Baseball is back! After five months of harsh, brutal cold and mountains of snow (at least for those of us who live in the northeast), baseball is finally back in our lives. The regular season for Major League Baseball officially got underway last week.
Of course there will be numerous overreactions after just one week, but I am here to predict what the outcome will be for the 2015 season. I will attempt to answer such questions as:
- Can the Washington Nationals be the juggernaut everyone believes they will be
- Can last year’s Cinderella darlings Kansas City Royals build on last year’s run?'
- Can the San Francisco Giants’ even year magic work in an odd year?”
I’ll break all that down and more.
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The Washington Nationals are the heavy favorites to win the National League East. After steamrolling through the division last season, winning by a wide margin of 17 games, the Nationals somehow got even better.
The Phillies and Braves appear to be in a race for the basement, the Marlins have significant question marks on both offense and in their pitching staff, but if things break right they could make a run a wild card. The Mets did little to improve a weak offense and the bullpen may have lingering question marks, but their starting rotation, lead by ace Matt Harvey in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, and 2014 NL Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, can also carry the Mets into wild card contention.
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On top of an already stacked starting rotation, Washington added former Detroit Tigers ace Max Scherzer, inking the right handed pitcher to a monster deal for seven years, worth $210 million. This acquisition moves Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and Doug Fister down a slot and adds depth to the rotation. Last season, Strasburg finished tied with Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto for first in strikeouts in all of baseball, fanning 242 batters.
Their offense was nothing to sneeze at either, finishing third in total runs scored, fifth in runs batted in, fourth in OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage), and fifth in batting average, in the National League.
The 22-year old phenom Bryce Harper is the key player to make the Nationals offense run on all cylinders. Harper looks to build off a stellar postseason where he hit for a .300 batting average, an OPS of 1.251, and smacked three home runs against the eventual World Series champions San Francisco Giants in a four game series.
In the regular season, Harper has yet to prove he can stay healthy over the course of 162 games. In his first two full seasons Harper has played 118, and 100 games respectively.
As the bookies' favorite at 6/1 to win the World Series, according to Vegas Insider, there’s a lot of pressure on the Nationals to win a championship. With a relatively weak competition in the division, especially with bottom feeders Philadelphia Phillies, and Atlanta Braves, Washington should win the division easily.
With a huge amount of hype surrounding the Chicago Cubs, many experts believe the Cubs have a shot to win the division. Thanks to flashy moves made by president of baseball operations Theo Epstein like the signing of lefty ace Jon Lester, and installation of new manager Joe Maddon, it’s easy to believe the Cubs have significantly improved. Add in one of the best farm systems in the majors, and the best prospect according to ESPN, third baseman Kris Bryant, the Cubs could be at the start of a long run.
The Pittsburgh Pirates should challenge for at least a wild card the thanks to young pitching lead by Gerrit Cole and 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. Pittsburgh has appeared in the two wild card play-in games, winning in 2013, losing in 2014. Injuries and underperformances from offense stars Jay Bruce and Joey Votto caused the Cincinnati Reds to fall out of playoff contention quickly last year.
The Milwaukee Brewers also suffered from under performances, with star outfielder Ryan Braun hitting just .266 in 2014. If the Reds and Brewers can remain healthy and perform to their potential, it can be a five-team race for the NL Central. Standing in each of their ways is the reigning division winner, the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals, while not as flashy as the Cubs, did make improvements to their team. St. Louis traded for Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward back in November to help bolster a mediocre offense. The Cardinals finished sixth in the National League in batting average, 8th in OPS, 10th in RBIs, 10th in runs scored, and dead last in home runs. In 149 games last season with the Braves, Heyward hit for a .270 batting average, mashed 11 home runs, drove in 58 RBI’s, and had a .735 OPS, largely hitting out of the leadoff spot. With established stars like catcher Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday in the lineup already, the Cardinals offense should see improvement.
St. Louis’ pitching on the other hand carried the Cardinals all the way to Game 6 of the NLCS. With ace Adam Wainwright leading the charge, St. Louis posted the sixth lowest earned run total in the NL, fourth best batting average against, and lead all of the NL in shutouts. With young pitchers Michael Wacha in his first full season in the majors, and flame-thrower Carlos Martinez joining the rotation, look for the Cardinals pitching to add to their already stellar numbers.
Ultimately, I see the Cardinals proving to be too tough and experienced for the young guns in the division, as St. Louis wins their third division title in as many seasons.
This is the toughest division to call I think. The San Diego Padres have completely revamped their roster trading for outfielders Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and starting pitcher James Shields in the offseason and adding in former Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel on April 5th. The Dodgers are the defending division winners, who won 94 games last season.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco Giants won their third World Series in six seasons. If healthy, the Colorado Rockies could prove a threat as well, especially with star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez back in the mix. The Arizona Diamondbacks start the long process of rebuilding and likely won’t factor into the division race. In a stacked division, it’s difficult to call. But ultimately the Dodgers stand atop of the NL West mountain.
The Dodgers last year were an offensive power house, scoring 715 runs, good for second in the NL, sixth in home runs, second in total bases, second in RBIs, and second in OPS.
This on top of a stellar pitching staff lead by 2014 NL Cy Young winner and 2014 NL MVP Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers’ pitching staff finished fourth in the NL in ERA, fifth in batting average against, tied for third in shutouts, and third in complete games.
Even though the Dodgers lost some offensive firepower by trading Matt Kemp to division rival Padres, they should be able to make up for it with an improving Yasiel Puig, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, and top hitting prospect Joc Pederson.
The days of the Yankee Dynasty are long gone. The Core Four have each retired, with Derek Jeter saying goodbye last year. Look for the Toronto Blue Jays, or the Baltimore Orioles or the Boston Red Sox to win the division title.
The Red Sox made big splashes by signing both Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to long-term contracts. T
he Blue Jays made improvements by trading for slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson from Oakland and signing catcher Russell Martin.
The Orioles, last year’s division winners, are getting a healthy catcher Matt Weiters and healthy third baseman Manny Machado back from season ending injuries. The Tampa Bay Rays could be a mystery team this season. Their pitching staff is stellar but with their fearless leader Joe Maddon now helming the Chicago Cubs, and an anemic offense, it could be a long season for the Rays in 2015.
It will be an arduous battle between Toronto and Baltimore but ultimately, the Blue Jays will make their first playoff appearance since Joe Carter “touched ‘em all”, 22 years ago, when they win the American League East. Baltimore’s pitching was outstanding last season, giving up the third least earned runs in the AL, had the sixth most innings pitched, and fifth best batting average against.
Toronto’s offense was just as good. The Blue Jays hit the second most home runs in the AL (behind the Orioles), second best OPS (one spot ahead of the O’s), and had the third most RBIs. With Russell Martin now behind the plate, widely considered one of the best game callers in baseball, the Blue Jays pitching staff should see improvements and lead them to the division title.
The Minnesota Twins will shock the world! OK not really. The Detroit Tigers have won three consecutive division titles with little competition in 2012 and 2013. Last season, the Kansas City Royals fought tooth and nail but ultimately came up one game short in the race for the Central.
They more than made up for it in October, beating the Oakland A’s in a dramatic Wild Card play-in game, then sweeping both the heavily favored Anaheim Angels, and Baltimore Orioles on their way to the World Series as the American League champions. The Royals came up one run short and a runner sent home of potentially winning the World Series in 2014.
This season sees much improvement from the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, making it a potential four horse race. The Twins on the other hand will be lucky to win 75 games this year. In the end, last year’s Cinderella darlings take their first division title in 30 years.
The Royals were lead by a stellar pitching staff that finished second in quality starts, tied for first in saves, finished fifth in shutouts, allowed the fourth fewest walks, and gave up the least earned runs out of AL Central teams last season, and fourth in the American League.
Offensively, the Royals were a bit of an odd team; Kansas City lead all of the MLB in stolen bases, and were the only team not to break 1,000 strikeouts, collectively. But they also drew the least walks and hit the least amount of home runs out of any Major League team.
The Royals should stay about the same offensively, while their pitching should see improvement thanks to the continued development of young arms highlighted by Yordano Ventura which should offset the loss of ace James Shields to free agency.
The AL West is quite similar to the AL Central. One rebuilding team while the other four could win the division crown. The Astros have improved since their rebuilding phase began in 2012, but this is not their year. That leaves the Texas Rangers, Anaheim Angels, Oakland A’s, and Seattle Mariners each vying for the division title.
The Angels come off a fantastic season where they won 98 games and took the West by a margin of 10 games, thanks to a stellar offense. The Angels lead the majors in runs scored, finished second in RBIs, were fourth in the American League in OPS, had the second most hits in the AL, and tied for fourth in home runs. Lead by AL MVP, outfielder Mike Trout, the Angels should repeat as Western division champs.
Oakland won one of the Wild Card spots, and lost in the epic play-in game against the Royals. The Mariners arguably got even better by adding DH Nelson Cruz to “protect” their super star, second baseman Robinson Cano, and have a promising young pitcher Taijuan (Taiwan) Walker, who looked fantastic during spring training. With ace and perennial Cy Young candidate Felix Hernandez already in the rotation, adding Walker will make a nasty 1-2 punch for Seattle’s pitching staff.
The Rangers were decimated by injury last season. They didn’t get great news at the start of camp this year. Early in spring training it was announced that their ace, Yu Darvish would undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the 2015 season. But Texas gets back last year’s prized offseason acquisition, slugging first baseman Prince Fielder who missed the second half of last season due to neck surgery. The Rangers should see an increase in an already potent offensive with Fielder back in their lineup.
Ultimately the Angels emerge victorious in what looks to be an incredibly difficult division.
The playoffs are as much a crapshoot as anything. All it takes is one pitcher to catch fire to make a deep run. Or a batter can lift a team up on his shoulder and take a team far.
This year, the World Series will be a battle of the birds. The Toronto Blue Jays follow the blueprint of the Kansas City Royals, going from a two-decade plus playoff drought to American League champions knocking off the Angels and the defending AL Champion Royals on the way.
The St. Louis Cardinals will beat the Padres and Dodgers on the wings of their pitching, as they continue the trend of alternating World Series appearances with the San Francisco Giants.
In the end, the Cardinals win their 12th World Series title, second most in baseball history, only behind the New York Yankees with 27 titles.
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