It's Day 5, and we're down to the top six teams. I've written nearly 15,000 words on these pre-spring training power rankings, about one-tenth the length of a decent novel. Thanks for reading.
Big offseason moves: Signed DH/OF Nelson Cruz; acquired OF Seth Smith from the Padres for RHP Brandon Maurer; acquired OF Justin Ruggiano from the Cubs for RHP Matt Brazis; traded OF Michael Saunders to the Blue Jays for LHP J.A. Happ; signed DH/2B Rickie Weeks; lost 1B Justin Smoak and RHP Chris Young to free agency.
Most intriguing player: The spotlight is on Cruz, coming off a big 40-homer season with the Orioles. The Mariners were tied for 28th in the majors in home runs by right-handed batters and next-to-last in the majors in wOBA against left-handed pitchers, so they were desperate for right-handed power. Cruz spent a lot of time at Safeco Field while with the Rangers and his career OPS there is .749 (.234/.309/.440). Uh-oh.
Due for a better year: I have an ongoing debate with some fellow Mariners fans about Brad Miller. I think he's going to be better. They believe he can't hit or field. In reality, Miller and Chris Taylor make for a perfect platoon (although Taylor has hit righties better throughout his minor league career). However it shakes out, I expect the Mariners to get better results from shortstop, although I wonder: Has a team ever won a pennant platooning shortstops?
Due for a worse year: Cruz. Or Fernando Rodney. The arrow is fun, but everything leading up to the arrow makes Mariners fans very nervous.
I'm just the messenger: OK, center field. Austin Jackson came over from the Tigers at the trade deadline and was immediately infected with a severe case of Safecoitis and suddenly lost the ability to hit. Jackson hit .256/.308/.347 with the Tigers and slumped to .229/.267/.260 with the Mariners, with only six extra-base hits in 223 at-bats. Even though he's only 28, Jackson's problem may not be fixable; in a league with more hard-throwers than ever, he struggles against fastballs. His isolated power against fastballs has declined to a nonexistent .073 from .103 in 2013 and .220 in 2012. And it's not as if his defense makes up for the lack of offense. His defensive runs saved totals have dropped from plus-29 in 2011 to plus-5 in 2012 to plus-3 in 2013 to zero last season. The backup plan? The familiar names of Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez have been invited to spring training.
The final word: The Mariners fare very favorably in the projection systems. FanGraphs has them as the best team in the American League and third in baseball behind the Nationals and Dodgers. Baseball Prospectus has them as the No. 3 team in the AL. These aren't strong predictions -- 89 and 87 wins, respectively -- but there is talent here and the Mariners are coming off a strong 87-win season. They've addressed the right-handed issue with Cruz, Ruggiano and Weeks, giving manager Lloyd McClendon more flexibility with his lineup and platoons. The team is heavily dependent on Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, so an injury to any of the three would be devastating. The bullpen, wonderfully handled a season ago by McClendon, should be a strength once again. It has been 14 years since the Mariners made the postseason. It's time.
Big offseason moves: Acquired RF Jason Heyward and RHP Jordan Walden from the Braves for RHP Shelby Miller and RHP Tyrell Jenkins; signed 1B Mark Reynolds and RHP Matt Belisle; lost RHPs Pat Neshek and Justin Masterson to free agency.
Most intriguing player: Heyward was one of my favorite transactions of the winter, a Gold Glove right fielder -- and Gold Glove in the Roberto Clemente sense, not Jay Buhner. Heyward will bring improved production to right field, where the Cardinals had the worst wOBA in the majors. Maybe Heyward's not the 30-homer guy once projected of him, but he has hit 27 before and should hit more than the 11 he totaled in 2014.
Due for a better year: Closer Trevor Rosenthal fought his control all season, walking 5.4 batters per nine innings compared to 2.4 in 2013. He went 45-for-51 in save chances but also had a 2-6 record. The fastball is still top shelf and he should provide more consistent ninth-inning work.
Due for a worse year: Adam Wainwright went 20-9 with a career-best 2.38 ERA but had minor elbow surgery to trim some cartilage. He's expected to be fine, but you never know.
I'm just the messenger: The Cardinals have done a nice job of blending in some youth with the likes of Heyward, Matt Adams and Kolten Wong, but they're still relying on 30-somethings Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta, not to mention Wainwright. Molina and Holliday slipped a bit last year, and Peralta will be hard-pressed to repeat his season. There's enough age here that the potential for a collapse is possible. We're so used to the Cardinals winning that we just expect them to keep winning.
The final word: Of course, I'm not predicting that to happen. The addition of Heyward gives them a solid lineup from one through eight with the potential for a better bench than they've had the past two years. Yes, you have to worry a little bit about the health of Wainwright and a lot about the health of Michael Wacha, but the rotation is deep enough to counter the loss of either guy. The Cardinals should return to the postseason for a fifth straight season.
Most intriguing player: Corey Kluber beat out Felix Hernandez for the American League Cy Young Award, becoming one of the least likely winners in the award's history. Simple question: Can he do it again?
Due for a better year: Jason Kipnis was an All-Star in 2013 and finished 11th in the MVP voting but suffered an oblique injury in April and played through it all season. He also hurt his finger working out in December and had surgery but is expected to be ready for spring training. After creating about 101 runs in 2013 he slipped to 53 in 2014. Expect a nice bounce back.
Due for a worse year: Michael Brantley hit .317/.385/.506 and finished third in the MVP voting. While I'm believing in most of the power uptick, he was a .277 hitter entering the season. He should be good again, but I would expect something closer to a 5-WAR season than a 7-WAR one.
I'm just the messenger: The Indians did not have a good defensive outfield in 2014, ranking 29th in the majors in defensive runs saved at minus-37. They ranked last in ultimate zone rating at minus-39.9 runs, so different metrics agree that they were lousy in the outfield. Have they fixed the problem? Not necessarily. The biggest culprit was David Murphy at minus-17 DRS; Michael Bourn was rated at minus-6 and Brantley at minus-3. Of the various subs, all rated below average except Tyler Holt. Bourn and Brantley are slated to start again in center and left, but right field is open. Considering Murphy didn't hit either, it seems unlikely he wins the job on a regular basis. Brandon Moss can play out there and he's rated at plus-3 runs over the past three seasons, but he's also coming off hip surgery. Cleveland's best bet is for better performances from Bourn and Brantley but don't be surprised if Holt ends up getting a lot of time in the outfield.
The final word: Picking the Indians to win the Central isn't really a radical pick -- they won 85 games last season and 92 in 2013. The offense should be above average, especially if Kipnis and Moss are healthy. And while the defense is questionable (last in the majors in overall DRS), the young rotation has come together. Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and T.J. House should be an excellent five-man group, with depth from Floyd and Zach McAllister. Second-half stats aren't always predictive, but the Indians had the best rotation ERA in the AL after the All-Star break. Jose Ramirez or rookie Francisco Lindor will be an upgrade defensively at shortstop. Brantley, Carlos Santana, Kipnis and Yan Gomes are right in their peak years. Go support your team, Cleveland.
Big offseason moves: Lost C Russell Martin and RHP Edinson Volquez to free agency; re-signed LHP Francisco Liriano; signed RHP A.J. Burnett; traded 1B Ike Davis to the A's; acquired C Francisco Cervelli from the Yankees for LHP Justin Wilson; acquired LHP Antonio Bastardo from the Phillies; signed Korean SS Jung Ho Kang; traded OF Travis Snider to the Orioles; acquired INF Sean Rodriguez from the Rays.
Most intriguing player: Gerrit Cole now has 41 major league starts with a 3.45 ERA. It's time for the former No. 1 overall pick to make the leap from mid-rotation starter to a No. 2 guy -- and maybe an ace who throws 200-plus innings with a sub-3.00 ERA. The stuff is there, the fastball is there and I think he'll have a breakout season.
Due for a better year: After tying for the NL lead in home runs in 2013, not much went right for Pedro Alvarez in 2014. He had throwing problems at third base and dropped off to 18 home runs before his season ended in late August because of a stress reaction in his foot. He moves to first base and should challenge 30-plus home runs.
Due for a worse year: Relievers Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes all posted ERAs under 2.00. Melancon's peripherals support his ERA, but Watson (2.69 FIP) and Hughes (3.99 FIP) -- who went a combined 17-7 -- may have difficulty preventing runs at the same level again. Expect at least a little regression from this trio. The Pirates will have to replace 122 innings in the bullpen from Wilson and Jeanmar Gomez as well. Maybe late-season callup John Holdzkom and his upper-90s fastball plays a prominent role.
I'm just the messenger: The Pirates ranked last in FanGraphs WAR for starting pitchers in 2014. Was the rotation really that bad? Well, the Pirates ranked 10th in strikeout percentage and 14th in walk percentage. But there is some method to all of this. The Pirates' starters did lead the majors in ground ball percentage; of course, the Pirates also shift a lot and do a good job pitching to the shift. Not surprisingly, they allowed a .222 average on grounders, third best in the NL. Sure, an ace would be nice, but the Pirates also have done just fine the past two seasons without one.
The final word: The Pirates have played the Cardinals tough the past two seasons -- three wins behind in 2013, two last year. Pittsburgh scored 682 runs last season (48 more than 2013), and it wouldn't surprise me if they score even more in 2015. They've got a deep lineup. The loss of Martin is a big blow, not only for his .400 OBP in 2014 but his defense, though Cervelli is regarded as a strong defensive catcher. The outfield of MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco may be the best all-around group in the game, Neil Walker is an underrated second baseman and Kang could challenge Jordy Mercer for the starting job. They have talent, depth, defense, a smart front office and a smart field staff. They finally leap over St. Louis.
Big offseason moves: Hired Andrew Friedman as president of baseball operations and Farhan Zaidi as general manager; traded OF Matt Kemp and C Tim Federowicz to the Padres for C Yasmani Grandal, RHP Joe Wieland and RHP Zach Eflin; lost SS Hanley Ramirez to free agency; signed RHP Brandon McCarthy and LHP Brett Anderson; traded 2B Dee Gordon, RHP Dan Haren and SS Miguel Rojas to the Marlins for LHP Andrew Heaney, RHP Chris Hatcher, 2B Enrique Hernandez and C Austin Barnes; traded Heaney to the Angels for 2B Howie Kendrick; acquired SS Jimmy Rollins from the Phillies; acquired RHP Joel Peralta and LHP Adam Liberatore from the Rays for RHPs Juan Dominguez and Greg Harris.
Most intriguing player: Yasiel Puig, Year 3. Is this the year he remains consistent, cleans up the mistakes, keeps the power going and becomes an MVP candidate? Or does he settle in as a very good player? Either way, we'll all be watching.
Due for a better year: Clayton Kershaw ... in the postseason. Hard to top 21-3, 1.77 with Cy Young and MVP trophies. In just 27 starts.
Due for a worse year: Juan Uribe hit .300 for the first time since he was a rookie with the Rockies in 2001 and posted a career-high .337 OBP.
I'm just the messenger: The Dodgers spent a lot of money to bring in McCarthy and Anderson as their fourth and fifth starters. They're convinced McCarthy is capable of another 30-start, 200-inning season even though that was the first time he has reached either mark in his career (previous highs: 25 starts, 170 innings). Anderson is still a talented lefty when he gets out on the mound, but he has made only 32 starts the past four seasons. There isn't a lot of depth here. Joe Wieland and Juan Nicasio could be next in line. Erik Bedard has been invited to spring training. If Kershaw or Zack Greinke suffer a long-term injury, the rotation could have issues.
The final word: It's not often you see a 94-win team get such a big makeover, but the new regime is rebuilding on the fly. The Dodgers had to clear space in the outfield for rookie center fielder Joc Pederson and they had to get better defensively up the middle. They'll have a new middle infield -- a much better defensive one with Rollins and Kendrick. In fact, all of the Dodgers' moves were done in part to improve the defense, including catcher, where Grandal is rated as a good framer. A better pitcher than analyst, Greinke didn't give rave reviews to the moves. This is a good team, one that should coast to a division title.
Big offseason moves: Signed RHP Max Scherzer for a lot of money; lost 1B Adam LaRoche, RHP Rafael Soriano and 2B Asdrubal Cabrera to free agency; traded OF Steven Souza to the Rays in a three-way deal that netted RHP Joe Ross and SS Trea Turner; acquired INF Yunel Escobar from the A's for RHP Tyler Clippard; signed RHP Casey Janssen.
Most intriguing player: Bryce Harper. He's a grizzled veteran of 22 now. We saw in the postseason what he can do when he's healthy and everything is clicking. I think it clicks this year.
Due for a better year: Ryan Zimmerman played only 61 games and hit five home runs. He moves over to first base and hopefully stays on the field for 140 games.
Due for a worse year: Tanner Roark went 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA and actually edged Jordan Zimmermann for the team lead in WAR among pitchers. His reward? A likely trip to the bullpen with the signing of Scherzer. He was a good bet to regress a bit anyway (3.49 FIP).
I'm just the messenger: The one area of concern is the bullpen. I didn't like the Clippard trade on the heels of letting Soriano walk as a free agent, even if they did need a second baseman. Clippard has been a hugely vital setup guy the past five years and now you worry about the depth behind closer Drew Storen. And then in the postseason, you worry about Storen.
The final word: No surprise here. The Nationals have the potential for a historically dominant rotation. The lineup has no holes and one clear MVP candidate in Anthony Rendon and possibly another in Harper if he matures. Scherzer gets to go to the league where pitchers hit and with a better defense behind him than he had in Detroit; he could see his ERA drop half a run or more. A 100-win season is possible.