that matched Fernandez and Strasburg. But those days are in the past. He's now a wily veteran who turns 28 on Tuesday (can he really be that old already?) and his fastest pitch against the A's on Saturday was clocked at 92.3 mph. But Hernandez spots that fastball, usually on the black, and backs it up with one of the most devastating pitches in the game, a hard changeup that comes in at the knees and seems to take a 90-degree turn straight down at the last split-second.
Hernandez threw 23 changeups against the A's with an average velocity of 88.6 mph, not that much slower than his fastball, which makes it doubly tough for hitters to pick up. The A's did nothing against it: 15 swings, five misses, eight foul balls, one ground ball out and one fly ball out. The effectiveness of that fastball/changeup combo can be seen in the two jams Hernandez worked through.
In the fourth inning, the game still 0-0, Jed Lowrie singled with two outs and Brandon Moss doubled on a pop fly that shortstop Brad Miller lost in the sun. That brought up Yoenis Cespedes. Hernandez went 89 mph fastball right on the outsider corner, a slider off the plate that Cespedes missed, then another fastball right at the knees that Cespedes, perhaps looking for that changeup, swung through. In the sixth, Coco Crisp tripled with one out, bringing up Josh Donaldson. Slider for a strike, a foul tip on a changeup, a 92 mph fastball inside. With the count 1-2, Donaldson probably expected the changeup -- he had struck out earlier in the game on one. He got one that fell off a table. Swing and a miss, Donaldson nearly screwing himself into the ground. Hernandez then got Lowrie to pop up -- changeup, curveball.
Hernandez lost his shutout on Lowrie's home run in the ninth, but this game exemplified the King at his best: four pitches that he'll throw on any count, with precision and a plan and deception. It's a beautiful thing.
1. Jayson Werth (R)
2. Bryce Harper (L)
3. Ryan Zimmerman (R)
4. Ian Desmond (R)
5. Adam LaRoche (L)
6. Anthony Rendon (R)
7. Jose Lobaton (S)
8. Denard Span (L)
OK, 2013 is ancient history. Here are those players ranked by 2014 projected wOBA from ZiPS:
1. Bryce Harper (L)
2. Jayson Werth (R)
3. Ryan Zimmerman (R)
4. Anthony Rendon (R)
5. Ian Desmond (R)
6. Adam LaRoche (L)
7. Denard Span (L)
8. Jose Lobaton (S)
By any way you measure it, Bryce Harper is one of the best hitters on the Nationals; it's hard to argue against that. Even while playing through some injuries last season he had a better on-base percentage and slugging percentage than Zimmerman. It wasn't a huge advantage (23 points in on-base, 21 points in slugging) but it was still an advantage. Plus he's faster than Zimmerman, which isn't accounted for in wOBA. So either he or Werth would logically be considered the best hitter on the team.
Here was the lineup Williams ran out there against Mets starter Bartolo Colon:
1. Denard Span (L)
2. Anthony Rendon (R)
3. Jayson Werth (R)
4. Adam LaRoche (L)
5. Ryan Zimmerman (R)
6. Bryce Harper (L)
7. Ian Desmond (R)
8. Jose Lobaton (S)
From Adam Kilgore's story in the Washington Post on why Harper hit sixth:
"We want to continue to open Bryce’s game up," he said. When asked about what that meant, and why Harper needs to hit lower in the lineup in order open up his game, Williams expanded on his reasoning.
"One, I think it takes a little bit of pressure off of Bryce," Williams said. "It allows him to use his legs, and I think that’s important, when he wants to use his legs. Now, we look at tonight as an example. [Mets starter Bartolo Colon] is really quick to the plate, so will there be opportunities to do that? You never know. But we want to give him the option to do. ...
"Now, from a managers’ perspective you say 'If I hit him second or third in front of Jayson [Werth] and [Ryan Zimmerman], do I really want him trying to steal second when we're one swing away from a two-run homer or a three-run homer?' That's the logic. Most of all, I want him to be free and play and not have those boundaries on him. And I think, for me, over the long run he will drive in big runs for us."
OK, so from that we gather that Williams hit Harper sixth to take pressure off him and to possibly allow him to steal a base. Harper hit fifth on Opening Day, when the lineup went Span-Zimmerman-Werth-Wilson Ramos-Harper-Desmond-LaRoche-Rendon (also against a right-hander).
Look, managers obsess over lineups -- probably too much. But they are a little important, even if the gains from a statistically optimal lineup are small. Studies show that an optimal lineup would have your best hitters batting second and fourth. Williams hit his two best hitters sixth and third. Some of that could have been matchups. Maybe he thought LaRoche was a good matchup for Colon, or that LaRoche will bounce back from a bad 2013 (although he hit him seventh on Opening Day). It's possible that Williams wanted to go left-right-left, although he hit three righties in a row against Dillon Gee. Maybe he really does think a stolen base from the No. 6 batter is more important than having Harper get more plate appearances than Span. Maybe he thinks Harper doesn't "deserve" to hit third or fourth, in deference to his more veteran teammates.
The biggest flaw here is that Span is hitting leadoff and he's clearly one of the weakest hitters on the team. He's not terrible, so it's far from the worst lineups we've seen, but he doesn't bring a high enough on-base percentage to offset his lack of power (.279/.327/.380) and he's not a big enough base thief to create many extra runs that way (20 steals in 2013). He is, however, probably the fastest guy on the team and that's why he's hitting leadoff. So Williams has elected -- for now -- to give an inferior hitter more plate appearances.
For all the sabermetric advances in the game, such as the increased use of infield shifts, a lot of managers still use sub-optimal batting orders, failing to realize you're better off getting one of your best hitters higher in the order instead of worrying about having an RBI guy batting fifth or sixth. It's early, so I don't want to bash Williams too much here. Other than hitting Span first and Werth third, it appears he's going to move guys around. Harper is batting second in Thursday's game, although that may simply be because Danny Espinosa is playing instead of Rendon.
And bottom line: If Harper hits like most of us expect him to, he'll move up in the order. (I think.)
It's the third installment of the epic Mike Trout-Miguel Cabrera trilogy, made even more intriguing by the mammoth contracts the two players just signed. While you can come up with a dozen legitimate MVP candidates in the National League, AL honors will almost surely go to Trout or Cabrera, barring a miracle Mariners run to the AL West title or something like that. Even though Cabrera has dominated the voting the past two seasons -- he received 45 first-place votes to just 11 for Trout -- I'm leaning toward Trout winning in 2014 for the following reasons:
(1) I think he's going to take a small step forward. It's hard to imagine him playing better, but Trout's suggestion that's he going to be more aggressive swinging early in the count could actually be a good thing. Among 140 qualified regulars last season, Trout ranked 140th in swing rate (37 percent). He ranked 131st in swing rate on first pitches. Trout is too disciplined to start hacking at pitches out of the zone, so zeroing in on certain pitches early in the count could lead to more production without sacrificing his walk rate all that much.
(2) Cabrera will be hard-pressed to match the past two seasons. That's not a knock, just an awareness of how good he's been (including a sick .397/.529/.782 line with runners in scoring position last year). Last September's injury issues -- he hit .278 with one home run -- show that Cabrera is human even when his body fails him. He says he's fine after offseason surgery, but it still raises a small question heading into the season.
(3) Only one player -- Barry Bonds from 2001 to 2004 -- has won three consecutive MVP awards. Voters don't like to give it to the same player every year. In fact, Cabrera was just the second AL player in 40 years to win back-to-back MVP honors (Frank Thomas was the last in 1993-94). If the numbers are close, that works in Trout's favor this time around.
(4) More awareness that Trout is the better all-around player. Cabrera has been worth 7.2 and 7.5 WAR (Baseball-Reference) the past two seasons, Trout 10.8 and 8.9. Polls of general managers have indicated they think Trout is the better player. Again, that's not a knock on Cabrera, the best hitter in the game.
(5) The Angels should be better. The biggest roadblock to Trout winning the past two seasons was the Angels missing the playoffs. In recent years, voters have almost exclusively given the MVP Award to a guy on a playoff team. The Tigers are still the better bet for the postseason, so that could ultimately swing the award back to Cabrera for a third straight year.
2. Who is this year's Josh Donaldson or Matt Carpenter?
Historically, these guys had pretty amazing and unique seasons. Donaldson was 27, in his first full season as a starter, and he surprised everyone by finishing fourth in the AL MVP vote. Carpenter, also 27 and playing every day for the first time, finished fourth in the NL MVP vote. And then there was Chris Davis -- also 27 -- who mashed 53 home runs and knocked in 138 runs. He had a little more of a résumé than Donaldson or Carpenter, having hit 33 home runs the year before, but nobody had him as a preseason MVP candidate.
Odds are slim that we'll see even one of those types of performances, let alone three, but since 27 seemed to be the magical age, here are some guys playing their age-27 seasons in 2014: Pedro Alvarez, Jay Bruce, Chris Carter, Colby Rasmus, Evan Gattis, Justin Smoak, Jason Kipnis, Pablo Sandoval, Desmond Jennings, Josh Reddick, Ike Davis, Michael Saunders, Yonder Alonso. Hmm ... Alvarez certainly could go all Chris Davis on us (he hit 36 home runs in 2013), but I don't see a Donaldson or Carpenter in there; then again, we didn't see a Donaldson or Carpenter coming last year. (Guys such as Bruce, Kipnis and Sandoval are already pretty accomplished players.)
If we go down to age-26 players, I see a few more interesting candidates: Brandon Belt (I've written about him), Kyle Seager, Khris Davis, Kole Calhoun, Dustin Ackley. So there you go: Kole Calhoun, MVP candidate!
3. Are the Yankees too old?
Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:
C -- Brian McCann (30 years old)
1B -- Mark Teixeira (34)
2B -- Brian Roberts (36)
3B -- Kelly Johnson (32)
SS -- Derek Jeter (40)
LF -- Brett Gardner (30)
CF -- Jacoby Ellsbury (30)
RF -- Carlos Beltran (37)
DH -- Alfonso Soriano (38)
The top subs are Ichiro Suzuki (40) and Brendan Ryan (32). If those guys ending up staying reasonably healthy, the Yankees won't have one regular younger than 30. I wonder if that's ever happened before. The rotation features 33-year-old CC Sabathia and 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda.
And yet ... the Yankees may be better than we expect. I have them at 84 wins, which is right where the projection systems have them (FanGraphs at 83 wins, Baseball Prospectus also at 83), and I'm beginning to wonder if that's too conservative. Masahiro Tanaka looked terrific this spring and maybe he does match the 2.59 ERA projected by the Oliver system as opposed to the 3.68 of ZiPS or 3.87 of Steamer. Michael Pineda could provide a huge boost to the rotation. The offense is going to score a lot more runs than last year. Yes, age and injuries will be the deciding factor, but the Yankees have defied Father Time in the past.
4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?
I'm going with explode -- in a good way. That doesn't mean he isn't going to give Don Mattingly headaches or miss the cutoff guy every now and then or get a little exuberant on the base paths on occasion or incite columnists to write about the good ol' days when Mickey Mantle always showed up to the ballpark on time. But the positives will outweigh the negatives, he'll provide tons of energy to the Dodgers, he'll be one of the most exciting players in the game and he's going to have a big, big season.
5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?
For a team that won 96 games, the Braves enter the season with a surprising range of outcomes. Minus Brian McCann, Tim Hudson and Kris Medlen, this won't be the same team as last year. But maybe that's a good thing if Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton don't hit .179 and .184 again. The Braves allowed fewer runs in 2013 than any of the Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz teams, so they were going to be hard-pressed to match that run prevention anyway. Implode or explode? I'm going somewhere in the middle, with 86 wins -- which may be just enough to capture a wild card.
6. Who are the most important players of 2014?
The first 10 names that pop into my head, without analysis or explanation (other than to say these are players with a great deal of potential volatility in their performance or a high degree injury risk):
1. Derek Jeter, Yankees
2. Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
3. Tim Lincecum, Giants
4. Billy Hamilton, Reds
5. Francisco Liriano, Pirates
6. Scott Kazmir, A's
7. Albert Pujols, Angels
8. Michael Wacha, Cardinals
9. B.J. Upton, Braves
10. Ubaldo Jimenez, Orioles
7. Which team is baseball's worst?
I'm going with the Astros, although it wouldn't surprise me to see the Phillies plummet to the bottom. Or the Twins. If you want a dark horse team, how about the Blue Jays? The rotation could be a disaster and if even Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and/or Edwin Encarnacion suffer lengthy injuries, the offense could collapse, as well.
8. Is offense going to decrease across the league again?
Considering there's going to be even more drug testing this year, I'll say it drops a tiny bit. Here are the runs per game totals in recent seasons:
The increased use of defensive shifts will continue to make it harder to hit singles, and the pitching just seems to get better and better. Yes, we had several guys go down with season-ending injuries in spring training -- most notably Medlen, Jarrod Parker and Patrick Corbin -- but we've added Tanaka, we'll get full seasons from the likes of Wacha and Gerrit Cole and Sonny Gray and Chris Archer and Tony Cingrani, and other young guns such as Taijuan Walker, Eddie Butler, Jonathan Gray, Archie Bradley and Jameson Taillon could make major impacts. Plus, Joe Blanton won't be in the Angels' rotation.
9. Who is this year's Pirates?
By "this year's Pirates," we mean a team that finishes under .500 the year before and unexpectedly soars into the playoffs. We actually had three such teams make the playoffs last year: the Pirates, Red Sox and Indians. In 2012, we had the Orioles, A's, Reds and Nationals. In 2011, we had the Brewers and Diamondbacks. In 2010, we had the Reds.
The Royals don't count because they won 86 games last year, so improving a few wins and reaching the playoffs wouldn't be a surprise.
Technically, the Giants fit since they were below .500, but they would hardly be a surprise team just two years after winning the World Series.
Who does that leave? I see three choices in each league:
Blue Jays, Mariners, Angels -- The Blue Jays need their rotation to produce in a tough division, the Mariners maybe can take advantage of injuries to the A's and Rangers. The Angels were below .500, but they've been perennial playoff contenders, so they hardly fit the "surprise" definition.
Padres, Rockies, Brewers -- I'd be most inclined to go with the Rockies here, as they have two stars in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez and just need better production from the back of the rotation (although the early injury to Jhoulys Chacin doesn't help). I've been on the Brewers' bandwagon the past two years and refuse to jump on this year (which means they're probably headed to the World Series).
10. Who are five rookies who will impact the pennant races?
1. Masahiro Tanaka, P, Yankees. Don't be surprised if he's a Cy Young contender.
2. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox. We saw his already-polished game in the postseason last October.
3. Billy Hamilton, CF, Reds. The speed is Cool Papa Bell turn-of-the-light-switch-and-be-in-bed-before-the-room-goes-dark kind of speed. The defense should be above average, but will he hit?
4. Gregory Polanco, RF, and Jameson Taillon, P, Pirates. They won't be up to start the season but will eventually be part of Pittsburgh's playoff drive.
5. Nick Castellanos, 3B, Tigers. With Cabrera moving over to first, he takes over at third base with potential to produce with the bat.
11. Which division race will be the most exciting?
I'm going with the AL West, which should be a three-team race between the A's, Rangers and Angels, with the Mariners possibly making it a four-team race. Or maybe the AL East, which could be a titanic struggle between the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees and Orioles. Or the NL West, which could be a five-team race if the Dodgers fall back to the pack. Or the NL Central, if the Cardinals aren't as dominant as I believe they will be. Or the AL Central, which the Tigers won by only a game last year. Or the NL East ... which, well, I can't see this as anything but a two-team race. (Sorry, Mets, Marlins and Phillies fans.)
12. Who are some other award contenders?
Here are my picks:
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Evan Longoria
4. Adrian Beltre
5. Dustin Pedroia
AL Cy Young
1. David Price
2. Yu Darvish
3. Max Scherzer
4. Justin Verlander
5. Felix Hernandez
1. Masahiro Tanaka
2. Xander Bogaerts
3. Nick Castellanos
AL home run champ
1. Chris Davis
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Edwin Encarnacion
AL batting champ
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Joe Mauer
1. Yadier Molina
2. Joey Votto
3. Andrew McCutchen
4. Hanley Ramirez
5. Ryan Braun
NL Cy Young
1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Jordan Zimmermann
3. Jose Fernandez
4. Zack Greinke
5. Adam Wainwright
1. Billy Hamilton
2. Chris Owings
3. Travis d'Arnaud
NL home run champ
1. Giancarlo Stanton
2. Pedro Alvarez
3. Paul Goldschmidt
NL batting champ
1. Joey Votto
2. Andrew McCutchen
3. Yadier Molina
13. Do the Red Sox win it all?
No, but they do make the playoffs. My final standings:
Tampa Bay: 93-69
New York: 84-78
Kansas City: 82-80
Los Angeles: 83-79
New York: 73-89
St. Louis: 95-67
Los Angeles: 94-68
San Francisco: 82-80
San Diego: 80-82
14. Who wins it all?
I'm going Rays over Dodgers in seven games. And then the David Price trade rumors will begin again two days later.
Other stuff ...
- Righty Jordan Zimmermann tossed five scoreless innings for the Nationals against the Mets in his final spring tune-up. He's been as good as any pitcher this spring, allowing one run in 18 innings with just one walk. Clayton Kershaw -- sore back and all (he'll miss his start on Sunday night) -- is clearly the Cy Young favorite in the National League, but Zimmermann is a solid sleeper choice if Kershaw falters. Compare Zimmermann over the past two seasons to his more-hyped teammate, Stephen Strasburg. Zimmermann is 31-17 with a 3.10 ERA and 409 innings; Strasburg is 23-15 with a 3.08 ERA and 342 1/3 innings. You may look at Zimmermann's strikeout rate (161 in 213 1/3 innings) and think he doesn't throw hard, but that's not the case. His fastball averaged 93.9 mph last season. Even though he pitches up in the zone with it he induces a lot of weak contact and ground balls thanks to good movement. He mixes in a slider, curve and occasional change. The one thing he has to improve on to go to the next level is limit the blow-up outings; he had games last year with eight, seven, seven and six runs allowed, giving up 10 of his 19 home runs in those four starts.
- Even with the injury to Patrick Corbin, the Diamondbacks sent down Archie Bradley, the hard-throwing right-hander many rank as the top pitching prospect in the minors. I think it's the right decision. Bradley still has to improve his fastball command -- he walked 59 batters in 123 1/3 innings in Double-A -- to succeed consistently at the major league level. A month or two in the minors won't hurt, although it won't surprise me if he's back sooner than that if somebody in the Arizona rotation falters or gets injured.
- The A's and Giants are playing a three-game Bay Bridge series back home and the A's had to be happy to see Scott Kazmir toss 5 1/3 scoreless innings. He did walk three with four strikeouts but allowed only two hits. With the loss of Bartolo Colon as a free agent and Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery, the A's have to find nearly 400 new innings in the rotation. Kazmir threw 150 last year for Cleveland. Josh Reddick homered for the A's. While the rotation may take a hit, the Oakland offense should be better if Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes rebound from mediocre seasons. Remember, the A's were third in the AL in runs even though Reddick posted a .307 OBP in 441 PAs, Cespedes a .294 OBP in 574 PAs and the departed Chris Young a .280 OBP in 375 PAs. It wouldn't surprise me if the A's have the best offense in the AL, leaping over the Tigers and Red Sox.
- Speedster Billy Hamilton went 3-for-4 with two triples for the Reds and is hitting .327/.381/.527 in 55 spring at-bats. There are still a lot of doubts on whether he'll hit at the major league level and his lack of power means he'll see a lot of hard stuff inside, but there have been positive signs this spring, including the willingness to take some pitches and draw a few walks (six in 18 games). He walked a lot in Double-A, not nearly enough in Triple-A, but that needs to become a bigger element of his game. I do like his chances to hit just enough -- say .250 with a .310 OBP -- to keep his job in center field and swipe 60-plus bases.
- The Phillies released 40-year-old vet Bobby Abreu and if you can't make the Phillies ... Abreu didn't play in the majors last year and looked pretty done in 2012 (he posted a .350 OBP but with little power). Twenty-five years ago there would be room for Abreu somewhere as a pinch-hitter/DH/very occasional outfielder, but teams don't carry those guys any more on rosters stocked with so many relievers. The guy had a great career and was a very underrated player during his prime years with the Phillies, hitting .305/.416/.513 from 1998 to 2006 while averaging 29 steals and 5.4 WAR per season. His timing wasn't quite right; he left the Phillies before they become a perennial playoff team and he left the Yankees the year before they won a World Series in 2009. With 60.5 career WAR via Baseball-Reference, he compares in value to other outfielders like Billy Williams (63.6), Richie Asbhurn (63.4), Zack Wheat (60.2), Jim Edmonds (60.3), Gary Sheffield (60.2), Vladimir Guerrero (59.3) and Sammy Sosa (58.4).
- So the Mariners didn't want to pay Randy Wolf a guaranteed $1 million but then gave a guaranteed $1.25 million contract to Chris Young (the pitcher, not the outfielder). Go figure. Young had been in camp with the Nationals but couldn't crack their rotation. Reports, however, had him throwing 88 and healthy, much better than the 83-85 he was throwing when he was last in the majors in 2012. You can argue that the Mariners made a baseball decision here and that Young is a better bet to perform than Wolf, but that's not really what happened. Wolf had made the team before they decided to screw him with a 45-day contract offer, which Wolf turned down, leaving the Mariners with no option but to give Young a guaranteed deal even though he's hardly a sure thing to last all season in the rotation.
Eric Karabell and myself break down the BBTN 100's top left fielders. Left field was once the domain of sluggers like Greg Luzinski and Jim Rice and Manny Ramirez and it didn't matter if you played any defense as long as you hit 30 home runs and knocked in 100. The only regular left fielder to achieve those numbers in 2013 was ... Alfonso Soriano (who hit 32 homers and drove in 93 while playing left, with an additional two and eight coming as a DH). Maybe Carlos Gonzalez and Bryce Harper stay healthy enough to reach those figures this year. Maybe Yoenis Cespedes has a big season for the A's. Maybe Justin Upton improves in his second season in Atlanta. Maybe Josh Hamilton plays better for the Angels.
After hitting 22 home runs in 597 plate appearances as a rookie, he hit 20 in 497 as a sophomore, playing through the knee issue that required surgery after the season. "My knee gave out when I swung," he told Jerry. "Some days it would feel good and there were others when I couldn't walk to first base. I was in a lot of pain. It wasn't a lot of fun."
The projection systems have Harper around 28-29 home runs while playing 142-143 games. Certainly, there's the potential he explodes past that number, but we'll set his over/under at 29.5 home runs.
You're an idiot, Schoenfield. Of course they're important. Go back to your day job.
OK, maybe there's a better way to rephrase that question. Which team has the best five core players? And is that a good indicator for reaching the postseason?
Let's do this. Using Baseball-Reference WAR as our baseline for determining a team's five best players, here are the top 10 teams in 2013 ranked by the combined WAR of their core five:
1. Detroit Tigers: 28.9
Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister
2. Boston Red Sox: 27.2
Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Clay Buchholz
3. Los Angeles Dodgers: 26.3
Clayton Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, Juan Uribe, Adrian Gonzalez
4. Pittsburgh Pirates: 25.1
Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Russell Martin, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez
5. St. Louis Cardinals: 24.6
Matt Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Shelby Miller, Matt Holliday
6. Colorado Rockies: 24.2
Jhoulys Chacin, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Jorge De La Rosa, Nolan Arenado
7. Texas Rangers: 24.1
Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Craig Gentry
8. Cincinnati Reds: 22.6
Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Shin-Soo Choo, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey
9. Atlanta Braves: 22.4
Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Kris Medlen
10. Oakland Athletics: 22.2
Josh Donaldson, Bartolo Colon, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Jed Lowrie
Maybe it's not too surprising that eight of those 10 teams made the playoffs. You don't make the playoffs without a solid core of excellent players. The two playoff teams not in the top 10 were the Rays, with 21.6 WAR from their top five guys (13th), and the Indians with 21.5 (14th). So, yes, stars are important.
However, it's also worth noting that most teams rated very similarly in the combined WAR from their best five players, at least in 2013: 17 teams ranked between the 22.6 WAR of the Reds and the 18.8 of the Orioles. That’s less than a four-win difference, not that four wins isn't important, but also a signal that roster spots six through 25 are often the difference between making the playoffs or heading on a fishing trip in October.
Another way to spin that is to look at the teams that received highest percentage of their overall team WAR from their five best players:
1. Astros: 153 percent
2. Phillies: 110 percent
3. Mets: 95 percent
4. Mariners: 90 percent
5. White Sox: 86 percent
6. Marlins: 84 percent
7. Brewers: 78 percent
8. Twins: 74 percent
9. Diamondbacks: 73 percent
10. Rockies: 72 percent
Yes, you're reading that correctly: The Astros and Phillies received more value from their top five players than they did from their entire rosters -- meaning, the rest of their rosters behind their core five were below replacement.
The main thing to take away from these "imbalanced" teams: None of them had a winning record (the Diamondbacks finished .500). The rest of the roster matters. Take a team like the Mariners. Led by Hisashi Iwakuma and Felix Hernandez, the 21.1 WAR from their top five players was on par with Rays, Indians; the rest of the roster was, collectively, horrible. Robinson Cano brings more star power to Seattle but doesn't solve the team's biggest issue, the lack of quality depth.
What about 2014? Here are my top 10 core fives heading into the season:
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
Clayton Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez
This group could be even better than it was in 2013 with full seasons from Ramirez and Puig. Greinke was so dominant over his final 16 starts (1.57 ERA) that he’s a reasonable Cy Young candidate behind his best-starter-in-baseball teammate. The fifth player on the list could be Gonzalez or Matt Kemp or even third starter Hyun-Jin Ryu.
2. Detroit Tigers
Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Ian Kinsler
You have the reigning two-time MVP and then two Cy Young winners and then last year's American League ERA champ in Sanchez. Kinsler will have to prove that his offensive game translates from Texas to Detroit, but his all-around game has been valuable in recent seasons.
3. Texas Rangers
Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Prince Fielder
A little bit of everything: An ace pitcher, power and defense from Beltre, slick defense and speed from Andrus and two left-handed batters who get on base. The additions of Choo and Fielder help bring some lefty balance to the Rangers lineup and lead to more runs for a lineup that slipped a bit last season.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Russell Martin, Pedro Alvarez
My underrated core five. I like McCutchen to repeat his MVP season (in numbers, at least, if not in hardware), Marte and Martin to excel on defense and do just enough at the plate, Alvarez to slam 30-something homers again and Cole to become a breakout star in his sophomore season.
5. St. Louis Cardinals
Adam Wainwright, Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Michael Wacha, Matt Holliday
What makes the Cardinals impressive is that this core could also include Shelby Miller or Allen Craig.
6. Tampa Bay Rays
Evan Longoria, David Price, Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist, Alex Cobb
Price, Myers and Cobb didn't spend the entire season on the active roster (Price and Cobb missed time with minor injuries while Myers began the year in Triple-A), so odds are strong this group could outperform last year, especially if Myers blossoms in his sophomore campaign.
7. Washington Nationals
Bryce Harper, Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman
If you want slightly off-the-radar awards picks, how about Harper for MVP and Zimmermann for Cy Young?
8. Atlanta Braves
Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel
Kimbrel, who turns 26 in May, is the oldest player in the group.
9. Milwaukee Brewers
Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, Jean Segura, Yovani Gallardo
A little weak in the pitching department, but Braun should return to his MVP-caliber play and Gomez was MVP-caliber in 2013. Lucroy produces at the plate and is one of the best pitch-framers in the business. Segura is an exciting plug who has to prove his second-half slump in 2013 was simply fatigue.
10. Boston Red Sox
Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Shane Victorino
A good bet to regress, as a large portion of Victorino's value came from his outstanding defense and Big Papi will get old one of these years.
Strasburg's main offspeed pitch against left-handers has been his curveball ... and it's been an effective pitch for him. Left-handed batters hit just .113 against it (6-for-53) with 32 strikeouts in 56 plate appearances. In fact, as Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information pointed out, Strasburg was pretty effective overall against left-handed batters in 2013:
Opponents' batting average: .218 (sixth-best among 57 qualified right-handed starters)
Opponents' OPS: .629 (fifth)
Well-hit average: .101 (first)
Swing-and-miss pct.: 45.6 (25th)
Chase pct.: 28.8 (21st)
As the numbers suggest, Strasburg was good at inducing weak contact but only middle-of-the-pack in generating misses. Why? Left-handers seem to have little trouble picking up his fastball. They hit .254/.351/.415 against it in 2013, but with 28 walks and just 23 strikeouts in 223 plate appearances. The curveball and changeup are effective when Strasburg gets ahead in the count but lefty hitters can still attack the fastball. Thus, the development of the slider and Strasburg's hope that it resembles his fastball.
The bonus if the pitch develops into a weapon: Strasburg could be even more devastating against right-handed batters, since a good slider is a wipeout pitch against same-side hitters. Righties hit .197/.258/.294 against Strasburg in 2013; that was the fifth-lowest batting average allowed and seventh-lowest OPS for those righty-versus-righty matchups among starting pitchers.
Strasburg posted a 3.00 ERA in 2013 in 183 innings. It seems odd to say about a guy who has one of the fastest fastballs in the league, but throwing his fastball a little less often may actually be a good thing. I'm thinking this is the year that ERA dips well below 3.00, the innings top 200 and Strasburg gets into that Cy Young mix.
(By the way, if the win totals seem low, they're not. There are 2,430 major league games ... the win totals actually add up to 2,443; so if anything, they're a tiny bit too high.)
29. Cubs: 69.5
28. Marlins: 69.5
27. Twins: 70.5
26. Mets: 73.5
I'm going with the Marlins here. The infield is a bit of train wreck on offense, but I think the young rotation with Jose Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez and Jacob Turner could be very good. A full season from Christian Yelich and a healthier season from Giancarlo Stanton will help, and they've added a couple of bats in Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Garrett Jones, who aren't great but are better than what they had last season.
24. Rockies: 76.5
23. Phillies: 76.5
22. Padres: 78.5
21. Brewers: 79.5
I'll reluctantly go with the Padres here. They don't have individual star power, but I think their 25-man depth should push them over .500. The White Sox could certainly be interesting if Jose Abreu proves to be the real deal, but 75.5 wins is still 12.5 more than 2013. The Brewers are tempting with the return of Ryan Braun and the addition of Matt Garza, but Jean Segura's second-half fade is a concern and I don't like the righty-heavy nature of the lineup.
19. Diamondbacks: 80.5
18. Orioles: 80.5
17. Indians: 80.5
16. Mariners: 81.5
You can make pretty good arguments for four of these teams. The Mariners? Not so much. I'm going with the Diamondbacks -- hey, maybe they can go 81-81 for the third season in a row! Arizona has a star in Paul Goldschmidt, two elite defenders in the outfield in Gerardo Parra and A.J. Pollock, a guy in Mark Trumbo who could hit 40 home runs and some players returning from injury. Rookie Archie Bradley could provide a nice midseason lift to the rotation, as well, and the bullpen looks deeper with the addition of Addison Reed.
14. Pirates: 83.5
13. Reds: 84.5
12. Giants: 86.5
11. Angels: 86.5
The oddsmakers are projecting some regression from the Royals, Pirates and Reds. One note on the Royals: From June 1 on, they had the second-best record in the majors behind the Dodgers. They've made some minor additions with the likes of Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki to help improve an offense that ranked 11th in the AL in runs scored. The concern: They allowed just 601 runs last year, the second-lowest total in the AL in the past two decades. They will likely allow more than that in 2014. Can the offense make up for it? I think so. I'll take the over for the Royals.
9. Rangers: 86.5
8. Braves: 87.5
7. Red Sox: 87.5
6. Nationals: 88.5
Hmm ... considering I have the Nationals winning the NL East, I'll go with them. They did win 86 games last season, so I can certainly see a three-win improvement (and more). On the other hand, it's not like any of the regulars had a terrible season, or that we should expect obvious improvement from somebody. But the bench was horrible last year and will be better. Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon should play and are solid bets to improve. Doug Fister adds another quality arm to the rotation. I like them to win 90-plus games.
4. A's: 88.5
3. Tigers: 89.5
2. Cardinals: 90.5
1. Dodgers: 92.5
Five playoff teams from last year. So we're essentially asking: Which team is the best bet to return to the playoffs? I'm going with the Cardinals here, since I do have them as my No. 1 overall team heading into the season. I like their depth across the board: Position players, rotation and bullpen. I like their youth. I think the Pirates and Reds are a little weaker than last season. St. Louis won 97 games last year and I wouldn't be shocked to see the Cardinals do it again.
Still, we obsess over batting orders even though most teams run out many lineups in a season. The Red Sox used 126 lineups last year. The Cardinals used 89 (not including pitchers), which is actually pretty stable. We talk a lot about "protection" even though studies show hitters don't generally perform better based on the caliber of hitter coming up behind them. If anything, it's the caliber of hitter in front that may be more important; if there are runners on base, it's more difficult for the pitcher to pitch around a hitter.
Managers still make some common mistakes, however. Studies show you should put your best hitter in the No. 2 spot in the order, but no manager does that; too many still think they need to put a contact/slap hitter there. Managers will focus on speed from the leadoff spot at the expense of on-base percentage, the result being that eight teams finished with an OBP below .320 from the leadoff spot last season. Only the Braves of those eight teams made the playoffs. In fact, of the teams with the 12 lowest OBPs from the leadoff spot, only two finished with a winning record, the Braves and Royals.
A trend in recent years has been to "split" your left-handed hitters -- Dusty Baker hit Shin-Soo Choo first, Joey Votto third and Jay Bruce fifth, for example. In worrying about the possibility of letting a lefty reliever face Votto and Bruce back-to-back, Baker ultimately sacrificed at-bats from Bruce for worse hitters. He would have been better off moving Bruce up in the lineup (at least against right-handed starters).
Anyway, let's look at each division, starting with the National League East.
Key question: Who hits leadoff?
As seen above, the Braves struggled with production from the leadoff spot much of last season before manager Fredi Gonzalez finally settled on Jason Heyward. I'm sure Gonzalez would love to see B.J. Upton or Andrelton Simmons take ownership of that role, but Upton will have to prove himself after last year's stink bomb and Simmons had a sub-.300 OBP.
Jason Heyward, RF
Justin Upton, LF
Freddie Freeman, 1B
Evan Gattis, C
Chris Johnson, 3B
Andrelton Simmons, SS
Dan Uggla, 2B
B.J. Upton, CF
For a team that won 96 games, the Braves have several issues, including the likelihood that Gattis isn't a cleanup hitter and Johnson regresses. If Johnson proves to be a .300 hitter again, you're likely to see him move up in the order, perhaps hitting second with Justin Upton sliding down to the cleanup spot (or Freeman, who hit cleanup the first half of 2013).
If B.J. Upton struggles again, I wouldn't hesitate to move Heyward over to center field and give Ryan Doumit regular time in right field.
Key question: Where does Bryce Harper hit?
Former manager Davey Johnson started Harper in five different spots in the order: Third (71 times), fourth (18 times), first (16 times), second (eight times) and fifth (once). He began the season hitting third and had that torrid April before crashing into a wall in early May. Over the final two weeks he hit cleanup, with Jayson Werth in the third spot.
Denard Span, CF
Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
Jayson Werth, RF
Bryce Harper, LF
Ian Desmond, SS
Adam LaRoche, 1B
Anthony Rendon, 2B
Wilson Ramos, C
The Nationals have a lot of flexibility here. If Rendon improves as a sophomore he could eventually work his way up in the order. Harper and Werth had the two best OBPs last year and my inclination would be to hit them second and fourth and move Desmond up to the third spot.
Span had the lowest OPS of these eight guys. While he best fits the conventional idea of a leadoff hitter, he's also the worst hitter in the group. So why give him more plate appearances? Rendon is a good bet to improve on his .329 OBP. Move him up to the leadoff spot and Span down to eighth.
New York Mets
Key question: Is Terry Collins really going to hit Eric Young Jr. leadoff?
Last month, Collins told ESPN New York's Adam Rubin that Young is his primary leadoff candidate. The Mets ranked 28th in the majors in leadoff OBP (.293), so they need to improve there. Young led the NL with 46 steals, so leadoff hitter! Except two things: Young's OBP was just .310, and if he plays every day, that could mean benching Juan Lagares, who hit just .242/.281/.352 but played tremendous defense in center field and was worth 3.7 WAR.
Eric Young Jr., LF
Daniel Murphy, 2B
David Wright, 3B
Curtis Granderson, RF
Lucas Duda, 1B
Chris Young, CF
Travis d'Arnaud, C
Ruben Tejada, SS
Collins needs to show a lot of flexibility. As one example, Murphy shouldn't hit second against left-handers -- .273/.292/.324 last year. In fact, with his subpar range at second base, he probably shouldn't even start against lefties (EYJR could play there). I also wouldn't hit EYJR leadoff on a regular basis -- the steals just don't cover the poor OBP and lack of power. Why not hit Murphy leadoff against righties? He was 23 for 26 on steals last year and you could slide Granderson up to second, for a Murphy-Granderson-Wright-Duda top four.
Key question: Who hits at the top of the order?
The Phillies used four different leadoff hitters for 20-plus games last year and four No. 2 hitters for at least 16 games. The results were a .313 OBP from the leadoff spot and .315 from the No. 2 hole.
Ben Revere, CF
Chase Utley, 2B
Marlon Byrd, RF
Ryan Howard, 1B
Domonic Brown, LF
Jimmy Rollins, SS
Carlos Ruiz, C
Cody Asche, 3B
That's a more conventional approach, but first impressions on new manager Ryne Sandberg are that he's going to be pretty conventional. In fact, when he took over last season from Charlie Manuel, he most often hit Rollins second and Utley third, so he may stick with that (even though Utley is in some ways comparable to Sandberg, who hit second much of his career).
Revere is fast, but his complete lack of power and mediocre OBP means he should hit eighth not leadoff. Rollins is coming off the worst year of his career and no longer profiles as a top-of-the-order bat. Why not just put your best on-base guys at the top and go Utley-Brown-Byrd?
Key question: They scored 89 fewer runs than any other NL team last year.
OK, that's a statement, not a question. But there's nowhere to go but up since they scored just 513 runs, tied with the 2010 Mariners for the lowest total in a non-strike season since 1972.
Rafael Furcal, 2B
Christian Yelich, LF
Giancarlo Stanton, RF
Garrett Jones, 1B
Marcell Ozuna, CF
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
Casey McGehee, 3B
Adeiny Hechavarria, SS
I'm doubtful about McGehee, who did hit 27 home runs in Japan last season, but for now he projects as the starting third baseman. Likewise with Furcal, who missed all of 2013. Back in December, manager Mike Redmond said his initial thoughts were to go with Furcal, Yelich and Stanton, with Jones or Salty batting fourth and sixth, split by the right-handed Ozuna. Two days ago he reiterated his plans to hit Furcal and Yelich 1-2.
Nothing really. It's difficult to make filet mignon out of ground chuck. With Yelich, Jones and Salty, the Marlins could be decent against right-handed pitching.
- If you read the blog last week you saw my preseason rankings of all 30 teams. The team I admit that I'm most likely to miss on is the Giants, whom I ranked 20th. If they get positive production from the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, a big bounce back is certainly possible. Anyway, Connor Grossman of West Coast Bias responds to my Giants prediction.
- Which team is most likely to go from under .500 to the playoffs, as the Indians and Pirates did last year? I'd mention the Giants and Blue Jays although neither would be considered a huge surprise if that happened. The Angels also finished under .500. If we're talking about a surprise team, I'd throw out the Padres (kind of like the A's, they're hoping 25-man depth will override their lack of star power). The Mariners have boom or bust potential depending on the growth of their young players.
- Playoff team most likely to sink? I'd say the Pirates, who failed to add offense to a lineup that needed it, lost A.J. Burnett from the rotation and had a remarkable year from the bullpen.
- The shortstop battle in Arizona between Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings will be intriguing. I'm probably in the minority in liking Gregorius better, as he has a chance to be a plus defender and showed more with that bat than expected as a rookie. Owings hit .330 at Triple-A Reno and while he did cut way down on his strikeouts from 2012, I'm skeptical of any numbers put up in Reno (or Las Vegas or any of the other high-altitude PCL cities). He doesn't walk much, so he needs to hit for a high average. ZiPS projects Owings at 2.2 WAR, Gregorius at 2.0, so it could be a case of best spring wins even if that's a lousy way to decide a job situation.
- The Rangers have agreed to a minor league deal with Tommy Hanson pending a physical. It's a low-risk move for the Rangers but Hanson's fastball velocity has dropped from averaging 92.6 mph in 2010 to 89.6 with the Angels in 2013, with resulting decreases in effectiveness in recent seasons. Even if his shoulder is sound it's probably a long shot that he'll be able to contribute much.
- Good piece on George Springer from Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs. Springer, of course, went 30-30 (37 home runs and 45 steals to be exact) in the minors but also went 30-30-150, as in strikeouts. ZiPS is positive on Springer, projecting him to 3.3 WAR with Mike Cameron as his No. 1 comp. Even if Springer does turn into Cameron as a power-speed-strikeouts-defense combo, there may be some growing pains along the way.
- Some Q&A about the Nationals from our Nationals Baseball blog, including thoughts on new manager Matt Williams. The interesting thing about new managers is that everyone will focus on the strategy, but for the most part everyone manages the in-game stuff pretty much the same way these days, give or take a few bunts or what you do with the No. 2 hitter. It's not like Williams is going let Stephen Strasburg throw 130 pitches a game. The important stuff is more likely to be the stuff we don't see or can't evaluate with numbers. Williams also inherits a pretty set roster, with the only major issue being when to work Nate McLouth into the lineup.
- A look at Orioles prospects from Camden Depot. Dylan Bundy, we haven't forgotten about you.
- Daniel Poarch looks at the projections for the Red Sox offensive core of hitters. The most interesting guy here is Daniel Nava, quietly a huge part of Boston's division title last year as he hit .303/.385/.445.
- It's About the Money asks if we should be tempering expectations for Masahiro Tanaka. We probably should but it's a lot more fun if we don't.
- Bill Baer on why the Phillies should platoon Ryan Howard. Good idea, of course, but I don't see Ryne Sandberg doing it.
- Nelson Cruz to the Mariners rumors are still hot. Let's wait and see the terms of such a deal before us Mariners fans get upset thinking of Mike Morse Part II, Revenge of the Slow-Moving Outfielder Whose Power Won't Play Well at Safeco Field.
- Nick Nelson asks if the Twins moved too aggressively in signing Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. It's possible, considering Hughes was signed for three years and $24 million while the comparable -- if not better -- Paul Maholm just signed for $1.5 million with the Dodgers.
- Two pieces from the great Tim Keown worth checking out: What's next for Yasiel Puig? That, of course, may be the most interesting question of the 2014 season. And how come baseball teams don't train the brain more?
• Team rankings: Nos. 12-7 »
• Team rankings: Nos. 18-13 »
• Team rankings: Nos. 24-19 »
• Team rankings: Nos. 30-25 »
6. Boston Red Sox
How they can get to 90 wins: The Red Sox went 97-65 with a Pythagorean record of 100-62. They could score 56 fewer runs and allow 49 more runs and still project as a 90-win team.
Big offseason moves: Lost CF Jacoby Ellsbury, lost C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, signed C A.J. Pierzynski, re-signed 1B Mike Napoli, signed RP Edward Mujica, lost RP Andrew Bailey, acquired IF Jonathan Herrera from the Rockies for P Franklin Morales, signed OF Grady Sizemore. (SS Stephen Drew is still a free agent.)
Most intriguing player: Xander Bogaerts looked like a polished veteran in the postseason, hitting .296 and drawing six walks in 12 games. He’ll take over as a shortstop as a 21-year-old and has the potential to be star in his rookie season.
Due for a better season: Will Middlebrooks struggled early in the season and was sent back to the minors in June hitting .192. He returned in August and hit .276/.329/.476 the rest of the way. Middlebrooks may never hit for a high average but he should improve on his .227 overall mark and could hit 30 home runs if he plays 150 games.
I’m just the messenger: It’s understandable that the Red Sox let Ellsbury walk considering his injury history and the contract the Yankees gave him, especially with Jackie Bradley Jr. waiting to take over in center field. After a big spring training in 2013, Bradley began the season as Boston’s left fielder but was overmatched, particularly on hard stuff inside. He spent most of the season in the minors, and in 107 plate appearances in the majors struck out 31 times.
What to expect in 2014? ZiPS projects Bradley being worth 1.5 WAR, as does the Steamer projection system. Ellsbury was worth 5.8 WAR in 2013, according to Baseball Reference, so the Red Sox are likely facing a 3-4 decrease in wins from center field.
The final word: The Red Sox are definitely a safe bet as far as those things go as they return most of the World Series roster. But they’ll be relying on two rookies in Bogaerts and Bradley and the Uehara/Junichi Tazawa/Craig Breslow bullpen trio to excel once again.
The biggest issue, however, may be whether they’ll get the same production from some of their veterans. David Ortiz will be 38; he has to slow down one of these years. Mike Napoli is 32. Shane Victorino is 33 and played much better in 2013 than in 2012. New catcher Pierzynski has been one of the most durable catchers in major league history -- he’s 19th all time in games caught -- but he’s 37. The rotation depth should cover a lot of potential problems, but there some red flags here.
Projected record: 91-71
5. Los Angeles Dodgers
How they can get to 90 wins: Well, having another 42-8 stretch again will help. The Dodgers runs scored and allowed totals projected to 89 wins (they won 92). They’re a good bet to score more runs, especially with full seasons from Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez.
Big offseason moves: Signed Cuban 2B Alex Guerrero, re-signed RP Brian Wilson, re-signed 3B Juan Uribe, signed SP Dan Haren, signed RP Chris Perez, lost RP Ronald Belisario, lost 2B Mark Ellis, lost IF Nick Punto, lost CF/2B Skip Schumaker, lost SP Ricky Nolasco.
Most intriguing player: Puig. He could be the MVP, he could hit .240. He's the most intriguing player in the game heading into the season.
Due for a better season: Matt Kemp would seem to be the obvious choice, but there are still concerns that his ankle injury that required season-ending surgery will remain an ongoing issue. Josh Beckett made eight starts with a 5.19 ERA. Right now, he’s slated as the No. 5 starter (with Chad Billingsley angling to return from Tommy John surgery), so he could certainly improve if he’s healthy.
Due for a worse season: On a rate basis, Ramirez is unlikely to hit .345/.402/.638 again. But the Dodgers will certainly hope he plays more than 86 games. Uribe, awful in 2011 and 2012, but good in 2013, is a strong regression candidate.
Kemp, Crawford, Ramirez and Uribe have all battled injuries in recent seasons. Guerrero is an unknown. If Kemp can’t go, Ethier will be stretched defensively in center. Greinke is very good but has also had just one season in his career where he made 30 starts with an ERA under 3.00. Gonzalez is no longer the .900 OPS guy he was for a few seasons. Haren has been up-and-down the past two seasons. Even with their $200 million-plus payroll, this isn’t a team that’s a lock for the playoffs.
The final word: OK, that said, there is clearly big upside here, maybe even 100-win upside if everything pans out. The rotation has the terrific top three with Kershaw, Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu, and Haren pitched much better in the second half with the Nationals. Kenley Jansen is a top-flight closer with dominant stuff and the setup crew with Wilson, J.P. Howell, Paco Rodriguez and Chris Withrow is deep. Kemp is a wild card. So is Puig. But I’m also inclined to believe Puig is closer to the MVP candidate than the .240 hitter. The Dodgers are the clear favorite in the NL West.
Projected record: 92-70
4. Tampa Bay Rays
How to get to 90 wins: The Rays went 92-71, beating the Rangers in the tiebreaker game to win the wild card, but their Pythagorean record suggests an 87-win team. If they allow the same number of runs they would need to score an additional 30 to project as a 90-win team.
Big offseason moves: Signed RP Grant Balfour, re-signed 1B James Loney, acquired RP Heath Bell from the Diamondbacks, acquired C Ryan Hanigan from the Reds, lost RP Fernando Rodney, acquired IF/OF and RP Brad Boxberger from the Padres for RP Alex Torres, lost RP Fernando Rodney, lost SP Roberto Hernandez, lost OF Kelly Johnson, lost OF Sam Fuld, did not trade SP David Price.
Most intriguing player: Despite all the rumors that the Rays would (or should) trade Price, the hard-throwing left-hander is still here. And why not? The Rays have the ability to win it all and Price is the kind of pitcher you need to do that. He went on the DL last May after nine starts with forearm tightness and a 5.24 ERA. When he came back in July, he was a strike-throwing machine like never before and posted a 2.53 ERA while walking just 13 batters his final 18 starts. Of course, if the Rays fall way back by July, the Price trade rumors will ramp up.
Due for a better year: Right fielder Wil Myers hit .293/.354/.478 with 13 home runs in 88 games to win AL Rookie of the Year. Now he’ll be there a full season. Look for him to double that home run total and slug at least .500.
Due for a worse year: This is why I have the Rays ranked so high. There isn’t an obvious choice here. Pitcher Alex Cobb went 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA and maybe he’s not quite a sub-3.00 ERA guy, but maybe he is as his strikeout increased with his changeup developing into a true wipeout pitch. Plus, he made just 22 starts after missing time after getting hit by a line drive.
I’m just the messenger: The Rays basically stood pat on offense over the offseason, and after ranking ninth in the AL runs scored, that does put some pressure on Myers to improve and Evan Longoria to remain healthy. If one of those two goes down for any period of time, they could struggle to score runs. One thing the Rays may try to do is run more. Their stolen bases dipped from 134 to 73, so they lost something that has been a big weapon for them over the years. Trouble is, outside of Desmond Jennings, who is doing to do the running? There just isn’t a lot of team speed here.
The final word: I’m picking the Rays to win the AL East primarily because I believe their run prevention will be the best in the league. They allowed 646 runs after allowing 577 in 2012. I think they’ll be closer to that 577 total.
Look at last year’s rotation. Price missed a little more than a month; Cobb missed 10 starts; Chris Archer didn’t join the rotation until June; Matt Moore has the ability to pitch better and deeper into games; yes, it was just announced that Hellickson will miss six to eight weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his elbow but he wasn’t good last year anyway (5.17 ERA); they gave 24 starts to Hernandez who was mediocre as well (4.89 ERA). They have depth with Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome. The bullpen should be solid. They have the best manager in the game.
Projected record: 93-69
3. Washington Nationals
How they can get to 90 wins: Score 35 more runs, allow 15 fewer.
Big offseason moves: Acquired SP Doug Fister from the Tigers for P Robbie Ray, P Ian Krol and IF Steve Lombardozzi, signed OF Nate McLouth, lost SP Dan Haren, acquired RP Jerry Blevins from the A’s for OF Billy Burns.
Most intriguing player: Remember when Bryce Harper hit .344 with seven home runs in April before crashing into a wall in early May? Now imagine that over six months.
Due for a better season: Anthony Rendon should build on a second rookie season and become one of the best-hitting second basemen in the game.
Due for a worse season: Jayson Werth quietly hit .318/.398/.532 with 25 home runs, ranking third in the NL in slugging percentage and fifth in on-base percentage. He’s turning 35 in May and hadn’t produced at that rate his first two years in Washington so look for a decline.
I’m just the messenger: Yes, I’m falling for the Nationals again even after last year’s disappointing a year, an 86-win season salvaged only by a 34-20 record the final two months. Everybody loved the Fister trade, giving them a great No. 4 starter behind Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg and there are plenty of solid options for the fifth spot. One reason they struggled to score runs last year was the bench was awful, but that’s been improved with the signing of McLouth as a fourth outfielder. But one question remains to be played out: Can they beat the Braves? They went 6-13 against them last year.
The final word: On paper, the Nationals have no obvious weakness, except maybe first baseman Adam LaRoche, coming of a poor .237/.332/.403 season. The rotation should be one of the best in the game, the bullpen is solid, they have power and they have a 21-year-old outfielder who could be an MVP candidate (ZiPS has Harper hitting .279/.363/.523 with 28 home runs, but I’m taking the over). Rookie manager Matt Williams is an unknown factor but I don’t see that as significant negative. This looks like a 90-win team to me.
Projected record: 93-69
2. Detroit Tigers
How they can get to 90 wins: Maybe the question should be how they can get to 100 wins. The 2013 Tigers were a better club than the 2012 World Series team, increasing their run differential from plus-56 to plus-172. That’s a 99-win level (although the Tigers won 93, hurt by a 6-13 record in one-run games).
Big offseason moves: Traded 1B Prince Fielder to the Rangers for 2B Ian Kinsler, traded SP Doug Fister to the Nationals for P Robbie Ray, P Ian Kroll and IF Steve Lombardozzi, signed RP Joe Nathan, lost RP Joaquin Benoit, lost SS Jhonny Peralta, lost 2B Omar Infante, signed OF Rajai Davis, signed RP Joba Chamberlain.
Due for a better season: Rick Porcello posted a career-best strikeout rate and his best ERA (4.32) since his 3.96 mark as a rookie in 2009. With the Tigers’ revamped infield probably improved defensively at all four positions, look for the ground ball specialist to have his best year yet.
Due for a worse season: Max Scherzer had a dream season, going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA and holding batters to a .198 average as he won the Cy Young Award. Those are going to be numbers difficult to replicate.
I’m just the messenger: The Fister trade was much-criticized, but the Tigers do have Drew Smyly, a guy I think will be very good, ready to step in. Moving Miguel Cabrera over to first base (and off third) and installing Jose Iglesias at shortstop over Peralta will improve that defense. Davis brings more speed to the team and provides a good platoon partner in left for Andy Dirks.
The most overrated signing of the offseason, however? Nathan. He’s very good, yes, but the whole "The Tigers bullpen was horrible" angle was overblown. The Tigers were 82-6 when leading after eight innings; that’s not great (the average team lost 3.5 games) but not horrible. They lost eight games when leading after seven innings (the average team lost 6.7). Yes, there’s that extra-inning record, but that was a result of the team not hitting as much as the bullpen not pitching well (Cabrera, for example, hit .182 in extra innings and Fielder hit .188).
Yes, there was the brutal playoff loss to the Red Sox, when Jim Leyland overmanaged and Benoit gave up the grand slam. Nathan is a good pitcher but the bullpen has also lost two pitchers (Smyly and Benoit) who went 10-1 with a 2.20 ERA in 143 innings.
The final word: There’s no surprise ranking the Tigers here. When you start off with Cabrera, Scherzer, Verlander and Anibal Sanchez you’re in a very good place. It will be interesting to see how much offense the team loses without Fielder and Peralta; Kinsler has hit just .240/.303/.366 on the road the past two seasons, and Torii Hunter will turn 39 in July and remains a key part of the lineup. Still, you have the best hitter in the game and three Cy Young candidates. The Tigers will win their fourth straight AL Central title.
Projected record: 94-68
1. St. Louis Cardinals
How they can get to 90 wins: They went 97-65 last year, outscoring their opponents by 187 runs. They could score 50 fewer runs and allow 50 more and still project as a 90-win team.
Big offseason moves: Traded 3B David Freese to the Angels for CF Peter Bourjos, signed SS Jhonny Peralta, lost OF Carlos Beltran, signed 2B Mark Ellis, lost RP Edward Mujica, lost RP John Axford, SP Chris Carpenter retired.
Most intriguing player: Michael Wacha was drafted in June of 2012 and by the stretch run of 2013 was shutting down opponents like he was Bob Gibson in 1968. He allowed two hits in seven scoreless innings to beat the Pirates in early September, lost a no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth in his final start of the regular season, took a no-hitter into the eighth against the Pirates in the NLDS, tossed 13 2/3 scoreless against the Dodgers in the NLCS and beat the Red Sox in Game 2 of the World Series. He finally tired in Game 6. What does he do for an encore?
Due for a worse season: Rookie relievers Seth Maness (2.32 ERA in 62 innings) and Kevin Siegrist (two runs in 39 2/3 innings) developed into a dynamite set-up duo. Maness gets a lot of grounders with his sinker and Siegrist lights up the radar gun from the left side, but you can’t expect them to be that dominant again.
I’m just the messenger: I don’t have anything negative to say here. The biggest weakness the Cardinals had last year was the bench, which we saw come into play in the World Series when Mike Matheny played Shane Robinson in center field and hit him second in Game 5. They’ve improved the bench by acquiring Bourjos and signing Ellis and Peralta (moving Pete Kozma off as the starting shortstop).
If there’s one concern it’s the Cardinals led the league in runs by hitting .330 with runners in scoring position -- the highest mark going back to 1950. (Only 16 teams since 1950 have hit.300.) Based on their component statistics the Cardinals created about 727 runs, so with the expected decline with RISP they’ll have to generate more offense elsewhere.
The final word: While I don’t see the Cardinals as a 100-win lock, what they have is young talent, depth, defense, starting pitching, an ace in Adam Wainwright and a dynamite bullpen. They have two center fielders in Bourjos and Jon Jay; they have multiple options in right field with Craig, Taveras and Jay; they have two options at first base in Craig and Adams; if rookie Kolten Wong struggles at second they have the veteran Ellis; they have Kozma as Peralta insurance; they have Joe Kelly as a No. 6 starter and Carlos Martinez as a No. 7; they have Trevor Rosenthal throwing 100-mph gas in the ninth inning and former closer Jason Motte returning from injury.
They have solutions for just about everything if something goes wrong and that’s what makes them the best team on paper heading into spring training.
Projected record: 95-67